Gels, acrylics, SNS and nail polish; what's the difference in 2023?
13 April 2023 – 13 min read
Ready to level up your nail game? For some, that might involve shifting to a particularly potent shade of pink nail polish, for others it might mean trying gels, acrylics or SNS. But how many of us actually understand what these nail toppings entail or even contain? We’ve asked our resident nail experts for their two cents on each type, their preferences and the benefits.
Who are these aforementioned experts? Brilliant women who have brought sophisticated nail art and applications to Melbournians for the past decade; Chelsea Bagan of Trophy Wife nail art and Rohani Osman of the Super Rad Nail Sisters.
Chelsea is no stranger to our pages, having worked with Kester Black on previous colour collabs, a nail art handbook and a suite of nail art tutorials. We’ve recently made our intentions official, announcing our partnership to bring you even more style with substance.
Chelsea has been working with nails for almost 10-years from her salon Trophy Wife, and specialises in hand-painted art.
“Our most popular looks are generally quite minimal abstract prints and patterns, but we do a fair few illustration style looks. Cow print has been big this year!”
Rohani is one half of The Super Rad Nail Sisters, a Collingwood salon that specialises in hard gel for those seeking lightweight, hard-wearing nail extensions. Painting nails since 2012 with her sister Rosalie, some of their most popular requests are short almond nails with flames or coloured french ombre.
“My fave French ombre combo is nude near the cuticle with hot pink tips, and of course add some kind of bling, just because you’re worth it.”
Now that the pleasantries are over, it’s time for the nitty gritty of nail products; starting with nail polish.
Standard Nail Polish
Humans have stained their fingertips for status as far back as 3000BC. And if it weren’t for Mary E Cobb, the first woman to introduce manicures to the masses in the late 19th century, we might still be adorning our fingers with egg whites and beeswax (not so great for the birds or the bees).
Today, nail polish is made using a film-forming polymer (like nitrocellulose) dissolved in a solvent that keeps the formula fluid (naturally derived ethyl acetate, in our case). When applied to the nail, the solvent evaporates, leaving a smooth, coloured film behind. A whole series of additional ingredients can be added to the mix to improve colour, consistency and adherence based on a supplier’s preferences.
At Kester Black, we believe high-performance beauty products should not come at the cost of people, animals or our planet. That’s why you’ll never find twelve of the nastiest chemicals normally found in nail polish, in ours. In fact, we have an ingredient blacklist that names and shames all of the ingredients banned from our bottles.
While formulas may vary, application is pretty standard, starting with a base coat. This protects the nail from staining and creates a ‘primer’ layer for colour to stick to. Multiple layers of colour can be added to achieve the desired look and opacity before a clear top coat is applied to seal and prevent chipping, flaking or fading. Due to the evaporation of solvent, nail polish hardens when exposed to air and a manicure usually lasts 5 to 12 days depending on the enamel used, application and wearer’s lifestyle.
Revellers have adored standard nail polish for decades and for good reason too;
“If I feel like mixing my colour up quite often, it is so much easier to remove and change over all the other options,” says Chelsea.
Versatility, affordability and accessibility make standard nail polish a go-to for everyone. And when the time comes to change your look, removal isn’t tedious or a two-person job; just a matter of nail polish remover with or without acetone.
Nail polish is versatile for short or long nails and can be updated as often as you like. And with our breathable, cruelty-free, vegan formulation, you can assert your style without harming your pocket or your planet.
Pros: Nail polish looks great on long and short nails, there are formulas that are kid-friendly, and an endless array of colours to choose from. It’s an easy way to pamper yourself (or others) and application can be as low-maintenance as you need.
Cons: Water, your body’s natural oils, and everyday wear and tear affects standard nail polish, so it only lasts between 5 to 12 days. Not to mention, painting your non-dominant hand can be a bit tricky, leaving you susceptible to smudges.
Maintenance: We’ve rated this a 2 out of 5 on the maintenance scale (1 being no effort at all) for when you need to paint your non-dominant hand or when performing the odd touch-up.
Gel Nail Polish
Believe it or not, but the technology behind gel nail polish resides in dentistry. In the ‘80s, OPI was one of the first brands to produce gel polish for salon-use throughout the US. But before they were called ‘OPI’, they were named Odontorium Products Inc.; a dental supplier.
In the cosmetic world, gel polish (or soft gel) is a semi-permanent nail lacquer that’s painted-on in layers and cured under UV light. This light activates a polymer reaction, sandwiching the 2 to 3 coats of colour between the base and top coats to form a hard, glossy non-porous finish. This effect lasts for around 2 to 3 weeks without chipping.
“You can get great detail when using it for nail art and it dries instantly under UV light so no smudging or getting dings in it as soon as you leave the salon,” says Rohani.
The net-like structure of these chemical bonds makes this one of the strongest products on the market, especially since the departure of MMA (methyl methacrylate); the nail nemesis, not the martial art.
Side note: Methyl methacrylate is bad news. This chemical compound was once used in dental crowns and bridges, knee and hip replacements, and is a key component in Plexiglass (i.e. those plastic screens and sneeze guards you see at the supermarket). This compound doesn’t adhere to natural nails nicely, so technicians would have to file the nail back to a coarse texture (yowch) for the MMA to stick. Acetone doesn’t remove this easily either, so the nail bed would often be further damaged by the removal process. Remember, nails are made up of around 100 fine layers of keratin. Overfiling causes long term nail damage that could take approx. 4-7 months to recover from; making this nail service one of the hardest to commit to and switch from.
And if that wasn’t enough of a horror story for you, MMA is stronger than natural nails and as a result doesn’t flex with everyday knocks and nudges. So if you happen to catch on anything, you risk tearing your natural nails from the bed - nightmare fuel.
The good news is, neither of the salons we’ve featured use this outdated compound and it has been pretty well hounded out of the industry with a ‘safer’ replacement, ethyl methacrylate. To avoid MMA, always check with your nail technician and beware of very cheap manicures and unmarked containers.
Gel polish can be removed by carefully buffing the nail and soaking-off in a high-strength acetone, more potent than most over-the-counter formulas. And sure, while you can do this at home, it’s often how the most nail-damage occurs, so please, leave this to a skilled nail professional you trust.
Pros: One of the stronger, longer lasting applications which can be achieved with at-home kits, and it’s non porous so your nails won’t stain. Great for locking in more complex nail art thanks to UV-activated curing.
Cons: Prone to improper removal by over-filing and electric or metal implements leading to unnecessary chipping, loss of layers of the nail plate and weakened nails. Gel polish won’t lengthen your natural nail and doesn’t like being in hot water (no long showers, dishes or bubble baths). Water causes natural nails to expand and warp before returning to their natural shape. This method requires a high-concentration acetone to remove, which can irritate and dry out your skin and nails.
Maintenance: We’re rating this a 3 out of 5 due to the risk of damaging your nails during removal (in the absence of a professional) and for ongoing costs.
Shellac is a brand of gel polish developed only a decade ago by Creative Nail Design or CND. While many would argue that it’s unique to gel polish entirely, some say it’s just a matter of marketing. This product is a semi-permanent gel polish applied in layers, starting with a base, a colour, and finishing with a top coat cured by UV light thanks to unpronounceable phenyldimethoxyacetophenone. More recently, the company has developed formulas that cure under LED lights for the UV-conscious; i.e. everyone.
Much like the history of gel, Shellac found its origins in the dentist’s office after a patient commented on the material used to prepare temporary caps smelling just like the material used to sculpt porcelain nails.
In the furniture-making world, shellac is a type of resin or varnish applied to wood to give it a glossy sheen. Originally this kind of resin was produced by the female lac bug in Southeast Asia. However, this has since been replaced by a synthetic alternative - great news for lac bugs everywhere.
Sometimes this method is marketed as being thinner or smoother than gel, but this might just be a matter of layers or the fact that its formula is part gel, part nail enamel.
Acrylic nails are made of a powder and liquid system which undergoes a polymer reaction to form a malleable dough. Usually, the nail technician dips a brush into a liquid monomer and then a polymer powder to create an acrylic bead. This bead is then applied to the nail using a nail-form and sculpted into the desired shape. This product hardens when exposed to air, making these nails rather durable.
“Acrylic is great in that it is hard-wearing, for those who use their hands a lot daily (y’know, more so than the usual hand usage we do), and is offered at most nail salons. The downside to this product is the smell and that there are some dodgy salons that aren’t using the right chemical composition of acrylic suitable for fingernails,” says Rohani.
Unfortunately, exposure to the wrong kind of acrylic may lead to chemical burns and natural nail damage - not something we take lightly.
Acrylic nails can be removed with acetone due to their porous chemical structure. This also makes them more susceptible to staining - sorry, hairdressers. In terms of upkeep, you will need to refill these every 2 to 3 weeks based on your natural nail growth.
Pros: Thanks to the sculpted nature of this product, you can achieve instant length and bespoke nail-shapes. And because this look is so popular, it’s readily available and potentially more affordable than gel extensions.
Cons: These nails need to be soaked off in acetone for at least 15-minutes, potentially drying and irritating your skin and nails. This service is only available through a salon or nail professional; you can’t really emulate this look at home. Removal can be a lengthy process; another one we’d highly advise against doing yourself. The compound is prone to staining and the smell might just send you over the edge. And the biggest con of all, there are still sneaky nail salons out there using the wrong acrylic, risking chemical burns, overexposure, nail damage and negative Google reviews!
Maintenance: High maintenance - 5 out of 5 for the risk of chemical burns, refills, and removal procedure.
Gel Nails, Gel Extensions or Hard-Gels
Hard-gel is gel’s answer to acrylic nail extensions. Like the latter, this product is mixed together using powder and liquid to form a honey-like consistency. This glorious goo is then ‘sculpted’ onto your fingertips using a nail-form which sits under your natural nail. The shape air-dries and comes in a variety of natural colours.
Hard-gel specialist and co-founder of the Super Rad Nail Sisters, Rohani Osman, uses mostly clear hard gel at their salon and is surprised that more Melburnians haven’t adopted the trend.
“There’s a lot of acrylic still being used, but in terms of OHS for us nail techs, it’s great because it doesn’t smell...it is much nicer to work with.”
The product is odourless, hard-wearing and lighter to wear over traditional acrylic styles, giving you the ability to extend and enhance your nails for added strength or length. However, gel extensions or gel sculpted nails do require a bit more commitment than gel polish. To catch up with your nail’s natural growth, you will need to refill every 2 to 3 weeks and removal can be quite a complex process. Rohani explains, “removal involves filing off as much of the product as possible, being careful not to damage the natural nail, so we try to limit removing whenever we can.”
Pros: You can achieve some out of this world looks and lengths with this style, thanks to the sculpted nature of gel. This product is usually lighter and thinner than acrylic nails so they are more comfortable to wear.
Cons: With refills required every 2 to 3 weeks and removal being a sensitive and lengthy process, consider these nails rather high-maintenance. As these sit on top of your existing nails, they can be quite bulky. But this is something you best discussed with your nail technician.
Maintenance: We’ve given these a 4 out of 5 based on the ‘refill or remove’ dilemma. Heed this as more of a commitment warning. Removal involves filing off as much of the product as possible. This could mean weaker, more damaged nails in the long term, and a lengthy road of recovery back to natural nails.
SNS stands for Signature Nail Systems. Similar to acrylic, this powder and liquid system undergoes a polymer reaction and hardens when exposed to air. This product is applied in layers, starting with glue then a coloured powder, repeated 3 to 4 times and finished with an activating top coat. The activator reacts with the base and snap-seals the colour in for a glossy, hard finish that lasts between 2 to 3 weeks. This look doesn’t always work well on very short nails (if you’ve bitten them down) but plastic nail tips/extensions can be applied for extra length while you’re growing your natural nails out.
"SNS or Dip powder is almost like a rebranded campaign for acrylic nails. Rather than a monomer liquid used in acrylic, a bonding agent similar to super glue is applied to the nail and then dipped in an acrylic powder," says Chelsea
To remove SNS, the top coat needs to be filed or buffed away before the nails are soaked off with acetone. Then the nails are reshaped or trimmed and filed down again (if required) for their next dip. And while your nails might grow after a few cycles, in the absence of SNS they become weak and brittle.
“My absolute least favourite is SNS. I hate everything about it (sorry SNS) - mostly the removal. I also don’t like tricky marketing campaigns and I feel their information is deceiving in terms of its claims for the health of the nail,” says Chelsea.
The cost of this service varies greatly depending on where you are on the planet and what brands your salon uses. While this method is relatively new, growing in popularity over the past 5 years, there are already a bunch of copycat brands on the ‘dipping system’ front. The problem with dipping systems are the fluctuations in hygiene. While most nail techs will clean their tools and products thoroughly, if yours is dipping your finger directly into a shared tub of powder - you’ve got some problems on your hands, potentially the infectious kind.
Pros: The process is quick and can be combined with glue-on extensions for added length, and this can give your nails the time they need to grow. The service is usually pretty affordable and comes in a broad range of colours.
Cons: Inconsistencies among services and salons. Many salons still use electric files in the application and removal process, which often results in over-filing and damage to the nail bed. While this method is marketed as ‘healthier’ there’s nothing healthy about wearing glue - especially if it comes from an unmarked bottle. Plus, shared nail-dipping tubs pose obvious hygiene concerns.
Maintenance: We’ve rated this a 4 out of 5 based on the cost and frequency of removal and having new colours applied.
Ultimately, it depends on your values, your lifestyle and the look you’re hoping to achieve;
“It’s ok to ask lots of questions wherever you go. Arm yourself with the facts about what products you are getting and any nail tech should be happy to advise what is best for you.
My #1 piece of advice for strong healthy nails would be to use cuticle oil daily!” says Chelsea.
“Do your research. Check out if the salon you are going to is reputable and is practicing good OHS and hygiene. Ask your nail tech about the different products available to you and see what is best suited to your daily life and what you want to achieve with your nails,” says Rohani.
Of course we’ll rep our 12-Free, cruelty free, vegan nail polishes until the cows come home (cow print is really big right now, just ask Chelsea); because we know they will bring you the glossy colour confidence you want without the questionable environmental baggage, you definitely don’t.
No matter what you wear, it’s important to observe and ask your nail technician about the products and methods they use. After all, what goes on, goes in.
So you’re planning to take your at-home manicure to the next level? Find the right nail shape for your fingers.
Nail-shapes sorted, but what about nail art? Head straight for our tutorials.
Need some new clean nail polish colours for your at-home manicure?