From Gel to Acrylic, Here’s Your Official Guide to Every Type of Manicure

A breakdown of price, quality and longevity

PureWow editors select every item that appears on this page, and the company may earn compensation through affiliate links within the story. All prices are accurate upon date of publish. You can learn more about the affiliate process here.

manicure guide a photo of close up nails
Svetlana Larshina/Getty Images

We can all agree that there’s nothing like a fresh mani to put you in a good mood. And while we love a classic color or a French tip moment, there are so many other types of manicures to try lately. Look, we know it’s already tough deciding what nail polish, nail art or shape to rock, and the last thing you want is to feel overwhelmed by more choices. So, we tapped a few nail experts to help us create a handy manicure guide ahead. 

Meet the Experts:

  • Rachel Apfel Glass is the founder of GLOSSLAB, a membership-based nail studio in various locations across the country with celebrity clients like Jennifer Garner and Neil Patrick Harris. Glass has over five years of experience working in the nail space and ten years of experience in business/fundraising, which led to opening the studio in 2018. 
  • Sigourney Nuñez is a celebrity manicurist and Sally Hansen global ambassador based in Los Angeles. She specializes in nail art, trends and nail care tips. Her previous clients include Harry Styles, Madison Pettis and Jodie Smith. 
  • Ann McFerran is CEO and co-founder of Glamentic, a beauty brand that specializes in press-on nails and magnetic lashes. She has over five years of experience working in the lash and nail category. 
  • Julie Ventura is a master nail art specialist and consulting educator for ORLY. She's also the founder of NailKnowHow, a platform that helps pros and aspiring nail artists through educational courses, guides and mentorship.

How to Choose the Best Manicure Style

When it comes to choosing which type of nails to get, our panel of experts recommend factoring in a couple of things. Ask yourself: What's my budget? And what's the occasion? Also consider how much time you’re willing to spend getting the manicure and how often you can come in for touch ups. “Before you book your service, it’s important to take your nail goals into account. What you’re looking to get out of a manicure can help narrow down your choices,” adds Nuñez. From basic to polygel, here’s the real deal on every nail option out there.

20 Nude Nail Designs That Are Anything But Boring

1. Basic Manicure

  • Cost: $10 to $30 per application (cheaper if you opt for no nail polish or do it at home).
  • How long it takes: 30 minutes.
  • How long it lasts: About five to seven days with no chips.
  • How to take it off: It’s simple. Grab some polish remover and cotton rounds and you’re good to go.
  • How it affects nail health: “Basic manicures aren’t as harsh on your natural nails as other types of manicures,” says Glass. It involves an easy application process and a straightforward removal that allows little to no room for splitting or breaking nails.
  • The downsides: It’s prone to chipping and losing its shine faster compared to most manicures (even with a good top coat), so don’t expect a mani to last more than a week. Nuñez also points out that wearing nail polish regularly can leave a stain. “Nail staining can occur due to the pigments in polish. Our nail plates are porous, and the pigments can seep into the top layers of them over time, but using a fine grit buffer can easily remove the stain,” explains Nuñez. 

It’s among the most popular and affordable options on the list. The standard manicure comes with a trim, shape and buff. Paint it on yourself or hit up your nail salon for a more pristine application (complete with a hand massage and cuticle care, might we add). "Basic polish manicures are perfect for those with naturally strong nails at a short/moderate length, who are looking to switch up nail colors often!" adds Ventura. "However, polish manicures won't hold up well for people who lead a more active lifestyle." On that note, make sure you spend ample time under the nail dryer so you don't accidentally ding your tips on the way out.

Manicure Essentials

2. Shellac Manicure

  • Cost: $25 to $60 per application.
  • How long it takes: 45 minutes to an hour.
  • How long it lasts: About two to three weeks when properly applied.
  • How to take it off: You’ll need cotton pads, acetone, aluminum foil and a cuticle pusher to try the soaking method at home. You can also visit a salon to get a less damaging removal.
  • How it affects nail health: Some peeling or breakage might occur if you just go ahead and rip them off without using the proper removal technique (see above). Take your time to gently soak them off to maintain the strength of natural nails between salon visits.
  • The downsides: It can be expensive depending on the salon. Plus, can be difficult to remove, which can damage your nail bed if not taken off properly. “If removed incorrectly, it can unintentionally remove layers of your nails causing them to get weaker, thinner and more brittle over time. But with great care, a shellac manicure can actually help your nails grow because it adds a more durable coating to your nail than regular polish,” adds Nuñez.

This is probably what you’re getting when you book a gel mani. It’s basically a hybrid of gel and regular nail polish that’s cured and hardened with a UV light, so there’s zero drying time involved. The word Shellac is actually just the trademarked name from CND, the first company to invent and register this type of polish. It’s softer than gel (and soaks off with acetone), but it’s tougher and lasts longer than a basic manicure.

3. Gel Manicure

  • Cost: $26 to $60 per application.
  • How long it takes: 45 minutes to an hour.
  • How long it lasts: Two to three weeks with no chips. 
  • How hard to take off: You might want to visit a salon to get these babies off. The nail technician will use an electric file to sand away the top layer of gel before wiping nails with acetone-free remover to remove the excess. Nail aficionados, beware: Some salons won’t remove this type of polish, so check with them before you go.
  • How it affects nail health: Again, gel shouldn’t damage nails if its applied and removed properly by a skilled technician. But you might notice some peeling or weakness in the days following removal. Glass suggests taking a week or so between gel manicures to let the nails breathe a bit. Also, be sure to keep nails hydrated with cuticle oil or nail treatment that can help strengthen your nails during this time.
  • The downsides: It can be on the pricier side and the removal process can be tough on your nails if you don’t go to a salon.

Also known as “hard gel,” this mani can be applied over natural or fake nails. The main difference from Shellac (or soak-off gels) is that you can extend the length of the nail, which can be sculpted and shaped just like acrylic.  From square to coffin styles, our experts claim this manicure can last longer than soft gels. “Gel manicures are great for travelers or anyone who wants to cut down on how frequently they come into the salon,” adds Glass. Plus, it’s more flexible and durable and can be shaped to resemble your natural nails to a T.

Manicure Essentials

manicure guide essie gel
Buy It
Le Mini Macaron
manicure guide le mini macaron
Buy It

4. Acrylics

  • Cost: $35-$100 for a full set; $15 for a fill.
  • How long it takes: About 1.5 hours or more for a full set and 45 minutes for a fill.
  • How long it lasts: Two to three weeks before your next retouch.
  • How to take it off: Do it at home with cotton pads, acetone, aluminum foil and a cuticle pusher or visit a salon. Under no circumstances should you try pulling or popping these off.
  • How it affects nail health: “If applied and removed correctly, there should be no damage done. However, if applied incorrectly, some damage may happen during nail prep (due to too much filing) or improper removal,” says Nuñez. Nails may also appear a bit weaker since they’re filed down before application to give the mixture added grip. Just make sure your technician doesn’t over-file them and use cuticle oil to keep your nail beds hydrated.
  • The downsides: Acrylics are one of the most expensive manicures. They can also take more time in the salon (especially if you decide to add nail art). TL;DR If you’re looking for a low-maintenance mani, this isn’t the one for you. You will need frequent fill-ins to avoid getting a noticeable gap of new growth at the base of your nails. 

The OG of nail extensions. Acrylics are a combination of liquids (monomers) and powders (polymers) that create a hard layer over your natural nails. The mixture hardens from exposure to air and creates a transparent canvas for regular nail polish. “Acrylics are super durable and the hardest (in terms of how it feels), which is great for people who use their hands a lot,” says Nuñez. “And because you use a liquid monomer and a polymer powder to create more length, the extensions can get pretty long without compromising the structure of your natural nails underneath.” Bottom line: This extension technique can be super fun to try out new shapes and extend your natural length. It’s also popular for trying intricate nail art that might not work with shorter nails.

Manicure Essentials

manicure guide morovan
Buy It
manicure guide modelones acrylic
Buy It

5. Dip Powder

  • Cost: $30 to $50 per application.
  • How long it takes: About 45 minutes.
  • How long it lasts: Up to three to four weeks without chips.
  • How to take it off: You can remove this type of polish at home just like you would acrylics or Shellac, but beware, it might take a little longer. Powder adheres to the nail slightly better than both of the other methods, so you may have to leave the acetone on longer (10 to 15 minutes or more). Or if all else fails, just go to the salon.
  • How it affects nail health: Some people say that dip powder is better for your nails than acrylic, Shellac and gel. But they all come down to proper application and removal. Hygiene is key here—make sure your technician isn’t dipping your nails into a communal pot of powder, which can cause infection (gross).

Dip powder can be applied quickly and doesn’t require as much skill and precision as other manicure types. Instead of a lacquer, the color comes from a pigmented powder. Between base coats and a sealant, you dip your nails into a little jar (or sprinkle the powder on top) of your chosen color. The powder will only stick to the sealant, so it leaves less room for messy cuticles. It’s also more flexible than other types of extensions, so you may either find it more comfortable to wear or more prone to breakage if you’re not gentle with it. “It’s important that clients understand they are wearing a combination of a cosmetic-grade resin (cyanoacrylate) and a colored acrylic powder. This combination makes a very hard and durable protective coating on the natural nail. If removed incorrectly, it can damage your natural nails. Plus, due to the colored acrylic powder, there’s no need to use an LED light during the service,” adds Nuñez.

Manicure Essentials

Azure Beauty
manicure guide azure beauty
Buy It
Red Carpet Manicure
manicure guide red carpet manicure
Buy It

6. Paraffin Manicure

  • Cost: $20-$40 on top of the cost of a regular manicure.
  • How long it takes: Up to an hour or more based on how many layers you add and how long you wait for the wax to reach the right temperature.
  • How long it lasts: You can expect softer hands for the rest of the day.
  • How to take it off: This technique is usually done in the salon, but if you want to try it at home, follow the instructions.
  • How it affects nail health: It's a natural ingredient, so it won't affect your nails one bit. "Paraffin is an add-on for essentially any manicure. It’s perfect for healing and soothing dry hands or feet!" adds Ventura.
  • The downsides: Paraffin wax is not recommended for people with hypertension, diabetes or varicose veins as you could experience numbness, unusual sensations or poor circulation. Also, skip the treatment if you have super-sensitive skin and are prone to heat rashes. As always, it’s best to talk to your doctor first if you have any concerns.

A paraffin manicure involves dipping your hand in paraffin wax—a colorless, odorless wax derived from beeswax and petroleum—placing them in plastic gloves and wrapping them in a hot towel. It's often mixed with essential oils like lavender, tea tree, peppermint or aloe vera to double the skincare benefits and give the treatment a soothing scent. Once the substance has cooled, the technician will peel it off and apply a standard manicure. Paraffin manicures are great for healing dry and cracked hands, making them silky smooth again.

Manicure Essentials

7. Press-Ons

  • Cost: $6 to $100. (FYI: It all depends on where you buy the press-on nails. Also, if they’re pre-made, custom or from a luxury brand.)
  • How long it takes: 15 to 30 minutes.
  • How long it lasts: Up to two weeks if taken care of properly.
  • How to take it off: All it takes is soaking them in acetone and those babies will pop right off. The best part about press-on nails is some of them are reusable, so you can rock them again for another event in the future.
  • How it affects nail health: Since it’s a temporary manicure, press-on nails do little to no damage to your nails. To minimize damage, McFerran recommends prepping your nails before applying press ons. First, clean the area with nail polish remover, shape and buff your nails for a comfortable fit and moisturize your natural nails with cuticle oil. Again, don’t try pulling them off and risk ruining your nail beds. 
  • The downsides: It’s the most temporary manicure out there, so it’s prone to pop off if you don’t provide the right amount of adhesive. Also, some styles may look and feel fake, so if you’re trying to give the illusion of real, natural nails you should opt for some custom or luxury press ons. One more thing (that might be a dealbreaker for some): “Press-on nails may not fit everyone's nail beds and sizes perfectly out of the box. They may require some trimming to achieve a better fit,” says McFerran.

Forget the tacky press-on nails we all wore as teens. “Press-on nails offer a quick and easy solution for achieving salon-like manicures at home without the need for professional application or drying time,” says McFerran. In fact, press-on nails are the quickest and easiest manicure of the group. You can rock a different set every few weeks and play around with length, shape and color. Some may feel it’s too temporary, but there are a few ways to make them last longer. For one: a good adhesive is key. “You can use adhesive tabs for short-term wear or nail glue for up to three weeks of wear,” says McFerran. 

Manicure Essentials

Sally Hansen
manicure guide sally hansen press ons
Buy It
manicure guide glamnetic
Buy It

8. VinyLux Manicure

  • Cost: $10 to $15.
  • How long it takes: 30 minutes.
  • How long it lasts: One week without chips.
  • How to take it off: It’s similar to a basic or gel manicure, so grab some acetone and cotton pads before wiping that polish off.
  • How it affects nail health: Again, this mani is close to a basic manicure (just a little tougher), so it has little to no effects on your nail health. Visit a salon or polish your nails right at home with no issues.
  • The downsides: The removal process might take a while and Nuñez notes some staining may occur like basic manicures. Similar to gel, consider the soaking method to scrub the polish off.

A VinyLux manicure takes basic manis to the next level. Developed by CND, the professional nail care brand, the polish is made to last longer than your traditional mani, especially if you give it a 10 to 15 minute dry time, according to Nuñez. Other than getting a long-lasting and striking coat that lasts for up to a week (with promises of no chipping, FYI), there’s no base coat involved. The polish has built-in technology that adheres to your nail minus staining or damaging the nail bed upon removal—meaning less time in the salon chair. You simply apply the polish and then add some VinyLux top coat, which also has special tech to dry and strengthen the color with natural light exposure (so no UV light is involved).

Manicure Essentials

9. Polygel Manicure

  • Cost: $50 to $100 for full set; $30 for a fill-in.
  • How long it takes: 30 minutes to an hour.
  • How long it lasts: About three to four weeks.
  • How to take it off: The soaking method using acetone and foil should remove this manicure with no problem. Ventura recommends taking your time (aka letting it soak for longer) to ensure you get a proper and safe removal.
  • How it affects nail health: Polygel is considered a safer option than acrylics based on the lack of chemicals found in the solution. Plus, if removed and applied properly, you should have no problem in the nail health department.
  • The downsides: Not that many salons offer it, so the process can be expensive.

If acrylics and gel nails made a baby, it would be the polygel manicure. The process involves a thick, gel solution that is used to sculpt the nail length you want before being cured under a UV light. Whether you’re into square, ballerina or coffin style tips, the manicure will be strong (like acrylics) and flexible (like hard gels). "Polygel combines the technology of acrylic with gel. It’s going to be perfect for those who prefer dip manicures but are looking for some extra length!" says Ventura. This type of manicure is also lighter, so the nail technician can take their time sculpting (which is the complete opposite of the acrylic technique).

Manicure Essentials

10. Gel X Nail Extensions

  • Cost: $100 to $120.
  • How long it takes: Up to an hour and a half.
  • How long it lasts: About two to four weeks.
  • How to take it off: You guessed it, the soaking method. It might help to file your nails first before soaking them in acetone and wrapping them up in foil. You could also have a nail technician use an electric file to remove the manicure without harming your nails.
  • How it affects nail health: If applied and removed properly there should be no issues. Similar to other extension techniques, give your natural nails a breather between sets.
  • The downsides: This manicure takes the longest and is the most expensive. 

“Gel X services are super popular [right now] due to their ease of application and innovation. From the nail tech’s perspective, it allows us to save time on application versus having to sculpt an extension like we do with acrylics or hard gels,” explains Nuñez. Created by Aprés Nails, this type of manicure is made out of soft gel that’s already cut and sculpted. The extensions sit on top of your natural nails (which is different from acrylics which are placed primarily on the tips). They are considered to be stronger and more flexible than acrylic nails. Similar to gel and other manicures, they’re cured directly under a LED light. For a comfortable fit, you can shape ‘em and apply the brand's collection of polishes.

Manicure Essentials

Bottom Line

Not all types of manicures are created equal, so it’s hard to say that one is definitively better than the other. When choosing the right style, it boils down to what you want and what you can realistically maintain. Consider the price, time commitment and desired length and shape. 

The 14 Best Press On Nails to Try Now (And How to Apply Them So They Fit Better)

Want more beauty tips sent right to your inbox? Subscribe here.

BL Headshot


Brianna Lapolla formerly held the role of Senior Commerce Editor at PureWow covering all things shopping across beauty, fashion, and lifestyle. Now, she's putting her 12 years of...

about face matte fluid eye paint review chelsea candelario

Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...