It seems like every time I go into a nail salon there's yet another option on the menu. Recently, I came across dip powder nails, silk wrap nail extensions, and the controversial Russian manicure. This summer, however, nail enthusiasts are interested in one particular trend: the structured gel manicure.
On TikTok, the manicure technique has millions of views, and there has been a steady rise in Google search traffic around structured gels, too, with people looking for more information about the process including the pros, cons and the cost.
What is a structured gel manicure?
If you've heard of builder in a bottle (BIAB), then you've heard of a structured gel manicure; it's just different branding. In the same way that CND made Shellac a household name (it's really just a soft gel manicure using CND's system), The Gel Bottle has branded a builder in a bottle or BIAB, which is a structured gel. Some salons will call the service builder gel or BIAB, others will call it a structured gel, while CND calls it "plexigel". Essentially, though, it means the same thing: a thick or hard gel manicure.
"A structured gel manicure uses a builder gel product to create a long-lasting and super durable nail enhancement," explains session manicurist Ami Streets. "Builder gel is a thicker viscosity than other gel-based products and allows sculpting, shaping, and extending of the nail as desired." Applying a structured gel over your natural nails will lend them a plumper appearance and result in a long-wearing manicure. You can also use a structured gel to add length to the tip of your nail. This involves applying the gel over a plastic nail tip, creating a gel extension.
The structured gel polish goes on thick and looks almost rubbery due to its ingredient profile. "Structured gel polish typically contains a combination of ingredients such as oligomers and monomers (polymers which are found in acrylic nail formulas), and photoinitiators [molecules that react to UV] allowing the substance to cure and set under UV or LED light," explains Streets. That thicker consistency will typically offer a longer wear time while reinforcing the strength and structure of the natural nail underneath.
What happens during a structured gel manicure?
Getting a structured gel manicure is like getting soft gel or Shellac polish, but there's a little bit more shaping and moulding with the thicker gel. You simply pick your colour and then the prep and application begins.
"Depending on the system [or] brand, a priming product is usually used to dehydrate [the nail] and create better adhesion for the base coat, which is applied and cured before the building gel is used," explains Streets. "The gel is applied at the base of the nail and down the length from side to side to build and create structure." Because there's extra thickness to the polish, the process involves moulding an Apex, or the highest part of the nail to provide balance and strength, says Streets. There's certainly some artistry in sculpting here.
You can add nail art to your structured gel, too. A French manicure using structured gel polish is especially popular.
How long does a structured gel manicure last?
On average, a structured gel manicure will last for three weeks but you can probably push it to four (I have). "The rate of natural nail growth will impact the time between removals," explains Streets. "I’d recommend keeping three weeks as a maximum timeframe to retain a regular maintenance routine for optimum results." The real benefit of a structured gel is its longevity. Because the gel is thick and applied in layers, it won't peel or lift the same way a soft gel might. However, the downside is that you have to get a structured gel manicure professionally removed. This is important because poor at-home removal can cause damage to your nails. It does mean you're looped into the gel cycle, which can be time-consuming and expensive, though.
How much does a structured gel manicure cost?
"Structured gel manicures are slightly more expensive than more traditional polish or other gel colour services offered in a salon," explains Streets. "The price reflects application time for sculpting, enhancing or extensions, and the increased durability you can expect from this type of manicure." Costs will vary from salon to salon, but in Sydney, you can expect to pay around $75 for a basic gel manicure. If you add gel removal and art, it can become more expensive.
Are there any downsides to a structured gel manicure?
The cost can be prohibitive, as is the time spent on removal and reapplication. Moreover, if you're looking to avoid UV exposure and nail lamps, this might not be a service for you. However, Streets says that if you're looking for the best bang for your buck when it comes to longevity and durability (for instance, you're going on a two-week vacation and don't want to have to worry about your nails), a structured gel manicure is a great idea.
"Structured gel manicures are ideal for those looking for a long-lasting service that can add strength and support to weak and brittle nails," Streets says. She's of the opinion that regularly using a building product like a structured gel can help with nail growth by supporting, reinforcing, and strengthening the nails to withstand wear and tear. Essentially, it acts as a protective layer over the natural nail. This is based on getting a professional application and removal every three weeks. If TikTok is anything to go by, it certainly seems to be working for those who commit to the maintenance.