Polygel Nails 101

Everything you need to know.

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For the better part of a decade, my only major New Year’s resolution was to stop biting my nails and picking at my cuticles. From the ages of 10 to 20, I looked at the resolution as a practical choice. It was solid—not too big of a goal and not too small. Doable, but still a noble cause. I tried everything from professional manicures to press-on nails to sheer willpower. No matter what though, the second the polish started peeling off my nail or I skipped a manicure for a week or two, the habit returned. I now know myself well enough to know that if I don’t have a fresh manicure, the bad habit will return almost immediately, so I try to schedule regular nail appointments whenever possible.

Gel manicures have been helpful in maintaining polished nails for long periods of time (though, of course, gel has its issues, too), but once one nail chips or peels, it’s usually less than 24 hours before I’ve peeled them all off. The only thing that has helped me in the long-run? Acrylic nails. They’re nearly impossible to mess up and last for much, much longer than a gel manicure on a natural nail. If done incorrectly, though, acrylics can potentially expose you to a variety of chemicals. What’s more, the risk of exposure to chemicals even exists with perfectly done acrylics, and the process is never particularly cheap. Given all of this, I started to limit acrylic nails to a once-a-year treat. Even then, though, sometimes I would leave the salon thinking the nails looked unnatural or too long.

When I saw Polygel extension manicures for the first time (on Instagram, where I learn about most new beauty trends), I actually thought they were just very, very well done acrylics. For more information on the dazzling effects of Polygel, we spoke with three nail experts: Syreeta Aaron, Naomi Gonzalez-Longstaff, and Evelyn Lim. Keep reading to find out if a Polygel manicure should be your next nail investment. 

Meet the Expert

What Are Polygel Nails?

Polygel is a nail enhancement best described as a hybrid formula that combines the durability of acrylic nails and the elasticity application of gel nails, Aaron explains. The process and the materials used in the manicure, though, are actually quite different.

Polygel, which is sold in a tube much like toothpaste, is a mixture of acrylic powder and clear gel, says Aaron. Polygel also has a putty-like consistency and is extremely easy to apply and shape, Lim adds.

In Gonzalez-Longstaff's opinion, Polygel is a leading nail enhancement on the market: "It offers the nail professional the time and space to really deliver on sculpting and constructing the most architecturally structured nail," she says.

How Are Polygel Nails Applied?

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Full set: For a natural look, Gonzalez-Longstaff recommends overlaying Polygel onto the natural nail. "It also works very well when shaping around the cuticle area, designing the most perfect linear construction," she says. Below, Lim outlines what you can expect from an initial full set of Polygel nails:

  1. The first step is sculpting the natural nail into the desired shape.
  2. Next, the cuticle (the thin layer of tissue attached to the nail plate) is removed and the nail plate is buffed.
  3. Any debris on the nail is removed with a lint-free wipe soaked in nail surface cleaner.
  4. Depending on the brand of the Polygel, this step will vary. After applying a dehydrator on the natural nails, either an acid-free primer is used or a gel base coat will be applied.
  5. The nails are cured (dried) for a duration specified by the Polygel brand under an LED light.
  6. Now, it's time to add the Polygel. A pea-sized amount is applied onto the nail plate.
  7. A brush is dipped into a slip solution (a solution that makes it easier to shape the Polygel) and used to pat down the Polygel and sculpt the nail into the desired shape and length.
  8. The nails are cured again for 30 to 60 seconds. Again, this will vary depending on the Polygel brand.
  9. The nails are shaped, buffed, and wiped with a lint-free wipe covered in nail surface cleaner. 
  10. A gel top coat is applied. 
  11. The nails are cured for another 30 to 60 seconds.
  12. Finally, the nails are wiped once more with a lint-free wipe soaked in nail surface cleanser. The process is now complete!

Here, Lim summarizes three other types of Polygel manicures:

Sculpted extension: Looking for an even longer set of nails? For this application, the first four steps are the same as with a full set application, but instead of applying the Polygel onto the natural nail, a nail form is placed on top of the natural nail. Polygel is then applied onto the nail form and sculpted into the desired shape and length. The nails are then cured under an LED light. Next, the nail form is removed and steps 8–10 are followed.

Fill-in: After approximately three to four weeks, it will be time to have your Polygel manicure filled-in. Similar to the maintenance of acrylic nails, Polygel nails typically don’t need to be fully removed and reapplied during each visit. Instead, they are simply filled-in for maintenance (your nail technician will advise when it is time to fully remove your Polygel nails and come in for a fresh application). During a fill-in, the Polygel remains on the nail and is filed down. Next, more Polygel (a pea-sized amount) is added near the cuticle to fill in the area where the nail has grown over time. Finally, steps 7–12 of the full set application are repeated.

Pink and white nails: Similar to acrylic powder, which comes in different colors (i.e., white, clear, pink, etc.), Polygel also comes in a wide variety of colors. Want a Polygel french manicure? No problem, the same steps used for a full set application are followed—except that for this method, each color is applied and cured separately.

How Much Do They Cost?

The price for Polygel nails will depend on the type of Polygel application. While a full set or sculpted extension application may range from $55 to $150, a fill-in typically doesn’t exceed $80. 

Polygel vs. Gel vs. Acrylics

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Confused about the differences between gel, acrylic, and Polygel manicures? See below for some basic comparisons.

  • Gel: The thinnest of the three nail enhancements. "Gel polish on natural nails can bend the nails, causing breakage," Aaron warns. 
  • Acrylic: Many people choose an acrylic manicure if they’re looking for longer nails. Plus, they are "thick and sturdy with less breakage to the natural nail," explains Aaron. To apply, an acrylic powder called monomer must be used. Some experts and clients are wary of the strong-smelling monomer dust that is released into the air when acrylics are applied. 
  • Polygel: There are two main similarities between Polygel and acrylic nails. Just like acrylic, Polygel enhancements don’t usually need to removed, the nail growth area can simply be filled-in with more Polygel. Secondly, Polygel nails can also be applied on top of a nail form and sculpted to create an extension of the nail, just like acrylic. There are also several ways that Polygel nails differ from acrylic, and Polygel manicures tend to outshine acrylic nails for these reasons. "It has the strength of acrylic, but is lighter, stronger, and [more] flexible," says Lim. Because of this, Polygel nails are less likely to break off. Plus, as Lim points out, Polygel is easier to apply—it doesn’t require the tedious mixing of powder. Finally, Polygel is odorless and no chemicals are released into the air with application.

How Long Do Polygel Manicures Last?

According to Lim, Polygel manicures can last up to three to four weeks. The longevity of your Polygel manicure will also depend on the length of the nail and your lifestyle, adds Aaron. If you’re involved every day with activities that are rough on your hands, your Polygel manicure may not survive the full month.  

Polygel, like acrylics, is certainly more expensive than a basic gel manicure, but in my experience, it lasts almost twice as long. If you get a light nude or pink color, it’s hard to tell when the manicure has grown out, making it last even longer than you might think.

Are Polygel Manicures Safe for Your Nails?

If applied and removed properly, Polygel manicures are perfectly safe for your nails. In fact, Polygel can be considered safer than other nail enhancements—like acrylics—as no chemicals are released into the air during application. But keep in mind that Polygel nails should always be removed by a professional. 

The Takeaway

As Gonzalez-Longstaff notes, Polygel manicures are still fairly niche, meaning that many nail artists still have to properly educate themselves on the special technique. "With anything that we do in the industry with nails, practice makes perfect," Aaron adds. She continues, "With Polygel, some may be thicker than others, [and] when it comes to the different brands [of Polygel], some applications may be more difficult. Polygel is a product that you just have to practice with and find the right brand that fits you."

While I live in a major city and was able to find a nail salon that offered the technique (and had examples of their work to prove it), it did take a lot of research before I found a place I felt comfortable with. With that said, there is no way I am ever going back to acrylics or a regular gel manicure. If you’ve never had nail extensions at all, the experience of having longer nails may be a bit strange at first, but if you do love a longer nail (or if, like me, you struggle with biting or picking at your nails), then Polygel is certainly worth considering. 

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