Shellac, acrylics, dip powder, press-ons, you name it, I've tried it — and nothing has lasted more than a couple of weeks. After months of gel manicures, my nails were at their wit's end. Brittle, frail, and stubby, they couldn't grow past my fingertips. They were so far gone that by my manicure appointment, the itty bitty growth I had began to disintegrate as soon as the technician started to file.
At that moment, I didn't know what type of manicure to ask for. I knew my usual request of shellac would barely keep my nails together — even with the UV light hardening the polish — and a regular manicure would chip within a few days of application. My manicurist appeared to be on the same wavelength. After taking a peek at my flimsy nails, she said, "Want to try hard gel?" Ladies Nail Polish
There was a long pause. Admittedly, I was slightly embarrassed that, as a beauty writer, I didn’t know what she was talking about. "It will help your nails grow out," she assured me. "And the manicure will last a month," she said.
I glanced at my peanut-length nails… that sounded pretty good.
As the name suggests, hard gel is much more durable than its little sister shellac. "Hard gel is a self-leveling gel that cannot be soaked off with acetone and needs to be filed off," explains manicurist Mar Y Sol Inzerillo.
Like acrylic, it can be molded, shaped, and refilled, but it isn't hardened by solvents. "The copolymers are already mixed, and it requires curing under an LED or UV lamp," celebrity manicurist Brittany Boyce and founder of Nails of LA has told Allure. Hard gels are more flexible than acrylics and tend to look more natural. For those who are struggling to get their nails to grow, this treatment creates a protective shell. "A hard gel manicure is an overlay service that aims to give a sturdy and strong enhancement without the use of nail tips or forms," says manicurist Anastasia Totty, who is an educator at LeChat Nails.
Because of the strong outer covering and tough wear time, "hard gel is better for those who prefer long nails for a longer time," says Inzerillo.
Hard gel and gel extensions are used in tandem, which makes them easy to mix up. Gel extensions require a hard gel manicure to attach to the nail; however, a hard gel manicure doesn't require the use of extensions.
"A gel extension can be built using hard gels and sculpted onto a form or with a full coverage tip," explains Inzerillo.
In my case, the technician applied the hard gel manicure just to the base of the nail — no extensions required.
After the removal of my three-week-old gel manicure (with the usual filing, soaking, buffing, etc.), my barely-there tips were ready to be painted. But instead of painting on a classic polish with a brush, my manicurist spooned out a thick glob of clear goop right into the center.
The texture of hard gel is a much thicker consistency than a soft gel, so that single dollop of translucent gel was smudged around to the edges to coat each nail.
After just one layer, my nails looked abnormally thick, but I remained patient. My nail artist filed down the top and the edges to make them look more natural, but even after that there wasn't a drastic change. The hard gel creates a much thicker layer over the top of the nail — even thicker than past manicures I had had with dip powder.
Before the polish, it looked like my nails were wearing a shield, and after the polish, the gel acted like one.
With my fresh blue French manicure and accent flowers, I left the salon impressed with the added strength to my nails (don’t expect any bend after getting this treatment) but still skeptical about the longevity.
Anneke Knot's nails after a hard gel manicure.
A week passed, and my manicure was still pristine. The everyday digging into my wallet or prying open a lid on a jar didn’t cause the regular chips. Two weeks passed and my nails looked just as fresh as the day I left the salon, other than a little bit of growth at the cuticle. By week six, I was pushing it, but they were still chip-free and had doubled in length.
Leave it to the professionals. Hard gels are built to last, so Inzerillo cautions against peeling or picking at your paint job. "Gel manicures can damage your nails if they are applied incorrectly and removed incorrectly," Inzerillo says. “Peeling or biting off a gel manicure ensures damage to the nail bed."
Unlike soft gels, hard gels cannot be removed by soaking in acetone. "An electric file is necessary," she says.
At the salon, they clip off the tip, file off the color with a coarse safety bit, and then you wash your hands. After all that, "you should have your natural nails back," Inzerillo says.
That said, "any chemical addition can weaken or irritate the nail bed, so although they look super cute, they don’t contribute to nail health," says dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. To help maintain strong nails, Dr. Gohara recommends giving your nails a "holiday" in between treatments. "Moisturize with an oil or Vaseline," she says, "This will help prevent cracking and brittleness."
In San Francisco, my manicure cost $94, but the price is dependent on where you live and what salon you frequent. On average, a hard gel manicure costs between $80 and $125.
I love having my nails done professionally, but I hate having to frequent a salon once a week. A hard gel manicure changes this in a big way: My tips remain chip-free and strong for at least a month and usually longer — something I never experience with traditional shellac.
A hard gel manicure has solidified itself in my regular beauty lineup, and if its longevity is anything like its results, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
Here's some inspiration for your next manicure.
Now watch model Quannah Chasinghorse's beauty routine.
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