What is the Difference Between Gel and Shellac?

Both gel and Shellac leave us with exquisite, long-lasting, chip-free polishes, which is exactly what we’re after, but should we be choosing one over the other?

The truth is that there are plenty of differences in these nail polish formulas to consider, and learning about them can help you get the look you’ve seen in your mind’s eye, or of course, your Insta feed.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. While we’ll get into the how and why gel and shellacs are different we also have our list of Shellac nail ideas to give you some inspiration on trying this for yourself.

Polish – A History in Glam

These two groundbreaking polishes didn’t just erupt onto the beauty scene at the exact same time. They were created independently of one another.

Released in 2009 by Gelish, gel nail polish was the first to revolutionize the tips of our fingers and toes, providing a flawless polish that lasted for up to three weeks without chipping — finally!

CND, the maker of Shellac nail polish, has been an entity since the mid-80s, but their addition to the modern cosmetic landscape wasn’t to happen until a few years after Gelish had already taken the world by storm.

The reason for their stylishly late arrival to the nail revolution is that the Shellac formula relies heavily on what Gelish accomplished with their gel product. This is simplifying things a lot, but you can think of Shellac as a sort of hybrid of gel and regular nail polish.

These days, you don’t have to be loyal to Gelish to live the gel lifestyle, as a number of brands have jumped on the gel bandwagon. CND, on the other hand, has retained total ownership over its product.

Both companies claim to be the “original” high-quality nail polish brands, and technically, they’re both correct as gel and Shellac nail polishes are distinct products. Gel – as you’d guess – is a completely gel-based solution, whereas Shellac is classified as a “permanent” nail polish.

Now let’s discuss what this distinction means exactly.


Most people find Shellac to be slightly more workable when it comes to application. It’s incredibly viscous and smooth, eliminating drips, runs, and shrinking from the free edge. You can do a lot with Shellac with a single stroke. Where your brush goes, the color goes — full brilliance!

Being that both are long-lasting polishes, you need to be extra careful not to get any on your cuticles because after a spell under the UV or LED lights, it’s there to stay.

Colors – Which Polish Channels the Rainbow

Color catalog may be the deciding factor for a lot of people sitting on the fence when it comes to picking a polish.

Shellac has a fairly respectable color portfolio considering it’s produced by a single company. CND currently gives you the choice of 132 different colors and shades, which seems like loads until you realize that gel offers you nearly three times more.

Sure, 132 colors should be enough for any one person, but if you visit a talented nail artist, you may want to get adventurous with shades and patterns, and gel offers you more freedom to do so. Having said that, Shellac definitely wins the shine contest 

Staying Power

If you’re looking for pure longevity from each manicure, I think gel has a slight edge on Shellac. If they’re correctly maintained, you can expect both polish types to last about three weeks, but gel is a little more robust.


You can buy gel nail polish from any number of cosmetics stores and websites. This is great for beauty DIY-ers or trainee beauticians as they can treat themselves to a decent kit and experiment at home. Do be careful, though; once this stuff is dry, it’s stuck on you for a while — blisters an’ all.

Unfortunately, the official Shellac treatment is salon-exclusive, meaning you can’t buy all the bits and pieces and pamper yourself at home.

The Price of Beautiful Nails

The cost of application for Shellac and gel polishes is usually pretty similar, but if you’ve booked a removal service too, the gel is going to set you back a little more. The reason? It’s simply harder to get off. But gel nails last pretty well.

Which is kinder to nails, gel or Shellac?

As long as your beautician magician is worth their salt, both gel and Shellac are perfectly nail-kind options, but there are some aspects of both manicures that raise a few eyebrows.

Bonus tip: If you’re using gel – make sure you know how to take gel nails off properly. Much kinder to your nails (and easier to actually do) than some of the things I’ve seen people try.

The inclusion of UV light seems to be the most significant worry when it comes to Shellac treatments. All in all, the full manicure requires around 12 minutes of exposure to UV light in order to set the layers.

If you only treat yourself to this manicure once in a blue moon, you’ve got nothing to worry about, but repeated exposure to the UV lamps can cause lasting damage. UV radiation becomes harmful at about the 10-minute mark for very fair-skinned people. People with darker skin tones aren’t quite as sensitive, but it’s always best to avoid UV where possible.

Some manicurists will use UV lamps to set gel nails too, but it’s not essential. For gel, the same results can be attained using LED lights. It only takes around 2 -3 minutes too.

Of course, if you do like to get a fresh Shellac manicure whenever you notice a chip, there are ways to minimize UV damage. Rubbing factor 50 sun lotion on your fingers, palms, and wrists, for example, will block or absorb most of the UV radiation.

The problem some people have with the gel manicure is the removal process. Remember when I said that gel is harder to get off? Well, it’s a pretty arduous process, so don’t be surprised if your nail artist pulls down a welding helmet and starts revving up some power tools — just joking. 

But in all seriousness, gel nails have to be buffed, and scraped, then soaked in acetone. All accounted for, the full removal process of gel nails can take as long as 50 minutes. If not done properly, this lengthy and fairly aggressive removal process can eventually take a toll on your nails.

Shellac nails can be removed with a substance not so far removed from your average nail polish remover, and the whole process will only ever take around 15 minutes max.