If you didn't already know, all manicures are not created equal. You may be familiar with more traditional manicure options like gels and acrylics and might have even done your research on more recent trends like dip powder nails. But if you've heard the buzz around shellac nails and assumed that they're the same as the gel mani you can get at almost any nail salon, it's time you gave yourself a little shellac nail lesson. You see, there are quite a few things you should know about this space-age service.
Is it worth the hype? We think so! Not only have we tried it for ourselves, but we also spoke with nail experts, Jan Arnold, Deborah Lippmann, and Lauren Dunne, to get the lowdown on this popular salon service. So, if you're always on the hunt for your next nail venture, you may just find that a shellac manicure is everything you've been looking for.
Meet the Expert
Read on to learn all there is to know about shellac nails, including how it differs from a gel mani.
What Are Shellac Nails?
Like most long-lasting manicures, Shellac is made up of an acrylic base. “All of the ingredients used to make any type of artificial nail—whether they are glued, cured by UV, or mixed with a liquid and powder—are based on the acrylic family,” Lippmann explains. “The ingredients in Shellac manicures are like pre-mixed acrylics, and they undergo a chemical reaction once they are cured with a UV lamp.” According to Dunne, Shellac is technically a gel polish and regular polish hybrid. “The formulas bind together when cured under the light,” she explains. Shellac nails refers to the term coined by CND—a popular nail brand that first developed 14-day-wear gel polish. "CND shellac nails combine the best properties of gel (for wear and protection) and the best properties of polish (for glorious color and shine)," adds Arnold.
Due to the long-wear quality of Shellac, Dunne says that your nails are protected and will look their best for longer. “The major benefit of Shellac is a beautiful high-gloss manicure that will stay chip-free for 10 to 14 days (if applied correctly),” she explains. “This makes it the ideal manicure for travel, work, and all-around having beautiful nails that last longer.” Another perk? The manicure is cured with a special LED lamp made exclusively for shellac, so there's virtually no drying time, notes Arnold.
Even though Shellac is considered by some to be the safest of all gels, it still has its downfalls. “Any product that is cured onto your nail has the potential of nail damage in the removal process,” Lippmann explains. “You must commit to the time that is required to soak off the product correctly. No scraping, No filing on top of the nail—no removing with your teeth.” She points out that, oftentimes, people get impatient with how long it takes for the gel to dissolve, and they end up pulling the polish off, which ends up damaging the nail.
Even if you’re not pulling the polish off, Dunne says that frequent Shellac manicures can take a toll on your nails. “During the removal process (especially if not done properly), you can risk removing layers of your natural nails and weakening the nails,” she explains. Luckily, these downfalls are avoidable with the proper removal and breathing time between Shellac manis.
Shellac Nails vs. Gel Nails: What's the Difference?
Let's tackle the shellac vs. gel debate. The fact is, the differences between these two nail types are slim, but it does have an effect on your overall manicure experience. Essentially gel nails use a semi-permanent gel to color your nails, whereas shellac nails use semi-permanent polish. There are also nearly triple the number of color options for gel nails as there are for shellac nails, but there are still plenty of shades to choose from for either.
Arnold says the removal process is one of the biggest things that sets a shellac manicure apart from other gels or gel polish. She explains, "When acetone-based remover is applied, the coating actually breaks into tiny pieces and releases from the nail," allowing for a seamless removal (more on that below).
Are Shellac Manicures Safe for Your Nails?
This is where things get interesting. Speaking specifically to Shellac nails (aka the gel polish created by CND)—yes. That’s because the brand’s formula features tiny tunnels within the polish once it’s dry, so once it’s time to remove it, acetone is able to sink into said tunnels to easily (and safely) remove the long-lasting polish. It’s this very quality that makes Lippmann believe that Shellac is the easiest of all gel products to both apply and remove—and she’s not alone.
“We highly recommend using Shellac polish versus your typical gel polish because they soak off easier and are less damaging to the nails during the soak-off process,” Dunne says. “We also love Shellac because it is formulated without the major harmful chemicals that used to be in nail polish (think: Formaldehyde, toluene, camphor, etc.).” On the other hand, off brands don’t feature the same patented formula and therefore may not remove as easily, which can cause damage to your natural nails. In fact, it’s due to these off-brand formulas that Shellac gets a bad rap, to begin with. Bottom line: Shellac is not the same thing as off-brand gel.
With any manicure that uses a lamp that emits UV light, as CND's does, be sure to protect the skin on your hands with SPF to avoid any UV damage and accelerated aging. If this is a concern for you, apply sunscreen 20 minutes prior to your appointment.
If you have brittle or thin nails to begin with, you might want to take some steps to improve your nail health before trying shellac (or any gel manicure), as getting shellac can cause further damage if the manicure is applied to already damaged nails. Apply cuticle oil twice a day and use a good hand moisturizer regularly. These keep your skin and nails from getting dehydrated, especially around the time of your salon visit when they'll be exposed to some chemicals. It's also important to ensure you go to a professional for removal, as the wrong technique can hurt your nails in the process.
How Long Do Shellac Manicures Last?
"A manicure applied following the proper CND Shellac system will deliver 14-plus days of high-performance, high-shine, trouble-free wear," Arnold tells us. And as we can attest, the finish is durable and rarely chips or peels, making it stand up to most household chores like washing dishes.
While this finish is known for its durability, some chemicals can damage your manicure, so you should still be careful and wear gloves when cleaning and doing other harsh tasks.
As with most beauty procedures, the cost of a shellac manicure can vary. You can expect to pay between $40 to $60 for the salon service. Alternatively, to save on costs, you can try to DIY shellac nails at home.
How to Remove Shellac Manicures
It might be tempting, but you should never attempt to peel off a shellac manicure, as you can do a lot of damage to the top layers of your nails if you do. It's best to go back to the salon for proper removal. The process can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes.
The removal process is seamless: "Shellac has a unique formula that forms tiny microscopic tunnels throughout the coating when cured in the CND LED lamp," explains Arnold. "When it’s time to remove, the acetone penetrates through these tiny tunnels, all the way to the base layer, and then releases from the nail—no scraping and forcing the coating from the nails."
Take a break between Shellac manicures. It’s as simple as that. “We always recommend our clients give their nails a break from Shellac, especially if they have had multiple Shellac manicures in a row,” Dunne says. “It gives your nails a chance to re-strengthen.”
In addition to giving your nails a break, Lippmann recommends incorporating a targeted base and topcoat—like her line's Hard Rock base and top coat ($20)—into your routine. “It’s a must when trying to recover from enhancement removal,” she says. “I recommend always putting several layers of polish on to protect our nails—whether its layers of base coat and topcoat—if you don’t want color.”
Additionally, both Dunne and Lippmann say it helps to cater to your cuticles, as healthy cuticles are the key to healthy nail growth. To do so, try using the Varnish Lane Nourishing Nail & Cuticle Oil ($28), or Lippmann’s Hydrating Cuticle Oil Pen ($24) meant to soften and hydrate cuticles while stimulating nail growth and improving the surface of your nails.
The Final Takeaway
"For best results when getting a shellac manicure, clients need to ensure their nail pro is trained and certified by CND, as they will truly understand the proper protocol to apply, and most importantly, remove shellac to preserve the integrity of the nail underneath," Arnold says, adding, "The product was designed as part of a system—all the layers work together to deliver that 14-day flawless wear and preservation of nail health." To get yourself a next-level manicure, find your nearest CND Shellac nail pro.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Gel manicures: tips for healthy nails.