Nail Lacquer vs Gel Polish: A Complete Comparison


It can sometimes be tricky to decide what kind of nails to get because you have to evaluate how much one advantage weighs against the other’s disadvantage. There are so many things to consider, like the drying time, how long it will last, things you need to remove and what kind of finish you’re looking for. However, you’ll be glad to know that I’ve provided a detailed examination of both polishes so that you can have a complete comparison between nail lacquers and gel polishes.

Nail Lacquer and Gel Polish consist of different formulas. Nail Lacquers include solvents in the formula that allows the polish to form a film once it (the solvent) is evaporated. Gel nail polish on the other hand consists of photoinitiators that react to UV rays by bonding the chemicals inside the gel to make it harden.

Below, I will discuss in detail the differences between Nail Lacquer and Gel Nail Polish. I will analyze the difference in appearance, application styles, formula, drying, and removal methods. I will then describe what benefits and disadvantages of each you should look for to decide which of the polishes are more suitable for you.

Difference In Appearance

When it comes to appearance at first glance, nail lacquers and gel polishes might look the same. However, upon closer inspection, you will find that gel polishes have a thicker look and feel. Nail polish is most widely known as it was the first one in the market. 

It was so early on the market that it dates back to 3000 BC in China where it starts in very few colors that distinguished classes. However, a few experiments later and they were making different colors with vegetable dyes, egg whites, and beeswax. 

For this reason, you will find that nail polishes possess a wider range of colors than gel polishes. Nail lacquers may also be more visually appealing as it gives off a spectacular gloss and shine when used on nails.

OPI Nail Lacquer, Bubble Bath, Nude Nail Polish, 0.5 fl oz

Gel polish, on the other hand, has a far briefer history as it came through the gradual evolution of nail polish but is a completely different product. You will find a great range of colors in gel polish but not as varied as nail lacquers. Gel Polishes are better known for the metallic colors that go well with their thick consistency. 

They will appear hardened on your nails and smoother than nail lacquer would.

If I were to choose between the two based on appearance alone my choice would be the nail lacquers. But visual appeal varies among people. Those who prefer a smoother, more professional look may opt for gel polish. 

It is suitable for formal spaces as it gives off less of a sheen than the lacquer while still maintaining a bit of an exciting element. For more casual spaces, nail lacquers can literally shine the most here. The vast colors are great accessories to get-ups and make-up choices. 

The color and varnish alone can pick up or tone down your look depending on what you require. As it gives more room for styling options it would certainly be a personal preference.

Difference In Formula

Although both nail lacquers and gel polishes serve the purpose of polishing your fingernails, they are both different solutions. In fact, their formulas are quite different from each other.

The Nail Lacquer will include resins that provide the sheen element that we spoke earlier about. Resins come in all forms. They can be made from shellac which is actually a secretion from a lac insect that is found in the trees of forests. Shellac is not only used in nail polish; you will also find it in varnishing products.  If you want to read more about shellac and the formula you can find it here.

You will even find it in your food – mostly candy. It Is what gives all these products their sheen and hardened layer which is exactly what you want in nail polish.

Nail Lacquers will also include film-forming agents such as nitrocellulose which gives nail polish its adhesivity. You will notice that when nail lacquer is applied to your nails it is wet and easily manipulated around your nail plate. However, once it dries, it can no longer be moved around or simply rubbed off as it could when it was initially applied. 

The film-forming agent is what causes this. Once your nail is dried this means all the solvent is removed from the formula leaving the film over your nails.

Speaking of solvent, it is also a common ingredient in nail lacquers to act as the carrier. As we mentioned before, it is when the solvent is dried that the film is formed. You can imagine how difficult it would be to apply dry, fixed-film on the nails.

 This is why your carrier solvent is needed and is the reason your nails take hours to dry. This solvent needs to be dried out for the film to form. This is different from your gel polish formula. 

You will find that no matter how long you wait your gel polish isn’t drying. This is because it does not have a solvent like nail lacquers do. Gel nail polish contains photoinitiators that respond to UV light. 

The light causes a chemical reaction in the nail polish that causes it to harden into the smooth polish you’re familiar with.

Difference In Application

Nail lacquers and gel polishes are applied a bit differently because of the difference in the formula that we talked about earlier. I will explain the application process in steps for both but I will describe where the process differs.

Both gel polish and nail lacquers need clean, dry, oil-free, and debris-free nails to work on. You will first clean them using a nail dehydrator, acetone, or alcohol. This is needed to allow moisture in the nails to evaporate quickly. 

For longer-lasting nails, you will then need to buff your nails so that your polish or gel has a textured surface to cling to. Once you are finished, you can clean away debris with a nail dehydrator again. The process from here slightly differs between the two.

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You will use a nail primer here to help your nail polish stick to your nails for nail lacquers. If you use an acid-free primer this will change the pH of your nails so that it can match the alkaline of your nail polish to have better adhesion. If you are using an acid primer, it will merely remove extra oils from your nails to allow the nail polish to bond better with your nail plate.

AIMEILI Nail Prep Bond Primer, UV LED Gel Foundation for Acrylic Powder and Builder Gel

Gel nail polish is a bit different. You can use nail primers with gel nail polish. However, to have better adhesion it’s best to use a nail bonder. 

Nail bonders should not be used with nail lacquers. I will explain why below. 

Nail bonders act as more of a two-sided tape. It helps both your nails and the gel polish to stick to it. The properties inside the nail bonder are similar to that which is in the gel polish.

 Meaning, it will also respond to UV light. This is why it is best not to use nail bonders with nail lacquers. It creates an unnecessary extra step of having to apply UV light to your nail polish.

For both nail lacquers and gel polish, you will apply your base coats, color, and top coats. The only difference between the two at this stage is that you will have to place your hand under UV lights between each step for your gel nail polishes. This takes a total of two minutes per stage if you are using a UV lamp, but only a few seconds if you’re using an LED Lamp.

OPI Nail Polish Top Coat, Protective High-Gloss Shine, 0.5 Fl Oz, OPI Nail Polish Base Coat, Natural Nail Polish Base Coat, 0.5 Fl Oz

Can You Use A Led Lamp With Nail Lacquers?

While you can use your LED or UV lamp with nail lacquers without causing any harm, it won’t be very effective. As we said before, what your lacquer nails need is to have the solvent agent inside of Them dry. The UV lamps are made of light bulbs that won’t assist with drying the solvent from the lacquer nails.

Of course, this is one of the major reasons I prefer gel polish. There seems to be no real way out of the waiting period to dry lacquer nails. The solvent takes a while to dry and, sometimes, just when you think it’s safe, you push your hand in your pocket to take out your phone only to find heart-wrenching smudges all over your nails.

The gel on the other hand doesn’t actually “dry”. It only hardens in reaction to the light which provides you with a much shorter waiting time.

However, unlike the gel application, nail lacquers have a few ways to shave off a little of the wait time. I have listed a few below.

Quick-Dry Top Coat

You can switch out your regular top coat for a quick-dry one. Various types even claim to dry your nails in a few minutes. 

You apply as you would any regular top coat. You don’t have to worry about losing any sheen either. It maintains the gloss that nail polish is best known for.

OPI RapiDry Top Coat, Quick Drying Nail Polish Top Coat, 0.5 fl oz

Hair Dryer

Since you want the solvent to evaporate you can speed up the evaporation process by using a hairdryer. I advise that, if you are using this method to dry your nails, then use the “cool” option on your hairdryer. 

This will both prevent you from burning yourself. Also, warmer air may cause the drying process to take longer.

Cold Water

Applying cold water to your nails after they are painted can reduce the dry time. Do not place them in water immediately after polishing them. Allow the nail polish to dry on its own for around two minutes then dip them in the cold water for a few additional minutes. 

Your nails are dry once water can no longer penetrate the solution on your nails. You will see that it has formed beads on top of your nail plates.

Unlike the nail lacquer, the gel polish has to be hardened by UV light. Trying to “dry” them naturally will cause them to start to run and smudge. The notorious smoothness will be ruined. 

Don’t try any of the alternative methods I mentioned on your gel polish.

Types Of Nail Lacquers And Gel Polishes

Several kinds of nail lacquers offer different finishes. Some will even give you a finish that is similar to gel polish. Technology has come far enough that you can use one of these finishes to mimic the look of either nail polish look or the gel look.

Matte Finish

One such type is the matte finish. There is no extra shine in the matte finish. These are more suitable for your nude tones and colors. 

Although the glossy effect is absent, with the right colors you can get aesthetically pleasing warm and cool tones coming from your matte. Earlier we spoke about how gloss is more suited to casual than formal. However, with a matte finish, you can get to add a touch of color to your nails without a “look at me” sheen on top.

What is sleeker than gel polish? The answer is matte gel polish. It still wins for me with regard to professionalism.

Metallic Finish Nails

Metallic gel polish can deceive you into thinking you have got a coat of regular nail lacquer on. One deceives you is its sheen. Although not as glossy as the shine that comes from the varnish of nail lacquer, this is a perfect gel polish you can use if you rather the benefit of gel but the look of lacquer.

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Crème Finish Nails

This is your classic, lacquer look. It has a nice gloss but not so much that it becomes distracting. You can use this for either casual or formal affairs. 

There are gel nail polishes that will try to mimic this kind of finish, but gel polish lacks the resin that the lacquer uses to provide a glossy, varnished appearance.

Types Of Gel Polishes

There are different types of Gel Polish available that may help you decide whether you want to go for a lacquer or gel paint job for your nails. Depending on the type you may just achieve a look that is more lacquer but gives you the benefits of gel polish.

Hard Gel Nails

This is probably the most well-known type of gel nail polishes. You can actually add length to your nails using hard gel. It can also be shaped to your desire. 

If you would like the classic boxed tips which are more formal and suited to gatherings with more of a business-oriented tone, then you can use your hard gel for this purpose. Otherwise, if you would like the extravagant, pointed, nails that are more suited for a night out on the town or a more casual affair, your hard gel can be shaped into that style as well. Nail lacquers cannot shape your nail. 

You would probably need to add acrylic to your nails first to get your desired shape before applying lacquer.

IBD Building Gel, Hard Gel Nail Extension, Cover Pink, 0.5 oz

It can also be used to repair broken nails. So, if you’re like me with strong tendencies to hit their nails against surfaces that chip the tips of their nails, hard gels can be a lifesaver as they can reconstruct the pieces of your nail that are chipped.

Soft Gel Nails

Soft gels are the best to use for easier removal. If you’re an experienced gel user, you know how difficult the removal process can be, unlike with lacquer nail polishes. However soft gels provide an easier alternative as it has more of a runny consistency than regular gel polish.

 It combines the flawless finish of gels with the removal ease that comes with nail lacquer. However, due to its consistency, it Is unable to provide length and structure as hard nails can. It can serve as a fortifying layer to hard gels though.

Shellac

You have seen me mention the term shellac earlier. At that point, we were referring to the resin from an insect. However, it is also the name for a patented consistency of gel polish. 

It is probably the best halfway between gel and nail lacquer that you will find as it is a mixture of both. It will give you the “dry-time” benefit of gel polish in that it is also hardened using UV lights. It will also give you benefits from nail lacquer in that it will add varnish and sheen to your nails that you would not be able to get from gel polish alone.

 It is also easier to remove than traditional hard gels.

Difference In Removal

Removing Nail Polish

Nail Polish remover is always the best method to remove nail polish. It is simple to use and the polish is off in seconds. If you don’t have nail polish remover, you can also use rubbing alcohol. 

You will experience a bit more resistance than if you used nail polish remover, but it is still an effective method.

For this reason, I would prefer nail lacquer on my nails over gel polish. The horrid chipping you experience when you have used gel polish is not an attractive look for your nail. What’s more, it is better to have gel polish removed by a professional to save your nails from being damaged. 

That means you will have more expenses charged than if you had used nail lacquer.

How To Remove Gel

Step 1: Nail File

The hardened smooth layer you loved when you were applying your gel has now become your enemy that you are ready to remove. However, all is not lost, your nail file can help you to remove the harder parts of the gel. You want to only file until the shine of the nails is gone.

 This means you have broken through the first layer. 

Do not try to file the color away. Remember that underneath the paint layer is your nail bed. You want to protect your nails by not shredding them with a file.

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Step 2: Acetone Soak

You can attempt this by leaving your fingers dipped in acetone or soaking cotton in the acetone and leaving them pressed against your fingers. I find that the cotton method is best suited when I am trying to soak gel away. It provides a sort of incubation for the acetone to gently melt away from my nails. 

However, it still does take quite a bit of time before the formula breaks down. To improve the incubation process, simply wrap the cotton balls that are pressed around your finger in strips of aluminum foil.

Pronto 100% Pure Acetone - Quick, Professional Nail Polish Remover - For Natural, Gel, Acrylic, Sculptured Nails (8 FL. OZ.)

Which One Is Safer For You?

Unfortunately, both polishing methods have their risk. There are harmful properties in nail lacquer that can irritate your skin or even cause ailment if used frequently enough.

Some harmful substances in nail lacquer include Formaldehyde, Camphor, and Toluene.

Formaldehyde is the substance that causes your nail polish to harden. Inhalation of too much of this substance can pose threats that are as mild as throat irritation to threats that are as severe as respiratory and cancer ailments. Ensure to paint your nails in well-ventilated areas so that the majority of the fumes are not inhaled by you or your technician.

 Camphor provides gloss for your nail polish. It can however damage your olfactory nerves and cause migraines if inhaled consistently.

Toluene has strong fumes and is responsible for the distinct nail polish smell. Constant inhalation poses highly fatal illnesses such as leukemia or even brain damage.

There are quite a few other chemicals present in nail polish that are even linked to breast cancer. Fumes from the mixture can even harm your brain cells which can cause loss of memory or motor skills. The average nail polishing person does not come into contact with enough of these substances to pose a major health risk.

 But prevention is always better than cure. So since there are ways to reduce the risk I think it would be best to take it.

You can avoid these harmful gases by using nail polish that is free from these substances, however. Nail polishes that are labeled as “Five-Free” or “Seven-Free” or “Five Three” are labeled that way because it indicates the number of harmful substances that were avoided in making the product.

Gel Polish however provides an additional set of risks. Direct exposure to UV rays can cause skin damage and puts you at risk for serious illnesses such as different types of cancers. While the LED Lamp is less harmful than the LED Lamp it still contains UV rays that get exposed to your skin every time you do a gel polish.

There are ways to reduce exposure to these rays, however. Firstly, you can apply sunscreen for twenty to thirty minutes before heading to your nail appointment. You can also wear fingerless gloves to reduce the exposure of your skin to these rays.

As you will see there is a bit of risk in using either product. Ensure to take steps to lessen your risks.

Which One Is Best For You?

Whether the gel or the nail lacquer is best for you is entirely dependent on your preferences.

The advantages of gel polishes are that it “dries” for a shorter period of time, last longer on the nails, and lasts quite a bit longer than nail lacquer. There are types of gels that even lessen some of the drawbacks, such as using soft gels that reduce the removal time.

The disadvantage of using gel polish is that it is harder to remove and it often prevents you from enjoying numerous nail appointments without racking up your expenses.

The advantages of nail lacquer are its beautiful gloss and shine, and its easy removal. It does not last long which can be a benefit or disadvantage on how long you prefer your nail polish to last. Those who tire easily of nail colors will find it easier to switch between polishes while people who are looking for a more practical solution will find it frustrating having to polish frequently.

The major drawback of nail lacquer is the waiting time needed to allow the lacquer to dry. While it takes a long time to set gel nail polish takes a couple of minutes or seconds depending on the kind of lamp you use.

Based on these differences and similarities you will be able to properly decipher which of these polishes are suitable for you whether it depends on the type of style or the measure of practicality you desire. Both have their strong points and weaknesses but depending on your preferences sometimes the weakness can work out in your favor as we have discussed earlier. Based on these comparisons you will be better able to decide when you prefer nail lacquer or gel nail polish. 

If you want to know the difference between nail polish and nail lacquer, you can read it here.

Sources:

Sophia

My name is Sophia, and I'm a makeup artist that loves to try different makeup, nail polish, and other beauty products.

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