I'm a longtime member of the stubby, sloppy manicure club. My nails never seem to grow past my fingertips, and I've been known to smudge a nail within 24 hours of a fresh manicure. And trust me, I've tried every solution—supplements that promise nail growth, gel polishes that leave my nails brittle and dry, and even an ill-fated attempt at acrylics.
However, two years ago, a technician suggested I try a hard gel manicure to help my nails grow out. I was hesitant, but the month-long, chip-free results sealed the deal. Now, you'd be hard-pressed to ever find me with a chip, smudge, or broken nail in sight. Read on for everything you need to know about hard gel manicures, according to the experts.
Meet the Expert
- Pattie Yankee is a celebrity nail artist and consultant for Dashing Diva.
- Heather Reynosa is the director of global education design for OPI.
What Is a Hard Gel Manicure?
"Hard gel is a nail enhancement product used to coat and overlay, or extend, a natural nail," Yankee explains. "It's cured (or hardened) in an LED or UV lamp and is long-lasting, chip resistant, and more flexible than acrylic extensions."
Per Reynosa, the term "hard" refers to its resistance to solvents—hard gel must be filed off; it can't be removed with acetone or traditional nail polish removers. Most hard gels come in pots and are sculpted over natural nails using a gel brush. The hard gel can be sculpted, shaped, and refilled like acrylics.
How Is Hard Gel Different From Soft Gel?
Hard gel and soft gel are fairly similar. According to Reynosa, they're both jelly-like building products that are applied similarly—sculpted over forms or tips or as an overlay on natural nails. The main difference, it seems, is in the removal process. While hard gels are solvent-resistant, soft gels can be removed using a soak-off technique (during which acetone-saturated cotton balls are wrapped around the nails to break down the gel). As a result, hard gel removal presents far more of a risk; it can cause severe damage to the natural nail if not done by a skilled professional, Yankee warns.
Another difference is the packaging. Most hard gels come in pots, while soft gels are often in bottles with brushes similar to traditional nail polish, Reynosa explains.
How Are Hard Gel Nails Applied?
Application methods differ depending on the desired outcome, Yankee says. For example, if length is desired, hard gel is sculpted and formed over a nail form (those cone-like stickers) or nail tip previously applied to the natural nail. Both methods rely on a specific gel polish brush to build structure and shape. The gel is then cured in an LED or UV lamp, after which it is shaped and filed, and finished with a gel or traditional nail polish.
How Long Do Hard Gel Nails Last?
Here's where hard gel shines: Unlike other nail enhancements and manicures, hard gels can last up to a month before a maintenance service is required. It's important to follow up in a salon or with a professional for a fill-in service after no longer than a month, though Yankee and Reynosa both say three weeks is ideal.
"Especially with lengthy extensions added on, the apex, or strongest part of the hard gel nail, grows out, and the nail becomes unbalanced," Yankee explains. "When the hard gel isn't properly maintained, it becomes easier to cause damage or a painful deep break into the nail bed if banged or hit by accident."
What Are The Risks of Hard Gel Nails?
According to Reynosa, you shouldn't incur any problems during your appointment if the product is used as instructed. However, it's important to ensure you're going to a professional who understands the systems they are using and the lamps designed to accompany them. Improper curing of any UV-cured product can increase the risk of exposure to uncured elements and cause potential sensitivities. Your nail technician should also know how to remove hard gel properly. Hard gel needs to be filed off, and, if done incorrectly, it can cause damage to the natural nail bed and nail plate, Yankee explains.
You may run into issues post-appointment if you do not care for your hard gel nails well. "Hard gel nails last longer than most enhancement services and are less prone to lifting," Yankee says. "However, because of this, many wearers tend not to return to the salon in a timely manner for proper maintenance. This is damaging to the natural nail because it becomes unbalanced and will get 'heavier' towards the tip of the nail, causing stress to the natural nail."
It's also worth noting that hard gel is an impermeable nail enhancement product that doesn't allow for moisture release or absorption of beneficial nail oils. As a result, nails can become compromised, dry, brittle, and prone to damage—though, in our personal experience, consistent, regular nail care (applying cuticle oils, hand cream, etc.) can help keep damage to a minimum.
That being said, there's also a protective element to that impermeability. "Any coating you apply to the nails can be considered protective, as in protecting the health of your natural nails and creating a barrier to everyday wear and tear," Reynosa says. "Nail health is only ever compromised by applying or removing improperly: picking or peeling off your coatings, aggressively filing through to the natural nail underneath—the damage is mechanical."
How Are Hard Gel Nails Removed?
As we've mentioned, hard gel can only be removed by filing (since it won't dissolve or break down in acetone). Yankee notes that she often sees damage to the natural nail from the extensive and aggressive filing needed to remove the product properly. As a result, we strongly suggest leaving hard gel removal to the professionals, who should be able to keep nail damage to a minimum (if there's any damage at all!).
If you have to go the DIY route, Reynosa has a few tips: "File your nails until there is a thin coating of product left, around the thickness of a layer of polish. Then wrap in foil with cotton pads saturated in acetone. The thin layer should release from the natural nail after 25 to 30 minutes."
How Much Do Hard Gel Nails Cost?
Yankee estimates hard gel manicures can range from $80 for an overlay or modest extensions to up to $200 or more, depending on your location, extension length, manicure finish, and the inclusions of nail art or designs. Obviously, prices vary from city to city, but you can generally expect to pay slightly more than you would for liquid and powder acrylic enhancements.
The Final Takeaway
Both experts have mixed opinions on hard gel. That's not to say either of them actively dislikes it. "Services like these require commitment," Reynosa says. "Make sure you choose a nail technician familiar with the hard gel product they are using and ask to see photos of their work. If you are paying for a service like this, remember you get what you pay for. If you desire high-quality work that preserves your nail health, you should not expect low prices and fast service."
If hard gel doesn't fit your budget, Yankee has some alternative suggestions. She says soft builder gels are more cost-effective, safer to remove, and an overall healthier option (since they can release and retain moisture). There are also great gel nail strips on the market, like the Dashing Diva Glaze Strips, which add strength and protection to the natural nail while allowing them to grow out without risking breakage.
That said, I'll be sticking to my once-a-month hard gel appointment—the no-fuss routine and chip-less, perfect manicure is just too good to give up.