There are so many ways to elevate your manicure to have your nails look their best. We have come a long way from the traditional process of a regular manicure: painting on multiple layers, sitting under the nail dryer, carefully using your hands for the first few hours after leaving the salon to prevent any chips or smudges.
Now, with the development and increased popularity of gel manicures, our nails can be strong, functional, and on trend.
While most of us are familiar with regular gel manicures (similar to a regular polish but cured under an UV or LED light to be instantly set), the types of gel manicures have evolved to offer more options for your nail goals.
Hard gel manicures and soft gel manicures are the categories of gel applications that have become the most popular. Especially with the variety of styles and shapes that have become trendy lately, it is important to know what type of gel manicure will get you the results you are after.
What is the difference between hard and soft gel? Hard gel is going to provide more strength and durability to your nails, while being able to elongate and shape them. Soft gels are going to maintain the movement of your nails, and enhance their natural appearance.
Below, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about the pros, cons, and processes of hard and soft gel manicures.
What Is Hard Gel?
Hard gel is a popular type of nail gel that is used as a nail enhancement. It is a stronger, more durable type of gel that can be used on the natural nail to shape, elongate, or strengthen the appearance of your nails.
Hard gels are often applied as nail extensions, as they can create strong, lengthened nails that can be formed into any style or shape.
Hard gel is also often referred to as builder gel or sculpting gel, because it builds on top of the natural nail to create a sturdier shape and length.
Like all other gel polishes, hard gel is required to be cured under a UV or LED light in order to set.
Hard Gel Pros
Hard gels are an ideal option if you are looking for to extend the length of your nails or want to explore trendy shapes and styles. Especially if you are looking for medium to long nails, having a hard gel extension is the best way to achieve the look.
Hard gels can be shaped into any type of style, whether you are looking for a pointy stiletto shape, a trendy coffin style, or a classical oval, the extensions will be filed to result in your desired outcome.
If you are looking for a more durable nail treatment than regular gel or polish, hard gel will be able to deliver that to you.
After the hard gel is applied to the nail and cured under the UV/LED light, the gel hardens on the nail making a stronger extension that can withstand normal, everyday activities without chipping, breaking, or loosing its shape. Hard gel nail extensions are the strongest nail treatment out of any of the gel manicures.
Along with added strength and durability to your natural nails, hard gel nails will last longer than any other gel manicure as well. Hard gel extensions generally last up to three weeks without chipping, breaking, or loosing shape.
As they grow out with your natural nail, depending on your nail growth you may even be able to get your hard gel extensions to last up to four weeks before needing a fill-in appointment.
The fill-in process is easy, as it only requires layering hard gel over the new nail growth and blending it into the remaining hard gel on the nail.
After a new set is applied, you will only need fill-in appointments every three or so weeks. Your nail technician will advise you when is best to remove the hard gel extensions completely to start over with a fresh set.
Hard Gel Cons
While there are a lot of pros for hard gel extensions, there are also some cons to consider before booking your next nail appointment. Mainly, over time hard gel extensions can make your natural nails sensitive with continued use.
Along with possible sensitivity, with continued use placing the nail under the UV/LED light, the heat from the light could become easier to feel which may be momentarily uncomfortable during your appointment.
Because the removal process requires a nail drill to file off the hard gel, it has to be done at the salon with a nail technician.
The hard gel is also filed down during fill-in appointments, in order for the newly added gel to be applied evenly, as well as for the nail to be re-shaped and new color to be added. With the frequent use of the nail drill, it can cause the natural nail to become more sensitive over time.
The process of having hard gel extensions applied can also be time consuming. The appointment for a new set of hard gels to be applied generally takes between two to two and a half hours. If you want to continue with the same shape and length for several appointments, fill-in sessions should take about one and a half hours.
Who Should Use Hard Gel?
Hard gel is a perfect option if you are looking to add strength to your nails, along with length and shape. Adding a nail extension will allow you to play with trendy shapes, or enhance and elongate the natural shape.
Hard gel is also ideal if you are looking for a long-lasting manicure that can go for at least three weeks before needing to be touched up again.
Hard Gel Procedure and Removal
The process of applying hard gel to the nails begins with determining the length and shape of the nail. If you are looking to add extra length, nail formers will be used to paint the hard gel onto for the desired length.
Pre-shaped nail extensions could also be used, depending on your salon and preference, and adhered to with the hard gel.
After regular nail maintenance is performed, such as cuticle trimming and general nail shaping, the hard gel is placed at the base of the nail and then pulled over the rest of the nail bed and nail former if required.
After the basic shape and length is created, the nail is placed under the UV or LED light to cure the gel. Once the gel has been cured, your nail technician will begin the process of filing, clipping, and shaping to perfect the desired style.
After the hard gel has been shaped, filed, and buffed to a smooth surface, the regular gel polish in the desired color can be applied. The application on the nail polish color follows the steps of a typical gel manicure, being cured under the light between each layer.
To remove the hard gel extensions, your nail technician will use a nail drill to file down the layers of gel. If you are removing the hard gel completely, the thin layer of gel remaining after the filing can either be soaked off with acetone or can be left to grow out and clipped off with regular nail maintenance appointments.
Hard gels cannot be soaked off with acetone alone, and requires the nail drill to remove most of the layers.
What Is Soft Gel?
Soft gel is similar to a regular gel polish, but has a slightly thicker consistency. While not as thick as the hard gel polish, both are applied in a similar fashion. Soft gel polish is stronger than regular nail polish, so it will last longer in between appointments with no chips or flakes.
Soft gel polish is also different than regular gel nail polish, but it still requires being cured under a UV or LED light and has a similar removal process.
If you’d like to see a tutorial, take a look at this helpful one from Gelish on YouTube.
Soft Gel Pros
If you want to keep the feel of your natural nails, but want to strengthen them a bit, soft gel nails are a great option. Soft gels keep the natural nails bendable and moveable, while adding some extra protection to the natural nails to strengthen them.
While the soft gels are not as durable as hard gel, they are still strong enough to withstand daily activity.
Soft gels also last longer than a regular polish manicure. The results of a soft gel manicure can last at least two weeks without any chips or flakes. The appointment time for a soft gel manicure is also less than a hard gel manicure, being about one and a half hours.
Soft Gel Cons
Similarly to hard gels, one of the cons of soft gels is that they can cause nails to become sensitive over time. Because soft gels are removed by being soaked in acetone, with continued use the acetone can cause the natural nails beds to feel weakened or more sensitive.
While a soft gel manicure should last at least two weeks without any signs of chipping or cracking, if left too long between appointments, the gel can start to fade or lift from the edges of the nails.
Soft gels are an ideal option if you are happy with the existing length of your nails, because soft gels do not work to provide extra length or to adhere an extension. While they add a bit of strength to your natural nail, they are not strong enough for the shape, style, and length of a hard gel extension.
Who Should Use Soft Gel?
Soft gel is the perfect option for anyone who wants a manicure that will last a week or two longer than regular nail polish, but still want to have movement and bendability to your natural nails.
If you are happy with the length and shape of your natural nails, soft gel polish will work easily on your nail beds. Soft gels work best on short to medium length nails.
Soft Gel Procedure and Removal
The application process for a soft gel manicure is similar to the process mentioned above for hard gel extensions. However, soft gels work on the natural nails, but do not work to shape or elongate so the step that includes the use of a nail former as with hard gels is eliminated.
Starting with trimming and cleaning the natural nail, the regular maintenance is performed to prep your natural nail for the soft gel application.
The gel needs to be applied onto dry nails, so there most likely won’t be any use of cuticle oil at this part of the application, however the cuticles still will be trimmed if needed. One the nail is prepped and dried, the soft gel is applied to the base of the nail and pulled over the length of it.
Between each layer the gel is cured under the UV/LED light to set the nail, and once the layers have been applied the nails can be shaped and colored accordingly.
The removal process for soft gels does differ from hard gels, because soft gels are more porous to allow for acetone to penetrate and remove the substance. When it comes times to remove the soft gels, the nails are soaked in acetone to loosen the gel adhesive.
The acetone soak will be about 15-20 minutes, and then the soft gels are easily removed, sometimes with the additional help of a nail stick to scrape off the remaining polish.
As opposed to hard gels, which are filed down for a fill-in appointment with the new gel layered over top, soft gels require complete removal for a new set to be applied.
Is Hard Gel or Soft Gel Right for You?
Soft gel and hard gel can be used together to achieve the ultimate manicure. If you are looking for extended length and a defined shape, with a wear time that lasts several weeks, then hard gel is the ideal option for you.
If you are looking to keep your nails feeling more natural, but want a polish that is longer wearing than regular nail polish, a soft gel manicure would be your solution.
However, both types of gel work easily together and are able to be layered. Hard gel is going to create the shape and length of the nail, while soft gel will be added secondarily for long-lasting color and design.
Based on what you are looking to achieve with your nails will determine what type of gel manicure you should book an appointment for. However, the great feature of these different types of gel manicures is how they can work together or separately.
If you want to explore gel manicures for the first time, try a soft gel manicure that will enhance your natural nail before working your way into getting a hard gel set.
If you are looking to extend and lengthen your nails to create a certain shape, go for a hard gel manicure for the best results. While these types of gel manicures do last longer than a regular polish, you can still switch them up at any time to try a different type of gel or to capture the latest nail trends.
Our nails have become an outlet of our personal style and attitude, so finding the type of manicure that reflects that and suits your needs the best will allow you to fully display your unique self-expression.