Builder gel and acrylic powder are among the most common artificial nail options. But they’re different in many ways and therefore suited to different occasions. Also, the prices differ.
So, which one should you choose the next time you get a mani-pedi? This guide compares the two to help you make an informed choice.
Acrylic Nails vs. Builder Gel: Which is Better?
Acrylic nails and builder gels are both exceptional choices. The “best” option depends on the occasion and personal preferences. Generally, builder gels are more stylish and flexible. But they are difficult to apply. Also, gels are expensive.
Meanwhile, acrylic nails are stronger and more durable. But they’re difficult to remove and damage the nails more.
What is Builder Gel?
Builder gel is a type of gel nail manicure. The main difference is that builder gel is thicker than regular gel nails.
Traditionally, the term “gel” refers to regular gel nails used in UV-cured nail products, ranging from 25,000 centipoises (for soft gel) to 100,000 centipoises (for hard gels). Centiposise is a unit of viscosity, with one centipoise equivalent to a newton-second per square meter.
Builder gel is much more viscous at 350,000 centipoises (for soft builder gel) up to 1,000,000 centipoises (for hard builder gels). Thus builder gels are better for creating thicker nails. Many nail techs also prefer builder gel for arches and C-curves.
Builder gels are also stronger than regular gel and gel, making them ideal for gel extensions or enhancements.
Builder Gel Nail Properties
There are many things to like about builder gels. For instance, builder gel nails last up to three weeks with good maintenance. That’s 1-2 weeks more than a regular gel manicure.
We also love that you can fill in builder gel like acrylic nails. Alternatively, you can remove the old set and apply a new one in one sitting.
Many gel lovers also wonder if you need a base coat for builder gel. It depends on the builder gel brand. Some brands demand a primer or base coat, while other builder gels go straight on the nail without a builder coat.
The application method varies depending on whether you apply it to the natural nail only or use nail extensions.
You can easily build up the desired thickness and shape for natural nails with several gel coats, allowing previous coats to cure before applying the next one. However, apply the tip or nail form before applying the gel if using extensions.
Applying Builder Gel Nails
The following is a basic guide to installing builder gel manicures on healthy natural nails;
- Prep the nail: Clean, file, and buff the nails. Also, trim and push back the cuticles if necessary.
- Apply the primer or base coat: This step is only necessary if the builder gel manufacturer says so. Cure the primer coat under a nail lamp.
- Apply builder gel: You can paint the gel if it’s bottled. Alternatively, use a nail brush for potted gels. Cover the free edge properly but keep off the cuticles. Then allow the gel to self-level.
- Finishing touches: Cure the gel under UV or LED light. Then apply a second gel coat if needed and let it cure again. Then clean the nail with isopropyl alcohol and a lint-free cloth and apply a top coat (optional) and cuticle oil.
Pros and Cons of Builder Gels
- Highly flexible
- Easy to apply
- The curing process requires UV or LED light.
- Builder gel is less durable than acrylic.
What are Acrylic Nails?
Acrylics are durable, extra-hard artificial nails adored for their longevity and cost-effectiveness. In addition, you can customize the nails to any shape, color, or nail art.
Acrylic nails are composed of polymer powder and liquid monomer. Mixing the two ingredients produces a putty-like material that the nail technician molds onto the natural nail or an extension, creating a durable coating when fully dried.
Then the nail tech files the artificial nail into the desired shape and length and finishes by applying nail polish and desired nail art.
Acrylic Nail Properties
Acrylic nails are unique in many ways. First, acrylic nails contain many components besides acrylic powder and liquid monomers.
For instance, all acrylic nail formulas contain catalysts (to accelerate the drying/hardening process) and inhibitors (to slow down the hardening process).
The catalyst-inhibitor ratio determines how fast your acrylic nails will dry. For instance, fast-setting acrylics contain more catalysts.
Additionally, some acrylic nails contain UV absorbers (to minimize fading or color change), flow modifiers (to reduce brush strokes and ensure self-leveling), and colorants or dyes to add color to the acrylic nails.
It’s also important to note that acrylic nails require a primer to facilitate bonding. However, acrylic nail primers vary.
Acid-based primers, known as etching primers, contain methacrylic acid, forming exceptionally strong covalent bonds between the nail and acrylics.
However, it dissolves a thin layer of the healthy nail. Therefore, some clients prefer mild-acid or acid-free primers.
Also known as non-etching primers, these products offer a slightly weaker bond but are non-corrosive. You may use a pre-primer before the primer.
Other acrylic nail properties depend on whether it’s an ethyl methacrylate (EMA) or methyl methacrylate (MMA) acrylic. MMA nails are extra-hard but don’t soak off in acetone.
So, you must file them off. Also, MMA acrylics adhere so strongly that you may tear the natural nail during removal.
Therefore, many nail salons recommend EMA acrylics. Though slightly less durable, they are easier to wash off with acetone.
Acrylic Nail Application
Acrylic nail application is a quick, simple process as follows;
- Prep the nail: Clean the nail with a nail bed cleanser to remove oils and dirt. The cleaners also prevent bacterial infection. Then trim the nail to the desired length and buff it to remove leftover dirt.
- Apply nail primer: Use a nail brush to apply a thin layer evenly over the nail. Then wait a few minutes for it to dry. It air-dries without LED or UV lamps.
- Apply the resin: This detailed process starts with mixing acrylic liquid with acrylic powder. Next, the technician applies a nail-shaped form (or tip) over the fingertip to hold the resin. Finally, the tech applies the resin, shapes it, and allows it to cure.
- Finishing up: After the acrylics dry, file them to the desired shape. Then seal it with regular nail polish and add art if you wish.
Pros and Cons of Acrylic Nails
- Fast setting
- They look natural
- Long-lasting (they can last 8+ weeks)
- Multiple textures and design options
- Prolonged use can weaken your nails
- They are rigid (not flexible)
- They are difficult to remove
Gel Nails vs. Acrylic Nails: Head-to-Head Comparison
Hopefully, you can pick out a few similarities and differences between builder gel and acrylic nails. Nonetheless, below is a head-to-head comparison to make selection easier.
1. Nail Prepping
Both gel and acrylic nails require extensive nail prepping to enable a strong, durable bond and prevent water and moisture from seeping between the real and artificial nails. Proper prepping also prevents damage to the natural nail bed.
However, the priming products and processes are different. Priming builder gels involves applying a bonding agent and a base coat to bind the gel to the natural nail. Then, wait for the primer to dry before applying gel polish.
On the other hand, you need an etching or non-etching primer for acrylic nails. Also, you may or may not need to wait for the primer to set before applying acrylic nails.
2. Curing Process
There’s a major difference between acrylic and gel nail curing processes. First, all gel nails, including soft gel, hard gel, and builder gel, require UV light or an LED lamp to cure.
This is because gel nails don’t air-dry. Unfortunately, oxygen often gets in the way, stopping the gel molecules from binding and hardening.
However, gel nails cure exceptionally fast, typically within 60 seconds under an LED lamp and 1-2 minutes under a UV lamp.
Meanwhile, you don’t need UV light or LED lamps to cure acrylic nails. Instead, mixing the acrylic powder and liquid triggers a chemical reaction that causes the substance to harden when exposed to the air. The curing process takes 10-15 minutes.
3. Strength and Durability
All gel nails cure to a hard substance after a few minutes. However, builder gel is slightly harder than regular gel. Also, gel nails are more flexible, similar to natural nails. They can bend slightly without cracking or breaking.
On the other hand, acrylic is stronger. Indeed, acrylic nails are the strongest artificial nails, tougher than hard gel. But they are super rigid. A slight bend almost always caused cracking and breaking.
That said, acrylic nails are more resistant to scratches and dents. So, they’re a better fit for heavy lifting duties.
The medium strength of gel nails makes them relatively long-lasting. But you should consider other alternatives if longevity is top of your priorities. That’s because even the best builder gel lasts 3-4 weeks. The nails begin to come off naturally beyond that point.
Acrylic nails are much more durable, depending on the product and installation quality. For instance, some acrylic nails last up to two months (eight weeks). Even regular-quality acrylic nails last at least four weeks.
That said, quality matters greatly. For instance, quality gel nails last longer than cheap acrylics. Also, the quality of installation is critical. Professionally installed artificial nails last longer than DIYs.
5. The Removal Process
Builder gel is easy to clear as the material is 100% removable through acetone soak-off. Pour some acetone into a bowl and soak your gel nails in the solution for 15 minutes. Then scrape off the gel with a cuticle pusher or other gentle tool.
Unfortunately, acrylic nails, especially acid-based products, aren’t as easy to remove. They don’t soak off with acetone. Therefore, you must manually file away the acrylic to restore the natural nail.
So consider acid-free acrylics for easier removal. They soften in acetone, allowing you to scrape off the nails easily.
6. Damage to the Natural Nail
Both gel nails and acrylic manicures can damage your nails. So, you must be extremely careful with the products and the installation and removal processes.
Gel nails are gentler on the nails as they’re more flexible and don’t require aggressive filing to adhere to the nail plate.
However, repeated applications gradually wear down the nail plate, resulting in weak, brittle, and cracked nails. Such nails easily invite bacteria and other nail infections.
Acrylic nails are just as risky. They require more aggressive filing during application and again during removal. Moreover, etching primers consume the top nail surface. So you may notice greater nail damage.
7. Cost and Affordability
This is where acrylic nails win the contest. First, we’ve seen that acrylics are stronger and more durable. But the next thing customers ask is whether they’re affordable. The answer is a big yes. Acrylics are some of the most affordable fake nails.
For instance, available nail industry data shows that the average cost to install a full set of acrylic nails is $22.75, whereas gel nails cost $51.29 on average.
Of course, the exact prices vary slightly depending on location and brand. But generally, gel nails cost about twice as much as acrylic nails.
Also, you must replace gel nails every 2-3 weeks, whereas acrylic nails last 6-8 weeks. This makes acrylic nails even more cost-effective.
8. Ideal Applications
Acrylic and gel nail applications overlap. However, customers often wear them for different reasons.
Gel nails are status nails best suited for occasions and events. They are more elegant and flexible. Also, they are easier to remove and gentler on natural nails.
More importantly, they are expensive, thus associated with wealthier people. Even installation is typically left to experienced nail technicians, who charge more than acrylic nails.
On the other hand, acrylic nails are the workhorses of the artificial nail sector, ideal for everyday use. They are strong and durable, therefore great for hardworking citizens.
Also, they are cheaper. So, you can replace them every month or two without burning a hole in your pocket.
Builder Gel vs Acrylic
Builder gels and acrylic nails are wonderful choices when shopping for artificial nails. Both are more durable and long-lasting than regular gel.
Also, both are easy to apply and remove. However, acrylics are stronger, easier to cure, and more affordable, thus ideal for regular use.
Meanwhile, builder gels are flexible, more natural, and expensive, therefore perfect for special events.