Back in the day, when we wanted lengthy claws, acrylics felt like our only option. We'd sit in our neighborhood nail salon for over an hour getting our fingers sculpted with the jelly-like powder and we never skipped a fill-in once new growth came in. But now, if we want long flashy nails, we've got more options. There are quick fixes (like press on nails) and newer innovations (like SNS dip powder), plus gel extensions.
The latter isn't a new technique, per se, but despite the popularity of gel polish, it's still pretty obscure. So what the hell are gel extensions and what's the difference between gels, gel extensions, and acrylics? We're breaking it all down for you. Ahead, we talked to celebrity manicurist Gina Edwards who told us everything there is to know about the gel technique before you book your next nail appointment.
What Are Gel Extensions?
Gel extensions and acrylic nails aren't identical, but they are similar. "Acrylic is a two-step process that involves liquid and powder which air dries. Gel extensions use hard gel or structure gel and are cured with a UV or LED light," Edwards explains. "Both techniques have a similar look and feel."
Hard gel, the more durable of the two, is also the most common type of gel used for extensions, but takes a little more work to remove. "Structure gel can be easily soaked off and is good for people with natural nails who want to improve durability, without the extreme hardness and heaviness of hard gel," says Edwards. "It creates a solid capping on the natural nail, but isn't as tough as the hard gel." Hard gel, on the other hand, is the toughest form of gel polish out there and creates a sturdier, longer-lasting exterior.
How Is It Applied?
Like acrylics, gel extensions require an overlay to lengthen your nail. "Using a form under the nail helps to create the length and shape you are trying to achieve," Edwards says. "Most of the time, a form is applied underneath the natural nail. Once that adheres, hard or structure gel is applied all over the nail from the tip to the cuticle and then cured under a lamp," she explains. The rest of your appointment will flow like a regular gel mani: your color is applied with standard soft gel polish and cured layer by layer. If you're getting nail art, your artist will decorate your tips, and then your nails are sealed with a gel top coat.
If you're looking to get a fresh set of extensions, prepare to spend at least one hour in the salon chair, Edwards says. "It's a process that shouldn't be rushed, so depending on the length and shape of the nail you are going for, you should dedicate 1-2 hours. If you're getting nail art, that takes up some time, too," she says.
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How Are They Removed?
When applied correctly, gel extensions should last between 2-4 weeks (or more depending on how much you hate the grown-out look). But to preserve the health and strength of your natural nail, the removal process is crucial. "You absolutely should not try to remove your own gel extensions at home," Edwards says. Just because gel polish is being used, doesn't mean your extensions can be soaked off like a regular UV-light manicure. "Hard gel is extremely durable and won't come off with foils and acetone. To remove them you need to completely break through the top seal which requires a professional nail drill," she says. "Almost 90% of the gel needs to be drilled off, then you remove the remaining product by soaking your nails in acetone and dusting it off with a nail file."
Edwards recommends giving your nails enough time to start growing out before deciding to have them completely removed. "You don't want to remove your gels too soon. It's a process that can weaken the nail so let them grow out or get a fill." The fill-in process is similar to that of acrylics. Your manicurist should buff and drill down where growth appears on the nail so that the surface is smooth. Then, more gel is applied and cured on the freshly-buffed tip.
Are They Safe?
Most nail enhancements raise the question of safety — and this technique is no different. Edwards explains that any enhancement made to the nail comes with risks, especially if a faulty application or improper removal is involved. "Whenever you put anything on your nail you risk harming its firmness," she says. Like any beauty enhancement — from lash extensions to bleaching your hair — finding a seasoned professional with great reviews is key. Then there's the importance of moderation: Take gel breaks to let your nails rest and grow and always follow your trusted nail professional's advice.