Hard Gel, Soft Gel or Gel Polish? What’s the Difference?

Navigating the the world of gel nail products and services can be confusing and frustrating. Terminology is often misused and unfortunately, not all nail professionals understand or can explain the services they offer correctly.

Here’s a guide breaking down exactly what you need to know about gel nails and which option is the best choice for you. 

 

What are Gel Nails?

Dating back to the mid 1980s, Hard Gels, also known as Traditional Gels, were first introduced to the beauty industry. As time progressed, Soft Gels and Gel Polishes were developed as weakened formulas of Hard Gels. All three types of gels are pre-mixed monomers which require a UV or LED light to polymerize or harden.

Here are the main differences between them:

 

Hard (Traditional) Gel

If you’re looking to extend the length of your nails or want to keep long, natural nails, Hard or Traditional Gel would be the ideal choice.

Balance Foundation Pink, Blush and Nude @fumis_nails

A post shared by Akzentz (@akzentz) on

 

On the molecular level, Hard Gel has a tightly woven structure with a low weight, which provides strength and durability, and prevents acetone from penetrating through. This is the reason why Hard Gels cannot be soaked off with acetone. A new application usually lasts about 3-4 weeks before it needs to be filled (lifting removed and a new layer is applied) or removed. Hard Gel can only be removed by filing it off.

Hard Gel is typically used as the base of a nail enhancement. For colour, nail art designs or a glossy finish, Soft Gels, Gel Polishes and even regular nail polishes can be used on top.

 

What To Look For

  • Stored in opaque pots
  • Usually clear, pink/nude or white
  • ‘Scooped’ out with a brush for application
  • Has structure and holds its form; has very little or no movement at all if you tilt the container

 

 

Soft Gel 

Soft Gel, often called Soak-Off Gel, is perfect for adding strength to weaker nails that are short to mid-length. It can be soaked off with acetone for removal due to its elongated molecular structure and higher molecular weight.

In the photo below, Soft Gel (packaged in a bottle in this case) is used to correct the shape of the natural nail, which will also contribute to the strength of the nail.

 

A new application can last from 2-4 weeks, and wear on the free-edges is normal within that time frame. Soft Gels can be on its own or as a base for gel polish.

Many nail artists prefer to use soft gel for nail art because of its strong pigment and thicker consistency compared to gel polishes.

 

What To Look For

  • Stored in opaque pots
  • Comes in clear, glitters and every colour imaginable
  • ‘Scooped’ out with a brush for application
  • Has some structure but when the pot is tilted, the gel will move

 

Gel Polish

If you’re looking for a long lasting polish that lasts up to 2 weeks, Gel Polish would be the best option for you.

Gel Polish is the most weakened form of the Traditional Hard Gel and can be soaked off easily with acetone. It doesn’t provide strength to the nail and is considered the most flexible type of gel. It can be applied on natural nails, soft gels, hard gels and even acrylic nails.

 

Similar to Soft Gels, the free-edges will experience wear over time.

Gel Polish is often known as Shellac, which is incorrect terminology. Although Shellac is Gel Polish, it’s actually the name of the line of Gel Polishes produced by the brand CND. Many nail product companies also produce Gel Polishes. Here’s a list of popular high quality Gel Polishes that can be found at professional salons:

  • OPI – GelColor By OPI
  • Akzentz – Luxio
  • IBD – Just Gel Polish
  • Hand & Nail Harmony – Gelish

 

What To Look For

  • Stored in opaque bottles with a brush attached to the cap
  • Comes in a large variety of colours and glitters
  • Brushed on for application
  • Doesn’t have any structure; excess will drip off the brush

 

What is Gel Powder?

To get straight to the point, ‘Gel Powders’ do not exist.

True gels will appear as they are named, a gel, and require a UV or LED light to cure. Hard and Soft Gels are usually stored in pots and are scooped out with a brush. Gel Polishes are contained in opaque polish bottles that include a brush built into the cap.

 

Nail enhancement techniques that do come in powdered form include:

 

Dip Powder Nails

This technique from the 80s has recently regained attention in the beauty world. Countless tutorials can be found on Instagram, and many nail companies including Young Nails and OPI have pushed out their own product lines. So what is it exactly?

Essentially, Dip Powder Nails involves layering cyanoacrylate (the main ingredient found in adhesives such as Krazy Glue) and fine acrylic powder. UV or LED lamps are not necessary for the process, but can be used to cure a gel top coat as the finishing step.

Nail tips can be glued on prior to applying the dipping powder if extensions are required.

Here’s what a typical Dip Powder Nail service would look like:

 

Acrylic Nails

Acrylic nails are created through the polymerization of liquid acrylic monomers and powder acrylic polymers. This means before applying to the nail, the nail technician will mix the appropriate proportion of the liquid to powder on a brush. Once applied, the acrylic will harden without the use of a UV or LED light.

Here’s what an acrylic nail application would look like. The first ‘blob’ that she sets on the nail was formed by mixing the liquid and powder on the left of the screen. She then dips her brush in the liquid monomer again and wipes her brush on the paper towel to adjust the consistency.

 

What are Crystal Nails?

Crystal Nails is a fancier name used by some salons to describe clear nail extensions. The extensions can be created with acrylic or hard gel. Other names such as Diamond Nails and Gel Powder Nails are also commonly used. When unsure, it’s best to ask the salon to show you the products that are used for the service. Gels will appear as gels, while acrylic will be a powder and liquid mixed together right before it’s applied to the nails.

 

Summary

Here are the main differences between the three types of gel nails discussed in this article:

 

What Gel Services Are Available at Sunday Beauty Boutique?

At Sunday Beauty Boutique, we offer two Gel Nail Services:

 

Hard Gel Extensions (Sculpted Nails)

Hard Gel is used for adding length to entire sets or individual nails that have broken and are shorter than the others.

The Sculpting or Form Method is used to create the most natural and customized extensions.

To complete the set, gel polish, nail art design can be added.

 

Soft Gel/Gel Polish Custom Set

With your nail health, goals and lifestyle in mind, the appropriate soft gels are selected for each customized set.

Each set is designed to promote nail health and for continuous wear without damage.

Nail art designs can be added to complete the set.

 

 

I hope this guide has been useful in helping you learn more about the different types of gel services available.

Have questions or comments? Please leave them below.

❤ Catherine

 

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