What Are Shellac Nails & How Do They Differ From Gel Manis?

When you walk into a nail salon, you're faced with a lot of options, even before you get to choose your color! Dip powder, poly, gel, shellac, traditional, and so on and so forth, can make deciding what kind of manicure you should get almost as complicated as deciding what you're going to major in when you get to college. Like, enough with all the decisions already. 

Deciding what type of manicure is right for you has everything to do with your lifestyle, budget, willingness to keep up with nail trends (or not), and what you're feeling the moment you walk in to get your nails done. "Before you book your service, it's important to take your nail goals into account," celebrity manicurist Sigourney Nuñez told PureWow. "What you're looking to get out of a manicure can help narrow down your choices." Not everyone can drop a pretty penny on a fancy, long-wear mani, just like not everyone can get a traditional manicure and not have it chip 24 hours later. But of all the types of manicures out there, when it comes to semi-permanent color, shellac and gel remain at the forefront. However, deciding between these two is yet another choice that you need to navigate.

What are gel manicures

When it comes to getting a manicure, you're usually faced with gel versus lacquer, the latter being the polish type you have at home. Gel polish is a great option for people who use their hands a lot, have soft nails, or are just naturally prone to chipping their manicures.

"Gel polishes are comprised of stronger ingredients that grasp the nail tighter than traditional lacquers and are strong enough to stand up to daily wear and tear without chipping," Essie Global Lead Educator Rita Remark told Teen Vogue. "Gel polishes are more flexible, so they stand up to chips; gels are cured under [an] LED or UV nail lamp and polishes cure in oxygen."

Gel manicures maintain that still-wet look long after you leave the salon, which can also be a big selling point for some people. Who doesn't love a glossy finish that doesn't dull between manicures? When you're ready for a new color or can't stand the sight of the nail growth at the base of your nail bed, gel polish can easily be removed with an acetone-soaked piece of cotton wrapped under tin foil. The removal process takes about 10 minutes and you get to pretend you have futuristic robot fingers while you wait.

What are shellac nails

What some people don't realize is that "shellac" is actually a brand name that has become a type of manicure because of that name. The major difference between shellac and gel is what the polishes consist of, as opposed to how the finished product looks. "Shellac is a patented brand of gel polish," celebrity manicurist Jenni Draper told Women's Health. "It's a bit like calling a vacuum cleaner a 'Hoover,' it's just the name of one brand of polish. It's a hybrid nail polish and gel i.e. half polish and half gel. A gel manicure is a pure gel, which isn't mixed with other solutions."

There is no difference in how the two are applied, in that both involve an LED light to harden up that final coat. But despite the application process being the same, the amount of time you can get out of each manicure is different. With a shellac mani, you can get about 10 to 14 days out of it and, according to Draper, "you can expect a gel manicure to last a bit longer — up to three weeks." This is because gel is harder and more durable than a gel-lacquer combo, per Harper's Bazaar.

How to decide which is best for you: gel vs. shellac

When it comes to making the very important decision as to what direction you should go in for your manicure — shellac versus gel — you not only want to consider the life of the manicure but the removal of it. "We highly recommend using shellac polish versus your typical gel polish because they soak off easier and are less damaging to the nails during the soak-off process," manicurist Lauren Dunne told Byrdie. "We also love shellac because it is formulated without the major harmful chemicals that used to be in nail polish (think: formaldehyde, toluene, camphor, etc.)."

But while shellac may be a bit easier on the nails, no matter if you have a shellac or gel manicure, there is always a risk of nail damage if you decide to remove the polish on your own — especially if you peel it. There's nothing worse for nails than picking off polish that needs to be properly soaked before removal. In other words, if you love to pick at your manicure or your nails are already brittle, neither one of these manicure options is going to be a fit for you. Instead, you're going to want to stick to the traditional lacquer. It may not last as long, but it certainly won't mess with the integrity of your nails. You want your nails to stand the test of time.