What's the Difference Between Gel Nail Extensions and Acrylics?

What's the Difference Between Gel Nail Extensions and Acrylics?

Like every other girl in the early aughts, there was a time when I wore acrylic nails (square white french tips, to be precise). My phase was short lived, but I still remember the lengthy, annoying process of both application and removal. Like many, I was impatient and peeled them off which is painful, damaging, and rips off layers of your natural nail. That's why I stayed away from trying fake nails for over a decade—until I heard of Aprés Gel-X gel nail extensions.

If you've ever marveled at Ariana Grande's nails, those are gel nail extensions. Her go-to manicurist and founder of LA's Nail Swag salon, Natalie Minerva, revealed that she doesn't use acrylics, but rather Gel-X to keep her nails healthy while she switches up her manicure often for performances and appearances. "It soaks off like a regular gel, but gives you length so they look like false nails," Minerva told Refinery 29. "It's so much less damaging."

Fake nails that easily soak off sounded too good to be true, so I decided to see Sataya Stone, founder of New York's Art Nail NYC, to try out gel nail extensions myself and find out everything you need to know about this increasingly popular service.


Short, stubby, dry, and sad.


Prep isn't too different from a regular gel manicure.

To start, Stone removed my previous gel polish using an electrical file and prepared my nail beds just as she would for any other manicure. She cut my natural nails as short as possible so the extra length wouldn't show under the fake nail. "I personally prefer to cut my natural nails as short as possible underneath the Aprés because I'm committed to Aprés. They come off, they go back on. I don't normally wear my natural nails, so to have them very short feels better to me," Stone said.

Next, Stone fit the gel extensions to my nails. There are 10 different nail bed sizes, from 0 (biggest) to 9 (smallest). Mine were mostly fours and fives. The extensions themselves feel super lightweight and flexible.


The Aprés Gel-X nails before they’re applied.


Application is really quick and easy.

The gel extension basically goes on like a press-on nail, except you're actually bonding it to your real nail semi-permanently. Stone applied a layer of gel on the Aprés and on the nail. The Gel-X extension gets partially filed on its underside to create a bonding surface ("Shiny doesn't stick to shiny," Stone explained). There is no glue involved. Next, the extension gets flash-cured with a mini LED light to keep it in place before you place the whole hand under the bigger light. Once you attach all the extensions, you proceed with polish and whatever designs you may want.

My technician applying the Aprés Gel-X nail extension.

Each gel extension gets cured under UV light to stay in place before placing the whole hand under the UV light.

Gel nail extensions will save you time.

Gel-X come pre-finished in different nail sizes, lengths and nail shapes: short or long square, round, coffin, or stiletto, so the process is shorter than traditional acrylics. "An Aprés set with single color can usually be applied start to finish in an hour and a half, tops. Most of my clients are in and out within an hour and fifteen minutes," Stone said. "A sculpted [acrylic] set—just for sculpting with nothing on the natural nail—is about two hours."

The extensions are extremely sturdy and last a long time.

I wore them for two weeks and they functioned like my own nails. No need to worry about them popping or falling off. I washed dishes, opened boxes, buttoned tiny buttons, fixed my hair, and more without ever worrying. I love how elegant they made my hands appear, and that even though they were fake they didn't have that chunky, bulky look some fake nails give. I can't tell you the number of times people stopped me in my tracks to compliment me and ask me if my nails were real—they're that convincing.

Bonus: The red polish I chose also stuck on flawlessly for two weeks and grow-out was so minimal I probably could've gone an extra week with the set on. "Someone with a nice, long natural nail bed like you and more of a natural length could be totally comfortable three weeks," Stone told me.

The nails do take some getting used to—but it's worth it.

As someone who rarely has long nails I have to admit there's a learning curve. I was definitely slower when it came to typing on my laptop, texting, and other simple tasks. Stone suggested being more cautious and to not use your nails as tools if you want to preserve them. "Don't go open a soda can. Use a fork, " she suggested. For the record, I was pretty reckless with my nails and they stayed in tact.

While it was annoying to not be able to type as smoothly as usual, I eventually got used to it after three days. The payoff was definitely worth it: I was feeling myself more than usual. Even if all I wore were jeans and a t-shirt and no makeup, I felt like the nails made me look put-together and polished without trying.


Immediately after application and manicure.

Kristina Rodulfo

There are some people who gel nails wouldn't work best for.

As adaptable as the extensions are, Stone said that gel nails aren't for everyone. "There's definitely some types of nails that are not ideal for Aprés: those who have very short, wide nail beds and those who are biting the nails. A technician would be able to give you reasonable expectations," she explained.

Don't try this at home.

While you could technically purchase the Aprés gel extension kit at home, you're better off leaving it to the professionals—especially if you're going to go with an off-brand alternative. "You don't know if it's the right quality, if it's the right wattage for the product that you're working with, you don't know all of these things that are going to make it damaging or work," Stone said. "Prep of Aprés is extremely important. There's the little details that a technician would know to do that someone at home would have to learn through trial and error."


Me and my gel nail extensions.

Kristina Rodulfo

Removal can be done pretty much anywhere.

Even at home. The reason for this is that the extensions themselves can dissolve just like gel polish. You could technically walk into any salon that does gel and ask for removal with no issue. That being said, Stone noted if you're trying it at home that it will take a long time, depending on your remover. "Nail polish remover doesn't have as much acetone as straight acetone, but if you had access to straight acetone you would be fine," she said.

They're definitely an investment.

At Art Nail NYC, a full set of Aprés Gel-X nails with one polish color costs $140, no color costs $85, and additional nail art can cost $4-$8 extra per nail. I paid $200. I usually do my own nails at home with regular polish, which costs zero dollars, so that felt like a big spend to me. For the high quality, preservation of your nail health, and extra long durability, however, I think you're ultimately getting what you pay for. I loved the results and it is very tempting to turn this into a regular, expensive habit. For now, I know I will definitely be back when I have a special occasion.

Kristina Rodulfo Senior Beauty Editor Kristina Rodulfo is the Senior Beauty Editor of ELLE.com—she oversees beauty across ELLE's digital media platforms and is an expert in product testing, identifying trends, and exploring the intersections of beauty, culture, and identity.

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