What’s the difference between gel and shellac?

Gel vs shellac nails

When it comes to shellac or gel, you’re not alone trying to untangle the definitions. Both will leave you with an outstanding manicure or pedicure

You don’t need to spend hours doing a comparison of shellac nails vs gel. But it is worth understanding the basic differences so that you know what is possible with each nail polish, and how to best achieve the look you’re after.

Let’s dive in with a very quick history lesson about the two different types of polish and how the nail scene has seen a revolution in the last decade.

Shellac vs gel – is it just a matter of time?

Nail polish may have been around for over 3000 years, but the biggest changes have come recently with the introduction of shellac and gel. Thanks to Instagram and the changes in polishes, we all expect so much more from our polish. 

Gel was the first newbie on the scene, in 2009, created by Gelish who delivered gel polish in a bottle. Suddenly we were able to achieve no-chip polishes that lasted a couple of weeks. Gel nails became the beauty treatment of choice.

Then along came shellac. Shellac wouldn’t be here without the invention of gel polishes. Shellac is simply gel polish mixed with regular polish. 

In short, shellac has taken the best of gel (no-chips and colour) and added the benefits of traditional polish (shine and ease).

Differences and similarities

That’s right, when it comes to looking at the difference between gel and shellac; it’s actually a case of looking at the similarities first.

Gel nails are made with liquid gel and are available from a huge number of different manufacturers in addition to Gelish. If we want to get technical, they work by mixing oligomers and acrylic monomers which harden under a UV light. 

Shellac, on the other hand, is a patented brand coming from one manufacturer: Creative Nail Design. They’ve taken the basic gel, which is great for durability, and have mixed it with traditional nail polish. The result is that with Shellac you get the traditional shine we all love.

Due to the gel, Shellac nails also need to harden under the UV light.

Unsurprisingly, when you’re having your nails done, it’s not likely to be obvious what the differences are. 

So how do you know which to ask for: shellac or gel?

Shellac vs gel

Firstly, both shellac and gel polishes are a great choice. Both will look fabulous. Both last longer than traditional polish, at around 10-14 days, although gel may last as long as 3 weeks. It then comes down to weighing up the pros and cons of both and deciding which you’d prefer for your manicure and polish.

Shellac benefits from its gel content, but don’t forget that there is regular polish in there too. As such, whilst it is harder to chip than regular polish, it can still chip more easily than gel. But, the plus side of this is that it is far easier to remove. Your manicurist can remove Shellac nails in just minutes, without any harsh scraping, using an acetone remover not too different from standard nail polish remover.

On the other hand, removal of gel nails isn’t always straight-forward. It involves soaking and filing, and, sometimes, damage to the surface of the nails.

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So is it all about the removal process?

As we’ve explained, there are reasons why the removal process is trickier with gel. But for you, this is probably the main reason to consider shellac over gel. It’s still worth having shellac professionally removed, and this can be added on as a quick low cost part of a manicure or pedicure.

The nail technician will take care to dissolve the shellac and remove it carefully, without the need to use harsh techniques. It’s therefore more relaxing, as well as kinder to your nails. Removing gel nails will take considerably longer, and may involve buffering processes which leave your nails weaker and damaged.

It’s also a matter of colour

It’s not just about the removal process. For many of us, the fun element of having your nails done is the chance to choose different colours to suit our mood or plans. If you’ve got a skilled nail artist, then colour becomes even more important as you indulge in complex designs.

Gel is available in nearly three times as many colours as shellac. With a spectrum of nearly 400 shades, compared to shellac’s 132, this can be a game-changer for many.

Does treatment cost vary with shellac nails vs gel?

If removal is included, then yes, gel nails typically cost more to remove because of their more complex process. However, in terms of application, the costs are usually the same. Both shellac and gel nails involve the UV curing process. Both can be completed as part of a manicure, making you feel pampered and indulged. Choosing to have your manicure or pedicure done at home in London is a sure fire way to make sure you definitely feel relaxed and spoilt.

Home vs salon: can I do a shellac polish at home?

You can buy gel polishes and have a go doing them at home. We’d caution against this because gel isn’t easy to get right, and if you get it wrong, you have to go through the harsh removal process. 

You can’t have a go with shellac at home. The official CND Shellac treatment is in-salon only. However, at Secret Spa we bring the salon to you. As such, you may not be able to do the treatment yourself – and why would you want to when we can pamper you?! – but you can have it done by a professional in the comfort of your own home. 

It’s also all too easy to damage your cuticles and the skin surrounding them, by trying to remove shellac or gel nails on your own. We really do recommend having a professional nail technician do this, especially as it is so low cost. Take care of your nails between treatments too.

Shellac vs gel: the low down on which is better

Each polish has its pros and cons. You can enjoy a fantastic polish with both. For longer lasting, with more colour options, choose gel. For shine and ease, choose shellac. Talk to your nail technician and they may also have individual recommendations for you.


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