What Is a Structured Manicure? Nail Artists Share All the Details

Structured manicure with black and iridescent purple polish and gemstone accents


If you have problems growing or maintaining long nails, you're not alone—it can be a challenge for a number of reasons. Alternatively, perhaps your nails have ridges that you wish would go away but seem to hold their ground. No matter your concern, opting for a structured manicure can help you achieve the length and finish you want. This nail technique features a thick gel base that smooths and evens the nail for a stunningly seamless application that also strengthens and enhances longevity. Sounds pretty fantastic, no? Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about structured manicures, complete with insights from nail pros.

Meet the Expert

  • Julie Kandalec is a celebrity manicurist and educator based in New York City. She is the founder of Julie K. Nail Academy, through which she offers entrepreneurship courses to fellow nail pros.
  • Laura Malarkey is a celebrity manicurist and Nailing Hollywood artist who has collaborated with brands including Versace, Nike, and Sephora.

What Is a Structured Manicure?

Structured manicures are a nail technique that improves the appearance of the nail and, in some cases, adds length. “To put it plainly, a structured manicure involves applying a builder gel underneath the gel polish layer to create a more durable and aesthetically pleasing nail,” says NYC-based celebrity manicurist and educator Julie Kandalec. “This technique focuses on making the center of the nail (apex) thicker, resulting in a stronger and elegantly arched nail.” 

When executed with care, celebrity manicurist Laura Malarkey says that structured manicures are the best-looking, longest-lasting manicures possible. “They cause virtually zero damage to your natural nail and can actually help you grow your own nails long and strong, even if you are prone to breaking,” she says.

Types of Structured Manicures

A structured manicure is characterized by a thick gel overlay: “It gets its name from the type of gel used (structure gel),” Malarkey tells us. Structure gels are typically categorized as soft (such as the Aprés Soft Gel Builder, $25) or hard (like the Gelish Harmony Hard LED Clear Builder Gel, $20), and both require being cured under an LED lamp. “The difference [is] that soft gel can be soaked off with acetone, but hard gel needs to be filed off,” Malarkey explains. 

While most structured manicures fall into either the soft or hard category, Kandalec points out that hybrids also exist. “These are semi-hard gels that fall in between soft and hard gels,” she says. “They are strong and durable and should be filed 90 percent of the way off before soaking the rest off.” An example of a hybrid structure gel is acrygel. “This technique involves using a hybrid gel and acrylic formula that can be patted into place using a special slip solution before being cured under a UV or LED lamp to create a strong and durable nail,” Kandalec explains. 

While acrylic uses powder (polymer) and liquid (monomer), Kandalec says that it’s still considered a type of structured manicure. “It creates a strong and durable base layer that can be shaped and buffed to perfection,” she elaborates.

What to Expect During a Structured Manicure

Structured manicure appointments vary in process and length depending on the type of structure gel used, the manicurist's expertise, and your desired end results (i.e. if you want long nails and/or nail art). Since so many different structure gels exist these days, Kandalec says that it’s best to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for the proper base coats, lamp wattage, and cure times. Whether you’re trying a DIY structured manicure or getting one from a pro, a basic structured manicure follows the below steps:

  • Clean and prep the nails: The prep step is just like with any manicure, so you know the drill: Remove old polish, file your nails, push back your cuticles, buff the surface, and wipe them down with an alcohol wipe to ensure no residue remains on your nails. 
  • Apply a base coat if needed: Depending on the type of gel you use, you may or may not need a base coat. Your manual or your nail tech will have the answer. 
  • Apply builder gel: “Apply the builder gel in thin, even layers to the center of the nail, building up the apex to create a stronger and more defined shape,” Kandalec says. “Cure the gel under an LED lamp as per the manufacturer's instructions.”
  • Remove the tacky layer, if there is one: Just like regular gel polish, some builder gels have a tacky layer once cured. These need to be wiped off with acetone and/or filed. “We call this ‘top filing,’” Kandalec says. If you do file, be sure to wipe away any dust before moving on to the next step.
  • Apply gel polish: Once your builder gel has been cured, it’s time to add color. “Apply two coats of gel polish, curing each coat under an LED lamp as per the manufacturer's instructions,” Kandalec says.
  • Apply top coat: To seal your structured manicure in and pump up the shine, Kandalec says it's important to finish with top coat.
  • Hydrate your cuticles and hands: Lastly, to make your manicure look as professional as possible, it's important to deeply hydrate your cuticles and hands. To do so, we recommend reaching for the Olive & June Cuticle Serum ($23) and the Supergoop Handscreen Sunscreen SPF 40 ($38), which will hydrate hands and prevent premature aging on an oft-overlooked area of the skin.

When getting a structured manicure, be prepared for it to take a bit of time. “The longer your nails are, the more structure gel will be needed to create a strong nail, and thus the longer your appointment may take,” Malarkey says. “If you're looking to also do nail art on top, be prepared for your appointment to take a few hours.” 

The Cost

As always, the cost of a structured manicure depends on location, the manicurist's expertise, and the design itself. That said, Kandalec says that structured manis will run you approximately 40 to 50 percent extra in comparison to a regular gel polish manicure. “Nevertheless, structured manicures have twice the longevity, so they are less expensive in the long run,” she points out.

The Removal Process

The best way to remove a structured manicure depends on the type of gel. Since soft gels are porous, they should come off with acetone, Malarkey says. Meanwhile, hybrid and hard gels need to be filed off. This, of course, can potentially damage nails, so it's essential to do it with the utmost care. Because of this, it's definitely a good idea to have a trusted nail tech remove your hard gels whenever possible.

The Final Takeaway

Structured manicures are characterized by a thick base that smooths and evens the nail surface. “Structure gel can be topped with any gel or lacquer polish or nail art,” Malarkey says. “It usually comes in clear, pink, white, or nude colors, though some companies have taken it a step further and offer a wide variety of colors to choose from, so that you may not even [feel the need] to put any other color on top.”

While not all nail studios offer structured manicures, Malarkey says it’s only a matter of time. “I personally offer structured gel manicures as my standard manicure service, as I believe this is the best and healthiest way to provide a long-lasting and flawless manicure that also benefits my clients' nails,” she shares. “My favorite structure gel is the Luminary Nail Systems Multi-Flex Gel ($14), which is a soft gel that flexes with the natural nail but doesn't break or chip, and comes in a variety of colors.” If you're looking for a long-lasting mani that also makes your nails look longer and smoother, a structured manicure is definitely worth considering for your next appointment.

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