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Dip Vs Shellac

by Gabbi

Getting your nails done for the first time is such a milestone in life, and it also marks the first of many a manicure. As kids, we may have been limited to press-on nails and kid-friendly polishes, but times have definitely changed!

On top of traditional polishes, you also have the options of going for gels, acrylics, press-ons, or PolyGels. But if none of those are up your alley, worry not! You also have the choice of going for a dip powder polish, or a shellac manicure.

Due to the popularity of gel and acrylic applications, you might be unsure of what the process of getting a dip or shellac manicure looks like, or if they’re a good fit for you to begin with. Thankfully, you won’t have to go in blind – we’re here to break it all down for you.

So, what is the difference between dip vs shellac nails? For both, the longevity and quality of style is a huge plus. But, they do differ in areas – like in length of the application process, what you can expect while you’re in the chair, and which nail types would benefit from them. Something else to keep in mind is potential long-term damage, which we’ll be touching on here as well. 

From chair to aftercare, by the end of this article, you’ll be an expert on all the ins and outs of dip and shellac manicures (and which one is better suited for you). Polished pinky swear!

What Is A Dip Manicure?

Also known as an SNS manicure, the dip manicure has become a favorite in the beauty community for its easy application process and long-lasting results. While you may have only heard of the name recently, this process has been around since the 80s, and has recently made its way back into the limelight.

If you’re familiar with the gel and acrylic manicure techniques, consider the dip manicure, a sort of lovechild of the two. Because dip manicures are typically applied on natural nail lengths, you can have secure feel of a strong nail without going through the acrylic application process.

But, if you’re a loyal to a long nail, you can still get a dip manicure with artificial tips (these are different than nail forms, which recreate the entire nail – something to keep in mind if you’re a fan of acrylics or PolyGel).

The Dip Manicure Process

DIY savvy? You’re in luck! The dip manicure is definitely something you can achieve in the comfort of your own home – but, it’s not something we would recommend to manicure novice. 

If you have some experience doing your nails at home, then you may feel more comfortable with DIY’ing the dip powder application. However, if you don’t have experience dealing with polishes, acetones, and other basic nail tools- we would suggest asking a professional to do your nails for you.

But whether you’re in the comfort of your own home, or at the salon, the application process for a dip powder manicure should look the same. Let’s break it down for you:

Polish Prep

Just like most manicures, you can make the most of your dip powder polish with proper nail prep. At this stage, your nails will be cleaned and dried to remove any bacteria or superficial staining on the surface of your nail.

Then, you (or your nail artist) will use a manicure block or dremel to smooth out the surface of your nails to create an even, flawless surface for your dip powder to stick onto. 

If you’re doing this at home, the only prep step that we would recommended skipping is cuticle oil. We want the surface of our nails to be bone-dry, this will make the application process easier. But don’t worry, we’re not emitting it altogether, we’re just moving this step to the end.

Bonding Time

Next, a bonding agent is applied to the nail. This is what the dip powder will stick on too, so be extra careful if you’re doing this step on your own. To have a clean finish, apply the bonding agent just short of your cuticle, this will keep your nails looking uniform. 

Try keeping this application as thin as possible, averaging only 2 swipes per nail. Laying on this layer too thick will cause migration of the polish and a kind of bumpy look to the surface of the nail.

Take A Dip

Then comes the color! If you’re in a studio, they’ll simply pour powder over the top of your nails or brush it on directly, then they’ll repeat this process on each of your nails. There won’t be any actual “dipping” of your nails in a studio, as to keep things as hygienic as possible. 

If you’re doing this at home, ensure that you’re dipping your nails in at a 45° angle instead of straight down, this makes for even coverage of the nail.

Then, remove your nail from the tray or dish, and carefully tap the side of your finger to shake off any excess powder. If you have some stubborn powder on the surface of your nails or on your hands, use a dry nail brush to swipe it away.


Your nails may be looking a little pale and a little dusty right now, but trust the process! This is where the magic happens.

Seal the powder onto the surface of your nail using a nail activator. This will be applied as a typical polish would. Take extra care to ensure that the entire surface of the nail is coated.

This will be a bit more generous of an application than the base count, and you’ll be able to see the color of the powder shift from dusty to more opaque and rich.

Make sure to swipe some activator on the tip of your nail to lock your color in further. Allow this step to fully dry. 

Shape Up

Now that your nail are activated and dry, you can take a glass file and (very gently) file your nails into their desired shape. Once you like how they look, apply one final coat of activator and let it dry.

Seal It In

No manicure would be complete without a top coat! Once that previous activator coat is dry, 2 coats of a finishing polish are applied. There’s no need for a UV or LED light to harden your nails – so once these coats are dried, and you’ve moisturized your nails with some cuticle oil, you are all set!

The Upsides

Now that you know what you’re in for in terms of application, you may be wondering what makes this manicure better than a more traditional polish application.

Here’s our two cents:

  • Rich Colors – One of the most magical aspects of this kind of application is how the pigment on your nails transform from powder to polish in a blink of an eye. Because you’re applying individual grains of color to your nails, they become extremely opaque once activated, never requiring a second coat. This method has color payoff that’s comparable to acrylic and gel techniques.
  • No UV damage – Because there’s no need for a UV lamp to cure the polish once it’s on your nails, you’re protecting your skin from cancer-causing damage from ultra violet rays. This also shortens the amount of time you’re in the chair!
  • Long lasting – Probably one of the best parts of the dip powder application is how much wear you can get out of your manicure before you need to come in for a fill. When done correctly, expect your nails to stay flawless for up to a month. A lot of the time, people come in for touch-ups not because of their color chipping, but because of new growth.
  • Easy to learn – For those learning how to do their nails at home, this is a great kind of manicure application to learn if you’re looking to graduate from your basic basecoat, color coat, top coat nail application. You don’t have to worry about shaping acrylics, or having UV lights at your disposal, so it’s a good choice for beginner manicurists.

Interested in getting started? We recommend this dip powder set from Modelones, which includes nail tools, a base coat, activator, and top coat, and 20 different colors to choose from!

The Drawbacks

No manicure technique is perfect, so here are some things to keep in mind if you’re wanting to try out the dip technique:

  • Damage to Nail – For the powder to stick onto the nail surface,  your nail needs to be completely dry prior to application. Then, the base coat is applied, which dries your nail even more. This dehydration paired with the rest of the application can damage the surface of the nail. While it doesn’t affect new growth, this may not be the best manicure choice for those with already weak or dry nails.
  • Potential Hygiene Issues – If you find a salon that does this sort of manicure, ensure that they’re not actually dipping your nails into a powder dish. If they do, it likely means they’re reusing pigment with each client, effectively spreading germs and other bacteria. When done in shop, the powder should be poured onto the nail and the excess powder disposed, or the powder will be brushed onto the nail directly. 
  • Allergy Issues – For those with extremely sensitive skin or preexisting allergies, this technique may not be a good choice. Dip powder is a common allergen, also known as a monomer, and can potentially cause swelling and irritation to the cuticle and surrounding skin of the nail. 

What Is Shellac?

You may have heard that shellac manicures are the same as gel, and while they have their similarities in application, the differences lie in what products are used.

Shellac is a patented type of nail polish, which combines the shine and color of a traditional varnish, with the strength and protection of a gel manicure. Think of it as a hybrid between your run-of-the-mill nail polish and gel- one that still needs to be locked in with a UV light.

The Shellac Process

If you’ve done gel nails on yourself, then achieving a shellac shine is completely doable from the comfort of your own home. If you’re a beginner, we suggest watching a couple of tutorials online before attempting to do this technique on yourself. We love this one by Inthefrow on Youtube:

If you’ve ever had a gel manicure done, the process for a shellac manicure won’t look too different. However, if you’re just starting out on your nail journey, here’s what to expect when you’re in the chair:

1. Nail and Hand Prep 

First off, wash your hands, paying extra attention to the skin around your nail beds. If you have existing polish on your nails, remove it with some acetone. If your nails are polish free, swipe with an alcohol soaked cotton round.

At this point, you can cut and file your nails into your desired shape. Some people like to take a manicure board to the surface of their nails to give the polish something to adhere to, but that step is entirely optional!

Because this technique needs UV light, we recommend you rub some sunscreen into your hands to shield yourself from any damage. If you get any cream onto your nails, simply wipe it away using a cotton round or an acetone soaked q-tip.

2. Base

Next comes the base coat, which you would apply as you would any other polish. Ensure that this is a shellac base coat, and not a gel coat. 

3. Shellac 

After your base coat, you can choose what color shellac you’d like to apply. What’s great about this process is that you can apply shellac exactly like you would a regular polish, so the application is something you likely already have a hang of. 

Once you have your first layer of color down, you’re going to want to cure it underneath a UV light for two minutes before applying any subsequent layers. You should only need around 2 layers depending on the opacity of your shellac. Cure this layer for 2 minutes before proceeding to the next step. 

4. Top Coat

Go ahead and smooth some shellac top coat onto your nails, making sure you seal it in cuticle to tip (sealing in the top of your nail will ensure your manicure stays on for as long as possible). Cure this top coat for 2 minutes underneath your UV light.

Afterwards, use a dry cotton ball to swipe away any stickiness that may still be remaining on the nail. 

The Upsides

  • Less damaging than gel – Because shellac polishes are thinner than gel, they tend to “move” with your natural nail better, meaning damage to your manicure doesn’t need to end in damage to your actual nail. 
  • Two Week Wear – When applied correctly, you can expect your nail polish to look chip-free and smooth for up to two weeks! Of course, this is with proper care and attention to your nails. If you work with your hands a lot, or if you forget to use a cuticle oil on a semi-regular basis, you may need a retouch a little bit sooner.
  • Painless Application – There’s no need to worry about acrylics or harsh filing to the nail since this process doesn’t involve any tools other than shellac polish and UV light. If you’ve had your share of acrylic nails done, you know how sore your fingertips feel afterwards, so getting shellac done instead can give your nails some much needed TLC.
  • Virtually No Dry Time -There’s tuly little more infuriating than seeing a smudge or bump on your nail right after you’ve left the salon. Luckily, since your polish and top coat are cured an 100% dry before you leave- your hands are ready to go right when you are!

The Drawbacks

  • Chips Quicker Than Gel – Since Shellac is a polish and gel hybrid, and notably thinner than the latter, those who are lifelong gel polish users (who find their manicures lasting 3-ish weeks), may not like how shellac lasts compared to their usual manicure. 
  • Potential Damage During Removal – If your color is cured, it only has one job- and that is staying on your nail. You need to put as much time and care into the removal of your polish as you would the application. That means no ripping, biting, or peeling off your shellac. Instead, soak your nails in acetone for a food 10-15 minutes. These polishes are built to be removed with nail polish remover, so the removal process is done correctly, they’ll come off easily. 
  • Not Good For Brittle Nails – Shellac polishes are built to last, but that kind of strength is only as strong as the base  supporting it. For that reason, we wouldn’t suggest this sort of polish application if you have thin or weak nails. Luckily, with the help of strengthening polishes and cuticle oil, you should be able to strengthen your base enough to get it done in a month or two’s time.
  • Nail Rehab – After removal, you may find that your natural nail feels thinner or weaker than it did before application. Instead of putting more polish on top of your damaged nail in an attempt to hide it, we suggest giving your nails a week or two to breath before your next nail appointment. During this time, keep your nails hydrated by drinking lots of water, and finding a good nail oil to integrate into your routine- we’re big fans of this biotin infused one from PURA D’OR

Final Thoughts

When it comes to the wonderful world of nails, you have what feels like an endless array of options to choose from. But, just like everything else in the beauty community, one style or technique of application does not fit all!

Learning about all the manicure methods out there will not only make it so you leave the salon happy, but it’ll ensure that you preserve the strength of your natural nails too. 

Dip and shellac are two hidden gem techniques that a lot of people may not have ever tried (or heard of), so we hope that this article opened your eyes to whether you want to take the plunge and try one out during your next appointment.

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