Regular Nail Polish vs Gel: Which is Right for You?

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After years of using regular nail polish and hearing people talk about upgrading to using gel, I started to wonder what exactly is the difference between gel nail polish and regular polish?

I looked into it and it turns out that the main differences are how long the polish lasts for and how durable it is. The time it takes to paint your nails is also very different between the two methods. Gel nails are faster and give a shinier finish but are more difficult to remove. The method of application differs slightly between the two types as you need to use a lamp for gel nails however, with regular polish you can just let them dry in the air.

Let’s look into the different techniques in a little more detail.

Preparing the nails

Whether you are using a regular nail polish or gel nail polish the preparation you need to do for your polish to look good is the same. You should always file your nails first. There are many different shapes you can file your nails into. You can file them square, rounded, almond, coffin squoval and many more. A quick look on Pinterest will show you all the different shapes.

After you have filed your nails, remember to get rid of all the bits by using a nail prep wipe. Don’t use water as this will make your nails expand. Don’t forget to push back your cuticles before you begin your manicure as this will help your nails to last longer.

If your nails have either horizontal or vertical ridges you will also need to buff them for the best results. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a buffing tool. You can easily purchase cheap nail buffers on eBay or Amazon.


Applying regular Polish

Although you don’t need any special equipment to use regular nail polish, it does help if you have a steady hand. You need to apply a base coat first, followed by two coats of polish In the colour of your choice (three if your colour is particularly light) and then a top coat to finish the job. Regular nail polish is fairly easy to apply once you have mastered the three stripe technique.

What is the 3 stripe technique?

Basically what this means is that you start in the centre of the nail at the bottom, paint a stripe upwards towards the tip, then do a another stripe in the same way on either side of the nail. One of the major differences between gel nail polish and regular polish is the time that it takes to dry.

Regular polish can take between 10 and 20 minutes of drying time in between coats. So make sure you give yourself plenty of time if you are using this method.

Also you need to stay quite still and not use your nails for anything while you are waiting for it to dry so this is a great excuse to sit and watch a little netflix or listen to some music.

No touching that phone though! Another top tip is to make sure that you go to the toilet before you start painting your nails!

Applying gel Polish


To apply gel polish you will need a special gel base coat a UV or LED lamp, a gel Polish in your chosen colour and a gel top coat.

There isn’t much difference in the price of Polish between regular and gel, but gel nails are a little more expensive when you consider that you have to buy the lamp as well.

Gel nail polish is a lot thicker than regular nail polish and the application method is a little bit different and can be more tricky.

You need to be really careful not to get any of the polish on your cuticles because when you put the your fingers under the lamp it will harden and be almost impossible to get off.

Gel nail polish needs to be applied in several very thin coats. If you put it on too thick, it will not cure properly.

Getting this right can be tricky because gel nail polishes are at quite a bit thicker than regular Polish.

I usually apply four coats of polish (just the colour, not including the top and base coat) when using a gel polish.

Gel polishes show every little lump and bump on your nail so it’s really important to make sure that you get rid of all the bits after you file when you’re using gel. Also, you need to cap the top of the nail while you’re polishing just like you would with a regular polish.

Let’s go through the gel application
process from start to finish

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Once your nails are filed and buffed, you start by wiping your nails with a nail prep solution. Isopropyl alcohol or rubbing alcohol is much cheaper and is exactly the same as the products that are advertised specifically for nail prep. Use a lint free piece of material to prep so you don’t gets bits of fabric fibers on your nails.

Apply one layer of base coat and cure under your lamp. Then, apply four thin coats of colour (curing after each coat) and then finish off with a gel top coat. The length of time you cure your nails for will depend on the settings on your lamp.

Some lamps are quicker than others and more often than not there will be more than one time option.

My lamp for example has a 15 second, a 30 second and a 1 minute curing time option.
I like to use the 30 second option as I find that that gives me the best results.

Once your gel top coat is cured you will need to use the same prep wipe (rubbing alcohol) to wipe off the sticky top layer. Don’t touch your nails in between coats as they will be a little tacky. Your nails will now be rock hard and ready to go! You may want to use a cuticle oil at this point but you don’t have to.

Removing regular Polish

Removing regular polish is very quick and easy. You will need some nail varnish remover and some cotton balls or pads. Place a soft cotton pad over your nail and let it stay there for 30 seconds or so, then gently wipe the polish off.

You can use the same pad for multiple nails and you can probably do your whole hand with just one pad or cotton ball. 

Once I have removed my nail polish I like to file my nails back down a little again.

You may want to use a hand cream or apply cuticle oil after removing nail polish as it can dry out your nails.

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Removing gel Polish

Removing gel polish is a little more difficult and can damage your nails if not done properly, but don’t let that put you off as it is definitely worth it.

You will need some gel polish remover. A good tip is that you don’t need to buy a product that is advertised as a gel remover. Most gel removers are just acetone mixed with fragrance, so I just buy acetone and it works perfectly and is much cheaper.

Soak cotton balls or pads in acetone and place them on your nails. You’ll need something to hold them on. You can buy special clips designed for this that are very inexpensive or alternatively you can make a little wrap for each finger using tin foil.

You’ll need to soak them for at least 15 minutes, then take a scraping tool (this can be a wooden orange stick or a metal nail scraper) and very gently scrape off the Polish.

If you have soaked your nails for long enough then the polish should come off fairly easily.

If it isn’t coming off well enough then soak your nails again for another 15 minutes and repeat the process.

Don’t be tempted to peel off your gel nail polish, it may seem easier at first but it will damage your nails!

How long does regular polish last?

If you paint your nails well and cap them as I have described above, regular polish can last up to a week. I have never had regular polish last longer than one week and that’s when I’m being really careful. Usually I would get 4 days out of a regular manicure. This is the downside with regular polish, it’s easier to take off but it doesn’t last nearly as long as gel nails.

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How long do gel nails last?

Most manufacturers will tell you that gel nails will last you up to three weeks. However, in my experience this is unrealistic. Yes, it’s true that they don’t chip as easily as regular nail polish but you can still chip them so please don’t use your nails as tools.

Check out our guide on how to make your gel polish last longer

As a minimum, your gel nails should last at least a week. A week to two weeks is a realistic expectation. I often find that I get bored of my nails and want to change them before they actually need doing again!

So now you know everything there is to know about the difference between gel nail polish and regular nail polish, want to know more about gel polish? check out this guide here. Happy painting!


  • Phoebe Meadows

    Phoebe Meadows is a self-proclaimed nail addict, always on the lookout for the latest trends and techniques. When she's not creating stunning nail designs, you can find her researching the latest nail care products or experimenting with new techniques.