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Gel, Dip or Stick-On? Your Ultimate Manicure Guide

Find the best new mani match for your style and budget


spinner image An illustration of a woman painting their nails
Illustration: AARP; (Source: Getty Images)

Remember when a red manicure meant being on constant chip patrol? How about pulling on jeans and realizing your quick-dry topcoat wasn’t so quick (or dry) at all? Or digging in your bag for the car keys and smudging a fresh salon mani? Been there! New manicure options make salon and DIY nails totally stress-free with longer-lasting color, healthier application and removal, and a wider range of updated shades — from classic to trendy — to choose from. Here’s how to nail it, hands down, if you’re:

spinner image A customer getting their nails done at a nail salon
Getty Images

1. Finally trying salon gel manicures.

Thinking about switching from regular polish to a gel manicure for the first time? Let’s be realistic: Low-maintenance color and shine that’ll look flawless every day and last two weeks is hard to resist. Applied just like regular polish over a base coat, the polish is hardened, or in salon language “cured,” under a UV lamp between coats and after the topcoat. Gel has extra-strong adherence and sticks like glue to the nail bed, thanks to helpful polymers in the formulas. While a regular salon mani is about $20, a gel mani can be $25 to $50, plus polish removal that runs about $10 to $20. Prices vary depending on the salon and location. One caveat: Gel removal must be done at the salon.

  • Say no to any pressure by salons to use a nail drill to speed the process, and never resort to DIY picking and peeling! It will make your nails weaker.
  • Ask the nail tech to use a soak-off gel formula in the first place, to make polish removal easier. This is done safely by applying acetone-soaked cotton balls to each nail and wrapping the aluminum foil for 10 minutes.

Not every manicure has to be a gel. You might save this splurge for special weeks and events like an upcoming summer wedding or a vacation.

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spinner image A woman painting her nails
Getty Images

2. Not sure whether to choose gel, Shellac or dip powder.

The menu of salon nail options for extended color and shine can be confusing. Shellac — which is often referred to as a gel — is a trademarked hybrid of regular polish and gel. Gel manicures, which are pure gel, last longer, but Shellac soaks off more easily. Dip-powder manicures are even pricier — $30 to $70 — but they last longer (often four weeks) and require no use of UV rays. In this process, the nail tech dunks each nail in pigmented powder that is then sealed with an activator and air-dried; it is removed with acetone-soaked cotton balls, like gel. However, for hygiene’s sake, ask the nail tech to sprinkle dip powder over your nails, or opt for a single-use pot instead of dipping your fingers into a communal powder pot used by other clients.

Gel, Shellac and dip-powder manicures all give you chip-free long-wear color. Gel and Shellac manicures require a UV light to set (and some experts link UV lamps to skin cancer); dip powder does not. Make sure to wear protective gloves for dishwashing or household chores, and be aware that long soaks in a hot tub or even a steamy bath or shower habit can shorten the life of your polish.

spinner image OPI xPress/On Big Zodiac Energy Press On Nails in Gemini’m A Flirt, Long; Dashing Diva Magic Press Long in Lilac Ice
Left to right: OPI xPress/On Big Zodiac Energy Press On Nails in Gemini’m A Flirt, Long ($16, ulta.com); Dashing Diva Magic Press Long in Lilac Ice ($8, jcpenney.com)
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Meiko Takechi Arquillos)

3. Obsessing about long nails.

The trend for extra-long nails is making even practical women yearn for a little more oomph. The problem: Nails, like hair, change with age and may become drier, slow to grow and more prone to breakage. Faking it is the obvious answer, but how?

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Drugstore stick-ons, now known as press-ons, have undergone a major transformation. They now can last seven to 10 days and come in kits in a variety of lengths, shapes and looks, from glazed doughnut to bejeweled and French. These fakes come with nail glue and can be removed with an at-home warm-water soak and acetone polish remover. Be careful, though. Frequent application and reapplication of press-ons may cause peeling, chipping and thinning of the nail bed.

For longer-lasting long nails, head to the salon for gel extensions or acrylics. Both run between $90 and $120 and can be used with regular, gel or dip-powder polish. The final look is similar, but gel extensions are built and sculpted right onto your natural nails at the tip and require a tiny bit of natural growth to work. They are a good option if you want a realistic longer length or if your nails are hard but brittle. UV light is used to cure the nails.

Acrylics are an older nail-lengthening method created from a mix of powder and liquid. They’re tougher than gel tips, which may be an asset if your natural nails are soft or split easily, and they lend themselves to longer trendy lengths and shapes — like the coffin, ballerina and stiletto — and don’t require a UV light to set. But acrylics can be hard on the nails since the nail bed has to be buffed down for adherence, thinning your original nails.

Gel extensions last between two and three weeks before needing a replacement; acrylic nails require a salon fill-in appointment (not a total redo) every two weeks and a replacement every two months. Salon removal is mandatory for both. Whichever way you go, avoid using your nails as tools when opening boxes and packages, wear gloves for household chores and be practical about length.

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spinner image Essie Gel Couture Polish in Haute to Trot; Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Color in Crying Out Cloud; Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Color in Hyp-nautical
Left to right: Essie Gel Couture Polish in Haute to Trot; Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Color in Crying Out Cloud; Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Color in Hyp-nautical
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Meiko Takechi Arquillos)

4. Looking for a longer-wear DIY option.

At-home manis do have advantages. They’re free (or low-cost if you factor in buying new polish), allow you to skip the crowded salon and avoid parking issues, and make it possible to do your nails any time of day or night. Plus, there’s no need to rush drying; you can time it to a Netflix binge! Salon manicures always seemed to last longer than our own attempts, but DIY gel polishes are a game changer. They stay chip-free for a full week, require no LED or UV light, and remove like regular polish. The polish is a little more expensive, but the benefits are worth it. Instead of worrying about chips and relying on sheer natural shades, you might try a vibrant pink like Essie Gel Couture Polish in Haute to Trot ($13, target.com), periwinkle like the Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Color in Crying Out Cloud ($13, cvs.com) or deep-sea blue like Sally Hansen Miracle Gel Nail Color in Hyp-nautical ($13, walgreens.com).

spinner image OPI Gel Color Nail Polish in Funny Bunny; Essie Nail Color in Geranium; Olive & June Nail Polish in BP; Nails.INC 45 Second Speedy Gloss in Lana; Zoya Beachy Brights Neon Nail Polish Collection in Loni
Left to right: OPI Gel Color Nail Polish in Funny Bunny ($20, walmart.com); Essie Nail Color in Geranium ($10, cvs.com); Olive & June Nail Polish in BP ($9, target.com); Nails.INC 45 Second Speedy Gloss in Lana ($8, walmart.com); Zoya Beachy Brights Neon Nail Polish Collection in Loni ($12, ulta.com)
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Meiko Takechi Arquillos)

5. Seeking a flattering nail shape and polish colors.

Manicures add a style statement to your looks. The color, shape and length reveal things about your current taste and attitude that even clothesmakeup and hair may not. There are no rules, but let’s be honest, certain nail shapes and colors are more flattering to mature hands than others, especially if you’re concerned about loose crepey skin, prominent veins and dark spots on the backs of hands and fingers. Top options are elongating almond or oval shapes. Right now, creamy white polishes like OPI Gel Color Nail Polish in Funny Bunny ($20, walmart.com) and soft pale tints of butter yellow and powder blue are alternatives to neutrals like sheer pinks and nudes. Warm reds, spicy oranges, golden pinks and peaches like Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro Nail Color in Peachy Keen ($20, nordstrom.com) are good choices to counteract spots and veins. But don’t ignore bright coastal blues that hint of the sea, turquoise and blue-green aqua shades, and shimmery metallics — all bold polish choices with a fashion-forward vibe.

spinner image Revlon Ultra HD Snap Nail Polish in She’s on Fire; Sally Hansen Good. Kind. Pure. Nail Polish in Crystal Blue; Burt’s Bees Cuticle Cream; Nails Inc. Plant Power Vegan Nail Polish in Soul Surfing; Londontown Lakur Nail Polish in Camden Chic; Olive & June Nail Polish in Lava
Left to right: Revlon Ultra HD Snap Nail Polish in She’s on Fire ($6, amazon.com); Sally Hansen Good. Kind. Pure. Nail Polish in Crystal Blue ($10, ulta.com); Burt’s Bees Cuticle Cream ($6, target.com); Nails Inc. Plant Power Vegan Nail Polish in Soul Surfing ($10, target.com); Londontown Lakur Nail Polish in Camden Chic ($16, amazon.com); Olive & June Nail Polish in Lava ($10, walgreens.com)
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Meiko Takechi Arquillos)

6. Worried about maintaining nail health.

Nail techs are not the only ones charged with keeping your nails perky — ultimately, it’s up to you. Thinning, peeling, cracking, splits and breakage are a signal to take a break from all long-wear polish and lengthening procedures. Incorrect application or removal of gels, dip and extensions and improperly cut cuticles can happen at any salon (even the most expensive ones!), and damage is sometimes hidden under the most dazzling colors. Resist the urge to keep on “doing” nails and start a routine of pampering at-home treatments to restore hydration, strength and health. You might want to try nontoxic regular polish instead of opting for long-wear gels. Clean polish brands are specifically labeled as vegan, like Nails Inc. Plant Power Long Wear Vegan Nail Polish in Soul Surfing ($10, target.com), or “-free,” meaning they are minus potentially harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde, toluene and dibutyl phthalate (the big three), though you’ll see 7-, 17- or 16-free, like Sally Hansen Good. Kind. Pure. Nail Polish in Crystal Blue ($10, ulta.com), and even 21-free. Mainstream brands like Essie, Sally Hansen, Revlon and OPI have “clean” polish options. Keep nails healthy by massaging nail beds and cuticles with oils and creams like Burt’s Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream ($6, target.com) daily. When you do resume salon manicures, be sure to ask that cuticles be pushed back and not cut, and apply sunscreen to the backs of your hands before a manicure if you do use UV light for gels. See your physician and avoid manicures if you have an allergic reaction, any sort of infection (from bacterial to fungal), swelling of hands or fingers, or cuts or abrasions (especially if diabetic), or if you are having in-hospital surgery. Your true nail bed color during and after surgery gives doctors and nurses an indication of healthy circulation.

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