What's the Difference Between Acrylic, Gel & Shellac Fingernails?

Nail technicians can add some nail art to any type of artificial nail.

Photo: Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images

You can miss out on looking ultra-sophisticated if you don't pay attention to your nails -- they should be just as dolled up as the rest of you, honey. There's nothing wrong with using artificial nails to do this, as fake nails can protect your real ones and make them look more uniform. But you need to be aware of the differences in wear and appearance between acrylics, gels and shellac nails.

Acrylic

Acrylic nails are a mixture of a monomer liquid and a polymer powder. A monomer is a molecule that bonds with other molecules of the same type. Polymers are the strings of molecules made up from monomers. When your nail technician mixes the liquid and powder together, the substances react and form fibers. While you kick back in the salon chair, the fibers harden to form a stiff, protective resin over your natural nail. Normally, acrylic nails use the resin to connect a plastic tip to the tip of your natural nail, giving you beautiful length. The resin fills in the difference between the height of the plastic tip and your regular nail, too. Acrylic nails air-dry to cure.

Gel

Gel nails are really similar to acrylics, so much so that they're sometimes called gel acrylic nails. They use a monomer liquid and polymer powder mixture just like their traditional acrylic cousins. The difference is that the monomers in gels make really short chains. This means the resin your technician mixes together isn't quite so strong. It has a lot better flexibility. Gels also cure differently; they need an activator to dry and harden. With some gels, the activator is UV light; you pop your hands under a UV lamp in the salon. With others, the technician brushes a liquid activator solution on the nail. Another type of gel is activated with plain water.

Shellac

Cosmetologists sometimes describe Shellac nails as the hybrid of the artificial nail world. They are based on monomers and polymers, similar to acrylics and gels. They use the basic process of gels; you have to use a UV light to cure them. Shellac nails require multiple coats, and you have to cure each coat as you go. You paint Shellac nails on just as you do nail polish, but Shellac nails are way stronger. Shellac's maker claims a treatment lasts up to 14 days. Removing Shellac nails requires special acetone-soaked pads that fit over the nails -- they are a little like the common cotton-and-foil method of removing nail polish, but the acetone is much stronger. Shellac is capitalized because it is a proprietary product of the Creative Nail Design company, or CND.

Practical Application

Nail technicians usually whip out acrylic nails for ladies whose nails aren't in the greatest shape. These nails offer extra protection to the natural nail, which can help your real nails strengthen. They're what you want if you're trying to kick the nail-biting habit. Gels are a little better for people who are a little more active, because they're more flexible and also don't require filling as often as traditional acrylics. You still have to be careful with gels, though -- they tend to shatter instead of just chip when they do break. They also don't take polish as well. With Shellac, you get the strength of a gel with the smooth, glossy look of polish. Because these nails are longer-lasting, go for these if you know you can't run back into the salon right away. Don't expect the benefits of Shellac to help your purse, though -- Shellac nails can cost double or even triple a traditional manicure. Additionally, unlike acrylics or gels, you can't do Shellac nails at home, because the maker sells only to licensed salons.

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