Gel Nails and Gel Polish, What’s The Difference?
What Are Gel Nails?
Gel nails are an artificial nail enhancement that can be applied over the natural nail, a nail tip or used to sculpt extensions. Artificial Gel Nail Enhancements require regular maintenance fills. Gels are called gels because the product is in a gel form. There are three types of gels. UV, LED and No Light. UV gels are cured in a UV lamp. LED gels are cured in an LED lamp or a UV lamp. No Light Gels have a spray or brush on activator to cure the product.
UV Gel comes in a jar or tube. If it is in a jar it is applied to the nail with a brush. If it is in a tube it can be applied to the nail and spread over the nail with the tip of the tube. Some manicurists put the tube gel in a small dish and then apply the gel to the nail with a brush.
LED Gel comes in a jar and is applied to the nail with a brush. LED Gels can be cured in a LED lamp in 30 seconds or less or cured in a UV lamp for 2 minutes. Cure times will vary by manufacturer.
LED is UV light. The difference between the lamps is the type of bulbs. The UV lamp uses florescent bulbs that are changed after x number of hours of use. X is determined by the manufacturer. LED Lamps have Light Emitting Diodes or LED for short. LED bulbs are not changed, when the lights go out, a new lamp is required. Both lamps emit UV light.
No Light Gel comes in a tube. It is a thick viscosity glue and requires an activator to cure. Activators are available in spray or brush on formulas. Most people are referring to UV or LED gels, not No Light gels, when they say “gels”.
Powder can be added to UV Gel or No Light gel for added strength. Powder is dipped or sprinkled into the gel before curing the gel in the UV light or using the activator. The powder used is a specially formulated powder for use with both types of gel, not the same acrylic polymer powder used in liquid and powder acrylic nails.
Fiberglass can also be used with UV, LED or No Light gels. The manicurist can imbed a strip, or cover the entire nail with, a fiberglass fabric before curing.
What is Gel Polish?
Gel Polish is a colored nail polish in a gel form that cures in a UV or LED lamp. Gel Polish comes in a bottle that resembles a regular polish bottle or, in the case of OPI Soak Off Gel, in a pot. OPI also has a newer formulated Gel Laquer that is in a bottle. Both are soak off gel polishs. Gel Polish is applied over the natural nail and is NOT an artificial nail enhancement. Gel Polish is soaked off with the manufacturers remover or acetone before each service. It is generally not “filled”.
Here’s Where Things Can Get Tricky
A manicurist can apply a plastic tip to extend a nail or all nails with a Gel Polish overlay. The finished nail will NOT be as strong as a UV Gel nail that is meant to be worn as an enhancement, but it can be done as a temporary fix for a broken nail. Gel polish can also be “filled” to freshen it up. The manicurist can buff the surface of the gel polish to remove the shine, then apply an additional coat of the same color, a different color or just clear top coat. This should not be done more than one time as it makes the nails look very thick.
More tricks up the Gel sleeve are that there are “hard” gels and “soft” gels. All “hard” gels are UV Gel Artificial Nail Enhancements but not all UV Gel Artificial Nail Enhancements are “hard” gels. Another twist, all Gel Polish products are “soft” gels, but not all “soft” gels are Gel Polish. The terms “hard” and “soft” are not a reference to strength or durability. The terms are simple. “Hard” ( non-porous) gels do not soak off in acetone and “soft” ( porous ) gels do soak off in acetone. So you see how all Gel Polishes are “soft” gels? They soak off in acetone.
Now I’ll confuse you some more. There are UV cured, “hard” gel colors that do not soak off in acetone. These are used with “hard” gel artificial nail enhancements and are filed off at the time of a maintenance fill and should not be used on natural nails because they do not soak off with acetone.
An Acrylic Nail With a Gel Overlay is NOT a Gel Nail.
Any salon advertising that they do gel nails, but are actually doing an acrylic nail with a gel overlay are using dishonest business practices. Every layer of gel product that the manicurist applies to the nail must be of a gel consistency and must be cured in the UV lamp, LED lamp or, in the case of a no light gel, activator must be sprayed or brushed on over each layer of gel, or it is NOT a gel nail.
There are gel top coats that are formulated to be used over acrylic nails to give them that high gloss gel shine. This is a perfectly legitimate nail service as long as it is marketed as an acrylic nail with gel top coat service not marketed as gel nails. “Hard” and “soft” gel color can be applied over acrylic nails as well, but should be marketed as such. Salons who lie to clients about what services they are receiving really burn me up. Salons do usually charge more for acrylic nails with gel color or gel top coat, that is acceptable, even expected, false advertising is not.
The easiest way to determine if you are getting real gel nails is if the gel is in a jar or tube, the gel is odorless and you put your hand in a UV or LED lamp between every coat of gel, not just at the end with the last coat. If the manicurist dips an artist brush in a liquid and then into a powder, the product has a strong odor and air dries (no lamp used between layers) it is an acrylic nail.
One more thing to muddy the water. There is a UV cured acrylic by Star Nail Products. An artist brush is dipped in a liquid, then dipped in a powder and cured in a UV lamp. It is also odorless. It is still an acrylic nail product, not a gel.
Liquid + powder = acrylic
Gel consistency in a jar, bottle or tube + a UV or LED lamp = gel.
For more information on the safety of UV lamps and what the difference is between LED and UV light click on this link.