Hard Gel vs. Soft Gel: What’s *Really* the Difference Between These Manicures?

August 15, 2022
Samantha Sasso
By: Samantha Sasso | Makeup.com by L'Oréal

Unless you went to cosmetology school or apprenticed at a salon, you likely don’t know the nitty gritty details that go into some of the industry’s most popular treatments because, frankly, you don’t need to. Think: the volume of the developer a colorist uses to lift your dark roots. Leave it to the pros, right? But there are some particulars that do affect the kind of service you receive, and can even determine which salons you should go to. With the help of nail artist Mamié Onishi, we’re getting to the bottom of one of the greatest beauty service mysteries: gel manicures.

For the last couple decades, gel manicures have been beloved by nail enthusiasts — and for good reason. Unlike traditional polish, gel allows a manicure to stay glossy and chip-free for longer. But not every salon offers the same gel services; some offer hard gel extensions, some charge extra for soft gel removal, and even fewer specify what the difference is between the two. Ahead, Onishi helps to break down everything you need to know about gel manicures.

What Is the Difference Between a Hard Gel and Soft Gel Manicure?

“In practice, both can be used for any nail type,” Onishi says. “Soft gel is flexible and durable, but hard gel is stickier and more useful for gel tip extensions and repair.” If you hear someone say they recently got a “gel manicure,” they most likely have soft gel (also sometimes referred to as gel polish) on their nails. Hard gel, on the other hand, is more often used to extend the natural nail using a form, which is a paper or foil sculpting tool that helps artists build out the gel extension. 


The real difference between hard gel and soft gel lies in the removal process. Although the two gels are applied similarly — painted on and then cured beneath a UV or LED light — soft gel is more porous, so it can be removed with acetone. Hard gel, Onishi says, is more resilient to chemicals, so it needs to be filed down in order to be removed. 


So, which one is best for you? Onishi says it’s all about preference: if you want a glossy, long-lasting finish, soft gel is a fitting option. But if you want to add long-lasting length, a pro will most likely use hard gel. Hard gel and soft gel work well together, too. You can even top off hard gel with a soft gel polish, which is perfect for anyone who wants more length but is fickle about their mani color.

What Is the Difference Between a Gel Manicure and Acrylics?

The great beauty match-up: gel vs. acrylics. Soft gel doesn’t really have skin in this fight, since it’s not often used to extend nail length (save for Aprés Gel-X extensions), however, hard gel is an acrylic manicure’s direct competitor. 

Unlike acrylics, hard gels don’t require the two-step process of mixing a liquid catalyst (monomer) with a powder (polymer) before application. And when it comes to filling, reviving a hard gel manicure is usually less damaging to the natural nail bed. Not to mention the added bonus that hard gel is virtually odorless compared to the distinct scent associated with acrylic. 

What Is a Japanese Gel Manicure?

A Japanese gel manicure utilizes a particular soft gel from Japan that, like other gel manicures, requires curing with a lamp. Despite being a soft gel, a Japanese gel offers the strength of a hard gel, so it’s better at preventing your nails from bending and breaking. But unlike a hard gel, Japanese gel can be easily removed with the soak-off method.

Practically speaking, Onishi says, the gel is rooted in Japan’s commitment to quality. Its superb adhesion to natural nails is what she loves most about it. You can expect a Japanese gel manicure to last at least three weeks, if not longer.

How Long Do Hard Gel Nails and Soft Gel Nails Last?

Usually, hard gel and soft gel manicures can last up to three weeks. Onishi notes that the industry continues to evolve, so manufacturers are making strides to extend the duration of the gel formulas, so that they can last even longer without causing harm to the natural nail. Applying cuticle oil regularly, like the Essie Apricot Nail and Cuticle Oil, can help keep nails hydrated and healthy, so your gels might last longer.

Are Gel Manicures Good for Nails?

Gel formulas and their chemical compositions aren’t harmful to your natural nails; damage usually comes from improper removal. Soak-off gels require acetone, which can be dehydrating to the nail; over-buffing or filing hard gels can also potentially degrade nails. If you can, always have a professional remove your gel manicure — peeling and picking are big no-nos. If you have naturally thin or weak nail beds, taking regular gel breaks could also be helpful in building natural strength. In the meantime, opt for press-on nails as a temporary alternative to gels.

No time to go into the salon? There are gel-like polishes you can use at home that combine the long-lasting power of a soft gel without the hassle of using a curing lamp or special base coat. Think: Essie Gel Couture, a two-step polish and top coat system that is chip- and fade-resistant. Better still, most of these hybrid formulas don’t require acetone to remove, so you don’t have to worry about potential nail damage.
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn, Design: Juliana Campisi

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