Gel Nail Extensions vs. Acrylic Nails: How to Pick the Best Manicure for You


As someone who had either bitten or relentlessly picked at their nails for more than a decade, the first time I experienced nail extensions — acrylics, to be specific — it was a revelation. Not only did it make it nearly impossible for me to mess with my fingers, but for the first time, I actually loved the way my nails looked. Once I got adjusted to the more frustrating aspects of having long nails (taking contacts out, typing, etc.) I was hooked.

While I couldn’t afford them all the time (acrylics are not cheap), artificially lengthening my nails was something I did before special occasions like weddings or vacations for many years. As I got older and new nail-extension options became available, I gave gel extensions a whirl — and then I was hooked on those, too. Now, getting a manicure with gel extensions is a special treat for me. They look natural and keep my nails (and cuticles) uniform and pretty for weeks longer than a regular gel manicure.

If you’re new to getting nail extensions, choosing between acrylics or gel extensions can be confusing and overwhelming. It’s not a particularly affordable beauty treatment, either, so it’s important to know exactly what you’re asking for when you go into a salon.

What’s the difference between acrylics and gel extensions?

As nail artist and gel-extension specialist Brittney Boyce tells Allure, it’s important to understand that the difference between gel extensions and acrylic nails comes down to the polymerization process, ease of removal, and the nail’s density.

“Acrylics tend to be harder than gel. It’s typically done by mixing a powder (polymer) and a liquid (monomer) to create that dough-like consistency that can then be filed and molded into shapes,” Boyce says.

It may sound complicated, but if you’ve ever used dip powder at a nail salon, then you’re more familiar with all of the above than you think, because that, too, is a form of acrylics. However, dip powder tends to be more damaging to the nail, especially as it requires more difficulty in removing it. It’s also harder and less flexible.

“Gel tends to be softer and more flexible than acrylic, and [gel extensions] tend to be not as damaging. Some gels, like Orly’s GELFX range, are removable by soaking,” Boyce says, noting that the chemical difference between gel and acrylic is that gel is already mixed and needs to be cured with an LED or UV lamp, while acrylic requires mixing as you go.

Because gel extensions tend to be more flexible and natural-looking (and don’t have the same strong smell that the acrylic nail application comes with), they also are on the more expensive side, according to New York City-based nail artist Shirley Cheng.

Which is more durable?

Cheng often suggests gel to her clients due to the flexibility of the nail extension. “Think of a plastic cup (gel) versus a glass cup (acrylic). While a glass cup might seem harder, if you drop the glass, it will break, while the plastic cup will be fine,” Cheng says.