What's the Difference Between a Gel Manicure and Shellac Polish? Turns Out, a Lot

Tori Crowther
·5-min read
Closeup of hardware manicure in a beauty salon. Manicurist is using electric nail file drill to manicure on female fingers, taking off the manicure shellac.
Closeup of hardware manicure in a beauty salon. Manicurist is using electric nail file drill to manicure on female fingers, taking off the manicure shellac.

As a beauty editor and nail technician in training, I hear "Shellac" thrown around constantly as the catch-all term for a gel manicure, i.e., chip-resistant polish that is cured under a UV lamp and typically lasts 10-14 days. But we're here to break the news to you that Shellac is actually the name of a patented formula and system created by one brand, and is not actually a broad term for all gel manicures.

Think: Jacuzzi and hot tub. Fairy liquid and washing-up liquid. Much like other household items, Shellac is a brand name that has become the colloquial term for the type of product. We're here to settle any confusion when it comes to gel versus Shellac once and for all so that you know exactly what type of manicure you're getting in the salon.

What Is Shellac?

Let's start off with Shellac since it's the one most misunderstood of the two. Shellac is the name of Creative Nail Design's (CND) patented three-part polish system. In 2010, CND shook up the beauty industry with its creation of Shellac, a trademarked hybrid nail polish (for colour and shine) and gel polish (for durability and chip resistance). It's applied just like regular nail polish, but requires zero drying time thanks to being cured under a UV lamp.

"Shellac Nail Colour helps weak, thin nails and hard, brittle nails by adding a tough, thin, resilient coating for flexible protection," said Nataliya Al-Ta'ai, CND education manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Even clients who have previously been unable to wear nail products because of lifting, reaction, and onycholysis (premature separation of the nail from the nail bed, which can be related to psoriasis, dermatitis, or fungal infections or trauma to the nail) will be able to successfully wear Shellac.

What Is Gel?

Gel polish, on the other hand, is not a brand name. Gel nail-polish brands you may know include Gelish, OPI, and Gellux, but none of these are Shellac. Instead, gel is the term used for a formula that uses acrylic monomers and oligomers that bond together once cured under UV light. Unlike Shellac, gel polish doesn't contain regular nail polish in its formula. "Gels are durable, retentive, and ideal for hard, brittle nails requiring resilient protection," explained Al-Ta'ai. "Traditional gels are tougher than other enhancements because the molecular structure cures immediately into a very tight weave. They create permanent enhancements that are long-lasting, and many of these gels can be sculpted to create added shape and length."

Shellac Versus Gel Removal

When it comes to removal, since Shellac is a hybrid of both gel and nail polish, taking it off is often easier. Gel formulas, on the other hand, tend to be more robust and feature thicker molecular structures, which requires extracareful removal. For gels, the glossy seal must first be broken using a gritty file before soaking in acetone. With Shellac, you can just soak and gently scrape away - no filing necessary.

Will Gels or Shellac Ruin My Nails?

Contrary to popular belief, gel and Shellac manicures themselves won't ruin your nails. If a reputable nail brand is used by a professional who has followed the application and removal steps carefully, there is no reason for gels or Shellac to harm your nails. In some cases, gel and Shellac manicures can provide solid protection for the nail plate - if you don't peel them off, that is. Whilst gel and Shellac nail polish won't damage nails, peeling off the cured polish will damage nails. There's a reason your nail tech always shouts at you for peeling them off: "Your nails are made up of lots of thin layers of keratin and each time you pick off your coating, you remove thin layers, which can result in weak, damaged nails," said CND Education Ambassador Victoria Trafford.

As long as you take care of your nails whilst wearing Shellac or gel, they will be in tip-top shape. Plus, if you visit a licensed nail tech, they will categorically tell you, and even turn you away, if your nails aren't suitable for a gel or Shellac manicure.

Can I Do Shellac at Home?

Unlike other gel nail-polish services and brands, Shellac can only be done in the salon by a licensed nail tech. We would always strongly recommend only getting a gel manicure done by a professional, however you can buy at-home gel nail kits. Just be warned, unless you're qualified, you won't get as superior a finish and you may damage your nails if not removed properly. In addition to this, gel formulas have only been tested using that specific brand's entire system (base coat, colour, top coat, and lamp), so mixing brands and formulas can be risky business.

Choosing Either a Shellac or Gel Manicure

Choosing between Shellac and gel polish is really down to personal preference and what your local salon and nail tech offers. Removal of Shellac is arguably easier, but it doesn't last quite as long because of its gel-polish hybrid formula (although it does depend which base and top coats are used). Gel polish tends to lasts slightly longer, but is harder to remove - especially at home.

The longevity of a gel or Shellac manicure depends on how you care for them at home. Repeat after me: nails are jewels, not tools. Put some gloves on when you wash up, OK? You should also get acquainted with cuticle oil and actually use it - we're talking more than once a week here. "Not only will this add much-needed moisture to your nails and the surrounding skin, but it also keeps the manicure pliable, which is a good thing because it means you'll have less chance of experiencing chips and breakages," explained Trafford.

TL;DR: if a salon tells you you're getting Shellac and it's not a CND bottle, you aren't actually getting Shellac. Sorry.