Gel Nails and Gel Polish, What’s The Difference?

In Gel Nail Enhancements on November 29, 2012 at 4:55 am

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.

In Summation;

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.






  1. I’m still a bit confused. I understand gel acrylics, acrylics on the nail and then they put powder with that liquid, uv light to set it then the gel polish on the nail and uv light again to set that. But the gel nail……. How is that different from gel polish ? Gel polish is polish it self they do the base then uv light, color then uv light, top coat then uv light again.

    • There is no such thing as “gel acrylics”. If the manicurist dipped the brush into an acrylic monomer (liquid) and then dipped the brush into an acrylic polymer (powder) applied it to the nail and it air dried or was put into a UV lamp, it is an acrylic nail. The UV light activating the acrylic product does not make it a gel nail.
      A gel nail is modeled from a gel consistency modeling compound.
      Both acrylic and gel are high grade plastics. The same but different like the difference between the plastic milk jug in your refrigerator and the plastic shelves in the door. Both are plastic, but, different kinds of plastic.
      The easily discernible difference is gels are of a gel consistency (pre mixed) and acrylics are mixed at the time of use. There are other differences on a chemical level that you will have to ask a chemist like Doug Schoon about if you want to know more.
      I wrote this blog post because some salons are telling clients that they are getting a service that they are not getting. I specialize in gel nails. My gel product will not stick to cheep acrylic. My clients go on vacation out of state and break a nail. They go to a salon to get the nail fixed, ask for gel and come back to me with a cheep acrylic nail on that is a bear for me to remove safely creating a lot of extra work for me. If the salon would have just done what the client requested, a gel nail, there would have been no problem. So, I wrote the blog entry so clients, mine and anyone else, would know what service they are getting. Consumers deserve to know exactly what they are paying for. Would you pay for an iPad and later find out that it is a Nook ereader that will not run the apps you wanted and you paid way too much for it?
      There is nothing wrong with acrylic nails when done properly and when quality acrylic product is used. I just wanted to educate the consumer. Gels can be done incorrectly as well and there are cheep gels out there that are not worth the time as well. This blog is to help consumers understand what they are getting.
      Hopefully. That’s my intention, anyway. Did I help you understand or just confuse you more?
      I’m thinking that my next blog post will be a comparison of gels and acrylic. Maybe that’s more the question your are asking. Stay tuned, next blog post comming soon!

    • I spent the entire reply clarifying your first question and forgot to answer the second. Sorry! Here’s the second part 🙂
      Gel polish is not an artificial nail enhancement. You cannot repair a broken nail or extend a nail with gel polish. You are right! It is a UV cured nail polish.
      Gel nails are an artificial nail enhancement, like acrylics. Nails can be repaired, reshaped and extended with gels.
      Gel polish will add some strength to your natural nail. A gel nail is much stronger than a natural nail. In my opinion stronger than an acrylic enhancement. Other profesionals will disagree and say that acrylic is stronger. My next post will express both sides. I’m going to have fun writing it! 🙂

      • Thanks for clarifying. I feel like a fool, thinking I wasn’t harming my nails and I was harming them with the acrylics. One more question and you probably did answer this for me …. Sorry for the repeating. … what do u suggest if all my nails are messed up in length …..? Would the gel nails be a good option ….?

      • Hey Cynthia,
        You are not foolish. Unscrupulous salon employees are. There is no reason that you should have known any different than what the so called salon professional told you.
        This is why I started this blog. To educate the consumer.
        Now in response to your questions.
        Acrylics do not harm the natural nails, untrained, uncaring salon employees do. I did acrylics on my clients for decades causing no damage to their natural nails. When I soaked their acrylics off there was no damage, no red drill marks and no thin sore spots. Acrylics do not damage the natural nail when applied, maintained and removed properly.
        Salon employees can damage the natural nail while performing any nail service if the the service is performed improperly.
        As far as what artificial nail service is best for you, read my blog post “Acrylics vs Gels”.
        Find a professional Nail Tech who’s work you like and let the professional decide based on your life style and personal goals.

  2. For the reason that the admin of this site is working, no doubt very quickly it will be well-known, due to its
    feature contents.

  3. […] Gel Nails and Gel Polish, What's The Difference?. […]

  4. Hi Leslie,

    Thank you for reading my blog. ANC is a UV/LED cured gel.

    What wasn’t clear in my blog that made you think that ANC was a no light gel? I read through the no light gel section again and thought it was clear. What sounded confusing to you? I want to fix it so it is clearer. Thank you for your assistance in making my blog better.

  5. Hi Leslie,

    I’m thinking that because the website for ANC said that it is a “one step” gel is what confused you? One step is a reference to the products not needing a base coat. It is really a 2 step process. Base/color combo coat, cure in UV/LED, apply top coat, cure in UV/LED and it cures to a tac free finish.

    Was it the tac free finish that made you think it was a no light gel? You are correct, all no light gels have a tac free finish, however some light cured gels cure to a tac free finish also. Maybe I should figure out how to add that to the blog. Suggestions, please?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: