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My Journey From Acrylic Nails To Gel Nails

Updated on September 9, 2012

My Start with Acrylic Nails

Wow, acrylic nails...finally a way to have nice looking nails where the polish lasts for more than a couple of days. For someone who has always had thin nails that split, the acrylic nail revolution that began for me in the early 1980s was a revelation. My mom (who was always a nail biter) and I both started with acrylics and were instantly hooked. After having my nails professionally done for a few months I started thinking "I can do this myself". There were many acrylic manufacturers but after some research, I settled on the No Lift Acrylic Nail system. I found a nail supply store and I was on my way. Or so I thought. As with many things, it's not as easy as it looks but eventually I made it through the lumpy, thick nail stage and found that I was having fun making my nails look nice. I began doing my mom's nails and some friends as well and it was nice having that one on one time with them. I started thinking (yes, again!) maybe I could do this for a living. Seemed much more interesting than the office work I had been doing and I liked the one on one interaction. Next stop, manicuring school.

Manicuring School and Beyond

I put in my hours at manicuring school and next thing I know, I'm licensed and have a job in a salon. Over the next few years I made my living offering new sets of acrylics and fills. My clientele list grew and I was having a ball. I never strayed from using the No Lift Acrylic product, it worked very well and I'm a believer in "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". I continued to do my mom's nails and my own, which at one point during the mid-1980s, were about 2" long. They were my calling card and I was always doing sparkly designs and eyecatching colors.

Reality of Acrylic Nails Sets In

In the late 1980s I began to see the handwriting on the walls for the acrylic nail industry. No way was I going to continue being able to charge $75 for a full set of nails or $25 for a fill. Things were happening in the industry that I didn't like and I decided it was time to depart the working world of acrylic nails. Though I continued to do my nails, my mom's and a few friends, I was back in a 9-5 office world with "active length" nails.

After having my acrylics on since the early 80's, my real nails were thinner than they had ever been. I knew the acrylics weren't doing my nails any favors but I liked the look and that was enough for me at the time. In mid-2011 I decided enough was enough and with the introduction of Gel nails which are touted to be better for the nail beds than acrylics, I had to give them a try. I was going to be moving across the country later that summer and really wanted to learn the gel system before I left. I started going to a salon that offered OPI Axxium Gel Nails. I was up front about my impending move and my interest in learning how to apply the gel. The manicurist was great and very open to talking about the OPI Gel system. I learned a lot from her but I knew it was going to take awhile for me to get into the gel frame of mind.

Gel Nails - My Trials and Tribulations

I ordered my OPI Axxium Soak Off Gel system along with the UV light needed to cure the gel. Thankfully I had just left my long term job to get ready for the move so I had time to practice the gel application. And boy, did I need practice. I admit I was a bit arrogant, after all I had a license and I had applied acrylic for over 25 years. I quickly jumped off my high horse though after my first attempt at applying the gel took 3 hours. Sure I read the instructions on-line and watched the OPI video but I didn't grasp the full effect of the gel not hardening until placed under the UV light. With acrylic, you have to get it in place fairly quickly before it naturally hardens. With gels, the material is pretty runny and I quickly learned that even slight movements of my fingers with uncured gel would result in the gel oozing onto my cuticles. I clipped a lot of gel off my cuticles before figuring this out. From then on, I was doing 1-2 nails at a time, then curing before moving on.

There are several steps with gels, you have an overlay or foundation gel, a structure gel for strength, the clear or color gel and a "top coat" gel. Each one cures in the UV light for anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes. Wow, this was time consuming only being able to apply to a couple nails at a time. As with the acrylic learning process, I went through my lumpy nail stages although I was experiencing more of a ski slope look this time. Trial and error.

The Axxium Soak Off Gel I was using was Clear so I would still polish my nails with regular polish when I was done. There are many great colors offered with the Axxium system but with as many problems as I was having and the filing I needed to do, Clear was my best choice. It's not like you can file too much when you're using the color gels.

Fast forward, the cross country move was done but even after a couple of months I was still struggling with the gel application. I wasn't sure why it was so difficult to grasp, maybe the 25+ years of acrylic experience had something to do with it...or the old adage 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks' was actually true. Whatever the case I wasn't ready to give up. I did some more research and decided to try the Harmony Gelish nail system. This may be the ticket for me, it's basically applied like nail polish and I can certainly polish! They didn't have a clear option so I opted for gels in the reds, oranges and pinks that I like so much but they have a wide variety of colors to choose from. I was using the same OPI UV light at the time so my initial investment in Harmony Gelish was minimal.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Gelish system includes Foundation Gel, Sculpture Gel and Top It Off.Some of the many colors available. More colors listed below.
The Gelish system includes Foundation Gel, Sculpture Gel and Top It Off.
The Gelish system includes Foundation Gel, Sculpture Gel and Top It Off.
Some of the many colors available. More colors listed below.
Some of the many colors available. More colors listed below.
The Gelish Pro: 45 Mini LED Light
The Gelish Pro: 45 Mini LED Light

Harmony Gelish-My Gel System Preference

Harmony Gelish was easier for me to apply than OPI Axxium. I'm sure most full time manicurists who work with gels everyday would have no problem with either brand but Gelish is the one that works best for me. I apply a thin coat of the Foundation Gel which is brushed on just like nail polish. Easy! Because I still have issues with thin nails I use the Structure Gel for strength and that is applied using a Gel brush that you can obtain at any beauty supply store. Once again, this is where most of my issues come in to play...making sure I apply a thin, even coat and keeping my fingers level so the structure gel doesn't run before curing. Just recently I did invest in the Gelish Mini LED lamp which cuts the curing time down immensely (30-45 seconds!). It was less than $75 and what a difference! I still apply just two nails at a time and my thumbs separately but I'm having much more luck. The color gel applies like nail polish as does the Top It Off gel. I admit after the first coat of color I do go through and perform a small bit of filing but it's minimal now.

Gel Nails-A Winner in My Book!

Would I do it all again knowing what I know now? Yes! My nails are holding up better than they were with acrylic. When I remove the gel to start a new set my nail beds are much healthier. That being said though, anything you put on your nail beds will affect them whether it's gel or acrylic but in my humble opinion I believe gel is the lesser of two evils.

Here are some tips based upon my experiences with gel systems.

  • Make sure fingers are kept level when under the curing light. I found out that I was angling the tips of my nails downward which allowed the gel to ooze and cure thicker at the tips hence ski slope nails.
  • When applying gels to your own nails, only apply two at a time and cure before moving on. You'll save yourself a lot of work!
  • Invest in an approved LED light, the time savings will be worth it.
  • If you wish to add length to your nails, use the OPI Axiuum Soak Off Gel system which is strong enough to allow you to use forms or tips. The Harmony Gelish Structure gel is only for adding a little strength to your own nails.
  • If you're going to do a maintenance fill and had on a dark color, make sure you completely file away that color before trying to then use a lighter color. Any dark spots will show through since the gel color is more transparent than regular nail polish.
  • Don't give up! Practice, practice, practice.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
An example of what happens if the dark color you wore isn't completely removed before applying a lighter color.Nice variety of colors available with Harmony Gelish.Instructions for applying Gelish can be found on-line.Magnets to use with the Gelish Mini Magneto gelsFun design with the magnets!
An example of what happens if the dark color you wore isn't completely removed before applying a lighter color.
An example of what happens if the dark color you wore isn't completely removed before applying a lighter color.
Nice variety of colors available with Harmony Gelish.
Nice variety of colors available with Harmony Gelish.
Instructions for applying Gelish can be found on-line.
Instructions for applying Gelish can be found on-line.
Magnets to use with the Gelish Mini Magneto gels
Magnets to use with the Gelish Mini Magneto gels
Fun design with the magnets!
Fun design with the magnets!

Share Your Experiences!

Have you made the switch from Acrylic to Gel?

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For those who have used both types, which do you find easier to apply?

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