We can all agree that there's just something so satisfying about perfectly painted, chip-free nails. While that typically implies getting a gel manicure to achieve the long-lasting wear we crave, there are more options to choose from—most of which will be a lot less damaging than our beloved gel.
It's important to note that experts advise taking a break from gel (think a week off between manicures with gel) and making sure that when you request gel, you actually wind up with a true gel polish. Of course, there are alternatives, which we rounded up here.
To help you score a nail look that lasts for up to two weeks without any signs of wear and tear, we've rounded up gel nail alternatives you can pull off at home or in the salon, with tips from the experts.
Meet the Expert
- Dana Stern, MD, is one of the only board-certified dermatologists in the country who specializes in nail health, treatment, and diagnosis. She has office locations in Manhattan and Southampton.
- Sarah Gibson Tuttle is the founder and CEO of Olive & June, a cult-favorite nail salon based in California.
Keep scrolling for 13 of the best gel nail alternatives.
“Powder dips have been around for a long time and are a glue and acrylic powder type of enhancement,” says Stern. While they create an Insta-worthy look every time, it's worth noting that they come with a few downsides.
“Some may consider these to be better than gels because they don’t require UV light, however, dips are not without risk,” Stern explains. “These two-part systems use cyanoacrylate (monomer) which tends to be a liquid or gel that is applied with a brush. These monomers are well-known allergens and so acrylate allergies can and do occur. The nail is then dipped in an acrylic powder which is less likely to cause an allergy but still possible."
Stern also warns against the "double-dip" phenomenon, whereby some salons will use the same dipping pot from client to client (meaning any bacteria on the first person's finger can be transferred to or into yours). “Due to a lot of bad press on this topic, salons seem to be aware of this and are now either pouring the powder onto the nail, painting the powder on, or dipping the nail into individual disposable containers of powder.”
Lastly, they’re just as tough to remove as classic gels, which can often be quite damaging. “For best results with removal, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions,” Stern says, noting that a 10 to 15-minute soak should help. “When soaking in acetone, try to protect the nail folds and cuticle by applying a greasy emollient, and always care for your natural nails between services.”
Olive & June Clean Polish
“We worked for over 18 months with our manufacturer in Korea on a proprietary blend of ingredients to ensure our polish was as long-lasting as possible, while still being as clean as possible (7-free),” says Gibson Tuttle. “Our formula costs significantly more to manufacture than other formulas, but it's worth it when your mani lasts for five, seven, 10, even 14 days chip-free. We recently held our first ever Mani Marathon and the longest mani was 20-days long. She only removed her polish to paint a new color. It was incredible!”
Gel Nail Extensions
Similar to acrylics, gel nail extensions are essentially fake nails that are applied to your nail beds, then painted using nail polish. Unlike acrylics, using an extension made of gel is actually better for the integrity of your nails, limiting exposure to the harsh chemicals associated with traditional acrylics (although gel nails still use damaging UV light and adhesives). Gel nail extensions are also much easier to remove than acrylic nails and gel manicures (they soak off), so there's no need to subject your nails to harsh acetone and filing. Pro-tip, these are great at kicking your nail-biting habit in the bud. Kiara Sky's Gelly Tips offers starter kits with five different nail shapes to choose from, perfect for the gel extension novice.
Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Polish
This chip-resistant nail polish is available in every shade of the rainbow, so there's a swoon-worthy shade for everyone. To create the ultimate gel-like manicure, start with two coats of Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Polish ($7) followed by a layer of the Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Top Coat ($8).
When you're ready to take your color off, you'll be glad to know that it doesn't require any buffing or extra soaking. Simply wipe it off with an acetone-soaked cotton ball and you're good to go.
Essie Gel Couture Nail Polish
If you frequent the nail salon, you've likely seen Essie's unique swivel polish bottles. They're renowned for their ability to create long-lasting manicures with just two products. Simply layer on two coats of the color of your choice (there are dozens to choose from), top it off with a single layer of the platinum-grade finish topcoat, et voilà.
Each bottle of Gel Couture Nail Polish costs $12, but when you opt for it in the salon, they'll typically try to charge you an extra $2 per manicure.
Nails Inc. Gel Effect Nail Polish
Skip the prospect of damaging UV rays and time spent soaking by starting your nail look with this ultra-shiny gel-effect polish. The cruelty-free gel nail alternative is made with nourishing flower extract to help condition and strengthen the nails, which helps them last for up to two weeks.
While we can't help but swoon over this pastel blue nail polish, there are dozens of other Gel Effect Nail Polish colors to choose from, ranging from hot pink and cobalt to yellow and peach. Whichever color you settle on, you're looking at $15 a bottle.
Revlon ColorStay Gel Envy Longwear Nail Enamel
This gorgeous gel nail alternative is available in 46 shades, all of which will make your nails look professionally painted. The Colorstay Gel Envy Longwear Nail Enamel ($8) features a glossy, gel-like finish that's easy to paint on thanks to the polish's angled brush. After painting on the color of your choice, follow up with a layer of the Revlon ColorStay Gel Envy Longwear Nail Enamel Diamond Top Coat ($5) for best results.
Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro
When searching for a gel nail alternative you might be searching solely for color that lasts, but with this 2-step Gel Lab Pro ($45) formula, you'll be able to transform all your favorite regular polishes into long-lasting manicures.
To do so, start by painting a layer of the base coat onto your nails. Next, follow up with the color of your choice. Top it off with a layer of the topcoat and wait for your nails to dry. Easy enough, right?
Kiss Press-On Nails
Press-on nails may not seem long-lasting, but hear us out. These glue-free, stick-on nails have been applauded by just about every beauty editor in the book thanks to their budge-proof design. Once they're pressed on, you can look forward to a week's worth of wear, if not more. And since they're not painted like traditional gel manicures, you won't have to worry about any chips in the process.
Vinylux nails are a trademarked product by CND. They consist of two products: an all-in-one base and color coat and a top coat, both of which must be used together for ultimate wearability. According to the company, the Vinylux Long Wear Polish System lasts an average of 5 days without chipping — which means gels and some other alternatives will be more long-lasting.
Polygel is a hybrid formula, so it offers the best of both worlds — acrylic powder and clear gel powder. While the formula was originally created for nail technicians, there are now a slew of at-home kits available. We like the Gelish kit. While polygels offer longer wear, some might not love the maintenance factor (polygels are maintained by filling in with more product to the area of growth, rather than just removing the product and starting fresh).
Shellac is comprised of an acrylic base that's undergone a chemical reaction after being cured with a UV lamp (in other words, it's something of a gel-and-regular-polish hybrid. Shellac offers a high-gloss finish, and it protects your nails (and maintains your manicure) for up to two weeks. Of course, like many gel alternatives, it can damage your nail if not removed properly — that means fully soaking the product off, and not filing or scraping it in an effort to remove.
Acrylic manicures are a classic for good reason: they offer extra length, and durability, thanks to being adhered with gel glue. Plus, if you remove them properly (i.e. by soaking and with a professional) they won't cause damage to your natural nail.
Whichever gel nail alternative you choose, remember that the wear of your polish often comes down to the overall health of your nails. “To maximize the life of your manicure always remember that caring for the nail itself in between applications is key,” says Stern. “The nail will accept and maintain a glossy coat much more effectively if it is healthy, smooth, and free of surface irregularities. Just like painting a masterpiece on a bumpy canvas would never be a good idea, for the polish to perform you need to have a healthy underlying nail,” Stern reminds.
What is the healthiest nail polish option?
The healthiest option for nail polish has more to do with removal. Remove (i.e. soak off) any product correctly, and you shouldn't have damage. There are also a host of non-toxic polishes that offer chip-free manis.
Is UV light necessary for gel nails?
UV light is a key component of a gel manicure, as the gel product requires UVA exposure in order to polymerize (i.e. harden and cure to the nail).
Does gel ruin your nails?
As gel is cured onto your nails, it has the potential to cause damage if it isn't removed properly. That means it has to be soaked off (so don't scrape or file the polish off, which could definitely cause harm to the nails).
United States Food and Drug Administration. Nail care products. Updated August 24, 2020.