Check out our simple breakdown of what sets each of these manis apart so you can decide which one is best for you before stepping into the salon.

By Melanie Rud
October 21, 2019
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At one time, when you went to the nail salon, you could only get your nails or toenails painted with traditional polish. Now, there are a handful of options to choose from, including classic polish, gel, dip, and acrylic. Although we're not heading out for a spa day right now due to COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019), it's still important to know the difference among all of them, so next time you see your technician, you're well informed.

We spoke with celebrity manicurist Michelle Saunders to understand the pros and cons of the different types of polishes and enhancements. She explains that the application process for each is quite different, and the results vary, too. Once you read through all of them, you'll be able to choose the right one for you.

Traditional Manicure

A traditional manicure goes back to basics and involves nail trimming and shaping, cuticle pushing and nipping, a hand massage, and application of polish, Saunders says.

The Pros: This can be done fairly quickly (about 30 minutes) and is easy to do yourself. And if you get sick of the color, plain polish remover solves that problem. Speaking of color, classic polish gives you the widest range of options.

The Cons: It can take an hour for the polish to get rock-hard, which means downtime while trying to avoid dents and smudges. Plus, there’s always a risk of chipping. How long your mani lasts depends on the type of polish, base, and topcoat used, as well as how rough you treat your hands. If your manicure lasts a week, you’re lucky.

The Cost: About $20.

Gel Manicure

You’ll get the same nail and hand care as during a traditional manicure, but the composition of the polish is different. “Gel polish is made of up acrylic polymers and oligomers that fuse together when they’re cured, usually under a UV light,” Saunders says. The service takes a bit longer, about an hour.

The Pros: No drying time because the polish sets under the aforementioned light. Gel manicures can last two weeks or more without chipping or dulling, making them a good option for vacations, people who use their hands a lot, or those who simply can’t stand chipped nails.

The Cons: As you (hopefully) know by now, UV light is not good for your skin, and the skin on your hands is just as susceptible. So apply sunscreen to the backs of your hands beforehand, or ask if the salon can use an LED light instead (many now do). Gel polish needs to be soaked off with acetone, Saunders, and above all, avoid picking it off because that’s a surefire recipe for nail damage.

The Cost: Between $35-$50.

Dip Manicure 

This starts with a powder (similar to the one used in acrylics) that is tinted with pigment to mimic polish. It gets fused with brush-on nail glue to create a long-lasting manicure, Saunders says.

The Pros: Dip powder manicures can last longer than gel manicures—up to four weeks—and don’t require a UV lamp. Dip manicures create a thick, protective layer over the nails, which is a nice option for people with thin or brittle nails.

The Cons: “The removal process can be quite extensive, so expect that filing, soaking, and scraping will be needed in order to remove the product,” Saunders says. There are at-home dip manicure kits available, but results are best when done professionally. (It may be tricky to find a salon near you that offers dip manis because it is still new.)

The Cost: Between $35 and $50.

The bottom line? “I recommend trying these options, figuring out what works with your lifestyle and nails, and sticking to it,” Saunders says. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to manicures.

Acrylic Manicure

“Acrylic nails are made of a liquid monomer and powder polymer that, when combined, fuse into a hard substance that is laid on top of a plastic nail tip to create a longer or more sculpted shape,” Saunders says.

The Pros: If your goal is extra-long length, this is the best way to achieve that. Acrylics are the strongest and most durable, Saunders adds. Plus, if you’re prone to nail-nibbling, applying acrylics can be a deterrent. They’ll last two to three weeks, and you can extend that by going back to the salon for fill-ins or fixes if any break.

The Cons: Acrylic nails should both be applied and removed by professionals for the best results, so this is the only one that you shouldn't apply at home.

The Cost: Starting at around $35; around $15 for fill-ins.

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