Shellac vs. Gel: How Are They Different and Which One Is Better?

Going to the nail salon should, in theory, be a relaxing experience. But things can escalate quickly when you’re faced with a plethora of polishes and you’ve already reached peak decision fatigue for the day. (Do you go with the same red polish you always get—or the funky greige you might get sick of in a week?) Then, in the middle of this internal debate, you ask the receptionist for a gel mani and she says, “We only have Shellac, but it’s pretty much the same thing.” But is it? Spoiler alert: No, they are not the same, and Shellac may be a bit gentler on your nails. Not to worry, we’ll walk you through their key differences below.

What is Shellac?

The word “Shellac” is actually just a trademarked name from CND, the first nail company to bring this type of semipermanent polish to market. It’s commonly found in most salons (you can find your nearest provider here), and it’s frequently referred to as your standard “gel mani” or “Shellac gel mani,” which further adds to the confusion.

OK, so how Is Shellac different from gel?

Shellac is essentially a hybrid of gel and traditional nail polish that’s cured and hardened with a special LED lamp so you get lasting wear and don’t have to worry about dry time. Because Shellac is softer than gel, it soaks off more easily with acetone.

Therein lies the key difference between the two types of manicures: The removal process for Shellac is much easier and a bit gentler on the nails. Your manicurist can swiftly take off a Shellac manicure using an acetone-based remover, which breaks down the coating of the polish on its own (without having to buff or file the top layers beforehand). In most cases, simply wrapping your nails in remover-soaked cotton balls and aluminum foil for ten minutes will lift the Shellac polish off your nails, at which point you can lightly push it off with a cuticle stick.

What’s the fine print? Like, how much does a Shellac manicure cost and how long does it last?

A Shellac manicure can cost anywhere between $25 and $40, depending on where you get it done, and it typically lasts up to 14 days without chipping.

How does Shellac affect your nail health?

Some peeling or breakage might occur if Shellac is not properly removed (e.g., if you peel or rip it off yourself). As long as you remove it as outlined above and keep your hands and skin moisturized, your nails will be fine.

What is a gel manicure?

Also known as “hard gel,” it’s not exclusive to one brand and is made of acrylic monomers and oligomers that bond together when placed under a UV light. The main difference between a gel manicure and Shellac is that gel can be sculpted and shaped to your nail just like acrylic; the finish is also a bit thicker and glossier than Shellac.

How much does a gel manicure cost and how long does it last?

A gel manicure can cost between $25 and $60 per application and lasts up to three weeks without chipping. Honestly, we’ve had our gels last more than a month easily (and only had them removed because our nails were growing out underneath).

What is the removal process for a gel manicure?

We definitely advise going to a salon to get this off. The nail technician will use a coarse file (or an electric one) to sand away the outermost layer of the gel before wrapping the nails with acetone-soaked cotton balls and aluminum foil—similar to the removal process for Shellac. We’ve found that gels need to soak longer before the edges start to lift off and are ready for some elbow grease. (Word to the wise: Not all salons remove gel manicures, and some salons add a charge for removal, so be sure to check before you go.)

Is a gel manicure bad for my nails?

Again, gel shouldn’t damage nails if applied and removed properly by a skilled technician, but you might notice some peeling or brittleness in the days following removal. Keep your tips hydrated with cuticle oil and hand cream, and they’ll regain their luster in no time.

So which is better: Shellac or gel?

Honestly, that’s a tough call. It depends on a few factors, like how often you want to visit the salon and if your nails are thinner or more brittle to begin with. Gel manicures definitely last longer, and if you like that plush, ultra-glossy finish, it’s the way to go. However, the removal process for Shellac is much gentler on the nails, which makes switching up your colors easier to do. Either way, you will have a manicure that lasts longer than basic polish. Just don’t forget that cuticle oil.

From Price to Quality to Longevity Here’s Your Official Guide to Every Type of Manicure

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Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...