Shellac Nails: The Manicure That Promises Gel Results With Less Damage

The difference between shellac and gel nails, explained.

As manicure trends come and go, there are a few trusted methods that remain popular — and shellac is one of them. You've probably heard about it, and maybe your manicurist regularly asks if you want to try it, but what exactly is shellac, and why does everyone rave on about it?

According to Julie Kandalec, celebrity manicurist and founder of Julie K Nail Artelier, in New York City, shellac nails are created with a special in-salon gel nail polish, developed and patented by the brand Creative Nail Design (CND). So, if you've been calling all gel manicures "shellac," you've been getting it wrong — but don't worry, I've made the same mistake too. To clarify, shellac is the brand name of gel polish, not an umbrella term used for all gel nail polishes.

Shellac Vs. Gel Nails

"Shellac is a formula specific to CND and contains more lacquer than other gel polishes," says Kandalec. "Many other brands have a higher level of gel which cures into a harder coating, making the removal process longer and causing more damage to natural nails. "The high level of lacquer in shellac means that there is zero damage to natural nails, and you still get a hard, high-gloss finish that resists chips, nicks, and smudges.

Shellac nails are easier to remove as they don't require as much scraping and soaking in acetone as regular gel nails, which means less damage to your regular nail. The trade-off is they may be slightly more prone to chipping compared to gel, however they still last up to two weeks — and much longer than regular nail polish. A shellac manicure also isn't as thick or heavy as gel, so your nails will feel thinner or lighter.

If you're still unsure whether or not to try shellac, Kandalec explains all you need to know below.

Person applying blue nail polish to their nails
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How Is Shellac Applied To the Nails?

Similar to acrylics and other gel nail polishes, shellac manicures are a multi-step process. "Getting a shellac manicure involves applying a shellac color polish over a shellac base coat, followed by one of several shellac topcoats," says Kandalec. All of these layers are treated and cured with UV light to make them last longer, appear glossier, and prevent chipping.

How Long Does It Take To Apply Shellac Polish?

Depending on the speed of your nail professional, a shellac manicure can take anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour — but that's not all. You won't have to sit around for hours waiting for the shellac to dry. The manicure is cured with a special LED lamp made exclusively for shellac. Once the ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths from the lamp hit molecules in the shellac formula (called photoinitiators), they activate them; the formula then hardens, dries and adheres the shellac to natural nails within seconds.

How Long Does Shellac Polish Last?

On average, shellac will last for at least two weeks if applied correctly, says Kandalec. You can help extend the life of your shellac by wearing gloves while doing household chores, but generally, the finish is very durable and rarely chips or peels.

You'll know it's time to redo your shellac when you start seeing a gap between your cuticle and the polish, or the polish starts lifting.

Can Shellac Damage Your Natural Nails?

"The only way shellac can damage your nails is if they are over-cured, under-cured, or removed improperly," says Kandalec. When compared to the products and chemicals used for acrylic nail extensions, shellac isn't as harsh on natural nails. However, if you have brittle or damaged nails, it's best to wait until your nails are in a healthy condition before applying shellac.

For both gel and shellac manicures, you should avoid peeling off your nails at home. This can damage your nail bed. It is better to visit a salon or remove them properly by soaking them first (more on that below).

Is Shellac Safe to Use?

While there is nothing wrong with shellac itself, it's the curing process that raises safety concerns. LED light lamps used to cure shellac emit UV rays, and extended exposure to UV rays can have potential side effects, including premature aging of the skin, age spots, and skin cancer.

To protect your skin from UV rays, apply a good quality sunscreen of at least SPF 30 to your hands before getting shellac. Alternatively, you can wear rubber gloves with the nail area cut out for ultimate protection.

How Do You Remove Shellac Polish?

When it comes to removing shellac, normal acetone-free nail polish won't do the job. "CND makes a fantastic removal product called Offly Fast, which is designed to remove shellac without drying the skin or nails," says Kandalec. "When removing shellac, there's no need to buff off the topcoat, like you have to with other brands, simply saturate a bit of cotton in Offly Fast and wrap the nails in foil. Depending on which shellac topcoat was used, it will come off cleanly in five to 15 minutes."

VIDEO: Here's How to Remove Gel Polish at Home

Can Shellac Be Removed At Home?

If you want to ensure your nails are left free of damage, it's best to go to a salon and have a pro remove the shellac for you.

However, if you're struck for time and want to remove the shellac yourself, Offly Fast is available to purchase online. Another popular removal method involves soaking cotton pads in pure acetone, placing them over the nails and wrapping them in foil for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, the shellac should lift off the nail bed. "Hydrate your nails before and after removing the shellac," says Kandalec. "Also, make sure you use acetone in a well-ventilated area, keeping away from finished wood and paint."

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