If the first thing you’re planning to do once the circuit breaker is over is get your nails done, you’re probably not alone. While getting your nails done is a form of grooming, it also affords you some much-needed me-time to relax as the manicurist does her magic. That is until you’re asked what kind of nails you want to have.

It can often feel overwhelming and puzzling when you’re confronted with terms like “gel”, “gel extensions” and “acrylic nails”. We’re here to clear the confusion and demystify these nail types.   

What is the difference between gel and acrylic nails? 

Despite often being presented as a binary—gel and acrylic—we can actually further divide them into three defining categories: hard gel, soft gel and acrylics. But, basically, all three are made from acrylic-type plastics. 

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Opt for soft gels if you’re looking for something simple, but long-lasting

Gels come in gel (duh) or liquid consistencies that need to be cured under a UV lamp. The difference between soft and hard gels (usually referred to as gel extensions) is their chemical composition.

It gets a little science-y here: the former has a higher molecular weight with an elongated structure that can be easily soaked off with acetone. The latter has a more tight knit structure that can be molded, is harder, more durable and needs to be filed off.

The familiar gel nail polish belongs to the soft gel family. These can be used if you simply want something more natural but stronger than your own nails. When you need to create length, it’s the hard gel that comes into play. You can also get a combination of the two where you create a base with soft gel and use the hard gel as an overlay for added durability.  

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Acrylic allows you to create the length and shape of the nail you want. It’s great if you like fancy nail art.

Acrylics, on the other hand, are created by dipping the applicator brush into the liquid monomer first, then into the powder polymer to create a ball of dough. The ball is subsequently placed on the nail, usually to extend its length (think: Cardi B’s claws), before getting shaped, filed and left to air-dry to the desired outcome. Removal of acrylics includes soaking the nail in acetone before filing it off. 

Which is better: Gel or acrylic nails?  

Picking which nails to do can be as difficult as picking dishes from the economy rice stall. But just like your diet, picking which nails are best for you comes down to the condition of your nails, your lifestyle and preferences. Here are a few things to keep in mind. 

If you’re a serial nail biter or suffer from brittle nails that chip or break easily, hard gel and acrylics are the superior choices as they are stronger and more durable.

And if your lifestyle requires you to have especially tough nails, pick acrylic. Consequently, acrylic nails have the least flexibility and are the stiffest—which could be a deterrent if you’re looking for one that looks and feels the most natural (well, as natural as fake nails can be). 

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Acrylics allow a lot more room, literally, for creative nail art.

Similarly, if you’re looking for statement designs that feature diamantes and crystals for a big event or bridal nails, hard gels and acrylics are your best friends.

Moreover, these allow you to extend your nail length and get varying shapes (coffin, square, etc), giving you more room to be creative with nail art and to pack on more bling.

With soft gel, you’re unfortunately limited to 2D designs. This makes them great for trying out a new colour or to experiment with different topcoat finishes. 

When it comes to affordability, the usual gel manicure/pedicure that uses soft gel polishes are the most wallet-friendly. This service is like an upgraded version of regular nail polishes as gels are longer-lasting. Acrylics and hard gels are more costly as they require more technical ability and time to complete.  

Furthermore, if you’re not touching up your nails, removal of acrylics and gels are often sold as an additional service that comes with additional costs, depending on the individual salon and its price structure.

If you’re sensitive to strong smells, steer clear of acrylics as they are noted for emitting an overpowering odour. However, the smells are only present during application. On the flipside, if UV light exposure is a concern, we suggest skipping gel nails altogether.  

Text: Ho Guo Xiong, images: Shutterstock