Nail Polish: Gel vs. Regular


This article explains the difference between a regular nail polish and a gel nail polish.

Fundamental Difference

The fundamental factor in gel  vs. regular nail polish is very different chemical compositions. It is this difference that lends them their distinctive characteristics.

Composition Difference

The main ingredient in a regular nail polish (apart from a host of other additives like resins, plasticizers, pigments, etc.) is nitrocellulose (a film-forming compound) dissolved in a volatile organic solvent (butyl acetate or ethyl acetate).

On the other hand, the main ingredient in a gel nail polish (apart from a number of additives) is an oligomer–photoinitiator combination in an organic solvent.

An oligomer is nothing but a molecular complex comprised of many individual monomers. The commonly used oligomer in gel nail polish is methacrylate, which polymerizes easily when exposed to UV light.

Difference in the coating formation process


A regular nail polish forms a coating on the nails when the volatile solvent evaporates, leaving behind a dry nitrocellulose film.

On the other hand, a gel nail polish coating is formed when the methacrylate oligomer undergoes the polymerization process on exposure to UV light, leaving a solid polymethacrylate film.

The oligomer commonly used in gel nail polish is methacrylate

The intent here is not to go into the nitty-gritty of their chemistry, but to discuss how this difference in their chemical formulation affects their performance and application in actual practice.


Major differences from the perspective of the end-user

A regular nail polish and a gel nail polish differ in every aspect, be it their durability, appearance, application as well as removal procedure, cost, pros and cons, or the final finish they lend to nails.

  • Durability: The most striking difference between a regular nail polish and a gel nail polish is in their durability.

Whereas a regular nail polish starts chipping or peeling within 2 or 3 days of application, a gel nail polish can stay flawless and chip-free for as long 14 days, with little or no maintenance.

  • Application procedure:  The basic steps remain the same for both: one clear base coat to prepare the nail surface for nail polish application, then 2 coats of nail polish to impart the color, and the final clear top coat to seal the nail polish. The difference sets in when it comes to the process of drying.

A regular nail polish will dry on its own, or under a hand dryer, but can take as long as 15 minutes, or much longer, depending upon the ambient temperature and humidity. That multiplied by the total number of coats makes the application procedure painfully long.

A gel nail polish, on the other hand, dries up very fast, but necessarily requires curing (in other words, setting and hardening) under a UV lamp after each coat. Some makes may require an LED lamp instead for curing.

A gel polish will not dry on its own because it contains a light-sensitive polymer that needs curing in order to form a layer. The curing time can vary from 30 sec to 2 or 3 minutes.

  • Appearance: Due to the long drying period of regular nail polish, the final finish more often than not falls short of the perfect.

This is because during the long drying period there is always a likelihood of some smudge, dent, or imperfection setting in.

In the case of gel nail polish, the final finish is always, without fail, perfect and salon-quality. And it stays the same for 14 days, with shine intact.

  • Consistency: Regular nail polish and gel nail polish have markedly different consistencies. A gel nail polish is a rather viscous fluid, whereas a regular nail polish is like a thin emulsion.
  • Container bottle: A regular nail polish comes in a transparent bottle where one can see its color.

A gel nail polish, on the other hand, comes in a dark-colored opaque bottle to protect it from light (sunlight too has a UV component) in order to preserve its consistency and prolong its shelf life.

  • Removal process: A regular nail polish can be easily removed using a nail polish remover. However, the long-durability advantage of gel nail polish turns into a drawback when it comes to removing it. The nails (hence, the fingertips) need to be immersed in acetone for 5 to 10 minutes to soften the nail polish before removal. One can also use specially designed acetone wraps to do the same.
  • Cost: Since gel nail polish application requires special UV or LED lamps, it is best done professionally in a salon, and hence always turns out be heavier on pocket compared to regular nail polish.
  • Pros and cons: Long durability, fast application procedure, and salon-quality finish are the advantages of gel nail polish. Higher cost and long removal process are the cons.

Hence, gel nail polish is the ideal option for the busy working women with little time on their hands. And also for women whose work involves extensive use of fingers, such as typists.

Low cost, ease of removal, and the possibility of easy do-at-home application, without requiring a UV or LED lamp, are the advantages of a regular nail polish. Short durability and long drying times are the cons.

These factors make a regular nail polish the ideal choice for the not-so-busy younger generation who want to experiment with different nail colors every other day, or want to color-match their nail polish with their dress.

This was all about the gel vs. regular nail polish.



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