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Gel Nails – Gel Polish? Gel Hybrid? Gel Effect? Let’s Break It Down!

Gel Polish and Hybrids Breakdown via @AllLacqueredUp

Gel Polish and Hybrids Breakdown

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With every brand and their mother putting out a product with “GEL” in the name, nail world is becoming a very confusing place. The introduction of CND Shellac started a gel nails craze that has prompted more traditional polish brands to jack its style, producing products that promise gel-like results.

But here’s the problem. Gel Polish, Gel Hybrid, Gel Effect, Soak-Off Gel, UV Gel. What do they all mean? All this terminology makes it hard to decipher how a product applies and performs so I’m here to break down the differences for you.

UV Soak-Off Gel

Created as an alternative to hard, colored gels that require buffing and a long removal process, Soak-Off Gels come in a pot, are applied with a special brush and cured by a UV lamp. While you can do this at home, it’s intended to be a professional service.

Examples of UV Soak-Off Gel: OPI Axxium, Bio Sculpture Gel, Akzentz.

UV Soak-Off Gel Polish via @AllLacqueredUp

UV Soak-Off Gel Polish

UV/LED Soak-Off Gel Polish

CND changed the colored gel game when they released Shellac (review). A product that applies like a polish and wears like a gel, it also comes with an easier removal process. This is also a soak-off gel, a UV or LED cured product, only it has a different application than the pot versions.

There have been innovations in this category with versions that don’t require a base coat (China Glaze Gelaze) or a top coat (Fuse Gelnamel). And unlike soak-off gels, consumer versions exist, like Red Carpet Manicure.

Examples of UV/LED Gel Polish: CND Shellac, Essie Gel, OPI GelColor, Gelish, Gelish Mini, ibd Just Gel

If you’re into gel polish you have to check out Chickettes.com. It’s an amazing resource for gel polish swatches, reviews and tutorials.

UV and LED Gel Nail Polish via @AllLacqueredUp

UV and LED Gel Nail Polish

Gel Polish Hybrid

Again, CND is the innovator in this category. CND VINYLUX (review) is the first gel polish hybrid to the market. Gel hybrids combine the best aspects of traditional nail polish and gel polish.

Gel hybrids claim to have the fast dry time, long-lasting wear and glossy finish of a gel with the easy application and removal of a traditional nail polish, with no UV or LED lamp required. Expect this category to explode over the next year as hybrids become the trend.

A unique aspect is the required, Natural Light-activated top coat that comes in a solid bottle to block light exposure. While the product dries on its own, with no lamp involved, the top coat hardens with natural light exposure to protect the polish and lengthen wear.

Examples of Gel Polish Hybrid: CND VINYLUX, Sally Hansen Miracle Gel, Revlon ColorStay Gel Envy, China Glaze Ever Glaze (coming 2015).

Note: Young Nails is releasing Caption, a product with similar claims yet the top coat is not UV-activated. Instead, it contains a proprietary technology called LacQ3. We’ll have to see what that’s about come September.

Gel Polish Hybrids via @AllLacqueredUp

Gel Polish Hybrids

UV-Activated Top Coats

An off-shoot of Gel Polish Hybrids are the individual UV-Activated Top Coats. These top coats are fast drying, don’t require a UV or LED lamp and harden, over time, with natural UV exposure. The bonus is, they work over any nail polish. Though, truth be told, I’ve used the CND VINYLUX Top Coat over other brands with no issue.

Examples of UV-Activated Top Coats: European Secrets Rock (my fave), Julep Freedom Top Coat. Nubar is developing one as well but the name has not been released.

Note: These are different than UV Top Coats, like Seche Ultra-V and LCN Polish Seal which require a UV lamp to dry.

UV-Activated Top Coats via @AllLacqueredUp

UV-Activated Top Coats

Gel Effect Polish and Treatments

This is where the whole gel polish thing gets confusing. Gel Effect Polish and Treatments have the word “gel” in the product name and promise gel-like wear and shine, even though they don’t include the same technology as Gel Hybrids and Gel Polishes.

For the most part, these “gel” products have a thicker, self-leveling formula, like an amped up version of creme-jelly polishes. They promise the glossy, pillow-y look of gel polish and longer wear.

Examples of Gel Effect Polishes: Avon Gel Finish, COVERGIRL XL Nail Gel, Dior Gel Shine, L’Oreal Extraordinaire Gel-Lacque (review), Models Own Hyper Gel, Nails Inc Gel Effect

Examples of Gel Effect Treatments: Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab, Dior Gel Coat, Guerlain Gel Top Coat

Gel Effect Nail Polish, Top Coats and Treatments via @AllLacqueredUp

Gel Effect Nail Polish, Top Coats and Treatments

Which of these product categories have you tried? Thoughts on the different technologies? Do you prefer gels, in any form, over traditional nail polish? I look forward to your feedback.


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There Are 38 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Molly says:

    I have tried the European Secrets Rock Hard Top Coat and it does not dry…ever! Very frustrating.

    • I’m sorry Molly. I’ve always had great luck with it and I know other who swear by it as well. But I’ve also heard from multiple people that they also have issues with it not drying and I’m at a loss as to why.

    • Jessika says:

      I’ve had the same issue with this top coat. I don’t have a lamp, though, I did try to use natural sunlight to dry it with no luck:(.

  2. Lisa N. says:

    This was helpful to see and know!

  3. Phyrra says:

    I love the idea of gel polish hybrids. I also like the UV hardening top coats.

  4. Keri says:

    Correction to your post: CND Shellac is a hybrid not Vinylux. Vinylux is a top of the line traditional polish that gets tougher with exposure to natural light… Allowing it to last much longer. Shellac has qualities of a gel polish (UV cure, soak off, superior adhesion, etc) as well as polish (hardens by evaporation as well, gentle to the nail, polish like application, color consistency, etc.)

    I have been specializing in Shellac since it’s release and have gotten all of my info from CND themselves. Gigi is an amazing mentor and CND educator. You can find her on Salongeek.com.

  5. Icy says:

    I’ll honestly stick with normal polish. I easily get a whole week with my polishes with only minor tip wear. I could easily have the same mani for 2-3 weeks if I really wanted; I just change it weekly because I get bored of the color. XD

    • Jessika says:

      I’m with you! I don’t ever have issues with wear-time either because my polish stays put for as long as I want it to, which can be two to EIGHT days, which is my current record. Like you, I get bored and end up changing the color more frequently, even though it’s still perfect:). May I ask what your base and top coat faves are that allow you to have such long lasting wear? My base fave is Avon Gel Strength Base Coat, and my top coat faves are SH Insta-Dri Anti Chip Top Coat, Essie Good to Go, HK Girl or Seche Vite.

    • Deltamom says:

      I agree with you. With so many different colors to use I like changing after 7 days.

  6. JDV says:

    I have a Shellac lamp but I never use it anymore, I don’t find that it’s worth the effort. I have a regular-products base and topcoat combo that work for me and I can usually get a week out of a regular polish mani no problem.

    That said, I haven’t tried any of the others simply because I don’t need to yet. If that ever changes and my go-to’s fall out of favor I’d probably look at the natural light activated topcoats.

  7. Firegirl says:

    A very informative article, thank you! I was just wondering what kind of wear time you get if you use the CND Vinylux topcoat? Sometimes I’d like
    my polish to last a couple of days longer. Shellac is not really an option for me because visible nail growth really freaks me out…

  8. Mandy says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve never tried anything from any of the Gel segments. Partly because it’s this confusing and partly because I change them so often. But I have been considering a UV/LED kit for long lasting pedicures and vacation manis. So this was a great and informative read.

  9. JayJay says:

    Having thousands of polishes and changing my polish daily for 5 years I have finally succumbed to the ease of Shellac. I’ve tried every colour and finish I can find and now I just want an easy life. Shellac all the way. Done professionally. I get two weeks with high, high, high shine. If I have to wait 3 weeks for any reason then that’s OK. The only problem is my nail growth after 2/3 weeks. But I’m happy with the trade-off. Shellacs can be layered to make new shades. You can still have accent nail or skittles manis. They don’t have to be boring. But the ‘no-chips’ factor seals the deal for me.

  10. JayJay says:

    Oh, I must add the zero dry-time. GREAT post by the way. Much needed to clarify the confusion.

  11. Becky says:

    I currently use CND Shellac and Gelish. I use traditional polishes for pedicures and some of my manicure clients. I prefer using Gelish as it does not get thick like Shellac can, especially the top coat. Thanks for all the info you provide. It is always helpful and informative :-)

  12. Betty @naillovy says:

    Very helpful to know the difference, I was too lazy to look and find the 4 different kinds of “gel” finish.

  13. Julia says:

    Thanks for the tutorial, love it! I bought my first bottle of “Rock” after you told us about it, and it is the Rock for me. I did my nails last Thursday and I am just beginning to see the nail tips now; no chips. I will keep buying it as long as Sally’s carries it.

  14. Wanda says:

    I have been wondering about this for a while. Thank you for such an informative article. Now I know what each kind requires and how to use it.

  15. Susan says:

    I recently tried the Fuse line of products and was disappointed with the results. The directions say to apply a thin coat, and one is supposed to be enough. No way! I had to apply at least three to have any where near a decent look. That’s a bit more labor intensive than I want, especially when you only do one nail at a time. The only time I use it is when I want to practice nail art without having to completely remove my base color. But I love the look of gel polishes, so thanks for the breakdown!

  16. Jessika says:

    This breakdown was very helpful! Thank you! I personally tend to avoid the real-deal gel stuff because it’s super damaging to nails. I do like Gel Envy as a “hybrid” choice; I love the brush on them! I have found that they wear better when worn with the accompanying top coat under my fast-drying top coat. And Avon Gel Effect is a great not-really-gel-but-still-a-fantastic-polish choice:).

  17. Kat says:

    I’ve tried the Sally Hansen miracle gel. The first time I tried it was for 4 days. It was still shiny and minimal wear on the tips. The second time I tried it was on my vacation to Vegas. It didn’t wear as well. By day 3 I had a huge chip on one finger. Most of my nails look rough, no shine left.
    So for a normal week it’s pretty good.

  18. Lena says:

    This was really interesting to read. I’ve had Shellac, Gelish and Artistic Color Gloss on my nails, as well as hard gel (never again, the buffing to remove was nightmare) but I didn’t understand what these new things like the Revlon gel polish really meant. Thanks!

  19. Guro Aasland says:

    One thing I’ve always wondered about though: are the gel polish hybrids just as ‘gentle’ to the nails as normal nail polish? I know you can remove them with normal nail polish remover, but are the ingredients in the hybrids more similar to the UV/LED Gel Polish? And how does the Deborah Lippmann treatment work?? I hope you will find the time to answer me, it’s much appreciated :)

    • Hi Guro! I’m not a chemist so it’s hard for me to break down the exact ingredient differences but I believe the gel hybrids are more like polish, so less damaging than gels. The Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab set is a base and top coat designed to give you gel-like look and wear when used with regular nail polish. The top coat is thicker, think Seche Vite, than her other top coats so it attempts to give that pillow-y look of gel.

  20. Marie says:

    Gel nails are great for vacations. There’s no worry for two weeks. I tried the Vinylux, and it’s OK. Rock topcoat is great for regular manicures. I try to plan a walk outside to 10-15 minutes to get a good set on it.

  21. Abbi says:

    So helpful! Thanks for trouble-shooting this topic and saving us some dough!

  22. Thank you for breaking this all down and explaining it so clearly. With all these companies adding the word gel to their bottles I was starting to get confused as to what they really were. Especially when it comes to removal. I hate polishes that take a lot of effort to remove. (Thank goodness for peel off base coats) I want to make sure I understand correctly, the only ones that remove like regular polish are the Gel hybrids and gel effects right?

    • Yes, both of those categories remove like regular polish, with remover. Though I have had techs tell me that when a client wears VINYLUX for 3+ weeks, it is more stubborn to remove than regular polish but still comes off with remover. I think it just takes a little longer.

  23. Ditte K says:

    Nope, haven’t tried and I steadily refuse. I own around 220 “normal” nail polishes, and I figure that my collection would start all over again trying this new formula. So, in conclusion, what I have will last me my lifetime, so why try this new stuff?

  24. Hi, Wonderful article! However I would just like to clarify on the curing methods for LCN Polish Seal. Polish Seal cures with a 60watt light bulb or in a UV nail light in 5 to 6 mins. It can be used over any regular nail polish and will extend wearing time up to 10 days. It is important to let the polish dry at least 5 mins before applying the Polish Seal.
    Melody Walker
    LCN Canada

  25. Meri says:

    I’ve used the Sally Hansen Miracle Gel topcoat over a number of regular polishes and while it doesn’t work with all of them (need to start taking notes on this), it does usually give me a couple of days more wear than usual. It and the polish that go with it come off really quickly with acetone remover; I haven’t tried non-acetone remover.

  26. Sarah Jun says:

    Molly”””I have bought an European Secrets Rock Hard Top Coat but it is ok. I still use it till now but no problem. Maybe, you got a wrong product from your seller.

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