SNS, shellac or gels? Nail tips to find your perfect finish

With so many nail finishes on the market, it can be tricky choosing the right one. We put three of the best under the spotlight to help you nail your next polish.

It’s no secret that nail care has become a booming, billion-dollar industry, with the market predicted to reach $11.6 billion in the US by 2027.

While glamorous, professional nails are increasingly popular, the abundance of polish formulations to choose from can be intimidating and confusing.

Among the most popular are gels, shellac and SNS, all of which have their pros and cons – here’s what you need to know about each.

SNS nails

What are SNS nails?

Short for Signature Nail System, SNS is a patented nail powder dipping system and is long-lasting due to its durable finish.

“SNS essentially involves a nail powder and a brush on adhesive such as glue, layered on, much like an acrylic formulation,” nail artist and educator and owner of Mani Candie Lynda Taing says.

How long do SNS nails last for?

Nail technician Jessica Kidner says SNS nails can last two to three weeks.

“They are harder than gel and more like acrylic nails when it comes to strength and durability,” the Beauty CEO HQ mentor and educator says.

“It can take a professional up to 60 minutes to apply each time.”

How do I remove SNS nails?

Jessica highly recommends seeking professional help when removing any nail product.

“To break down the product, you would need to file off the topcoat and make the product as thin as possible without filing your natural nail,” she explains.

“Then, you apply a small section of cotton wool soaked in pure acetone wrapped in foil for 10 minutes to break down the product and remove any leftovers with a cuticle stick.

“You should always apply cuticle oil after you have finished.”

Gel nails

What are gel nails?

Gel-based polishes are an all-encompassing term to describe formulations that require a UV or LED light to set or “cure” a polish and lock the formula on to your nails.

Within this type of nail finish, there are two subtypes – soft gels and hard gels.

“Soft gels can be soaked off with pure acetone, whereas hard gels can only be filed off and are generally used to create a nail extension,” Lynda explains.

“Personally, I use a gel extension, which is a full cover, pre-made tip applied over the entire nail with gel to create instant length.”

Lynda also uses a builder gel, a specific type of soft gel also referred to as a BIAB manicure.

“Builder gels are a thicker viscosity soft gel that allow you to build an apex on the natural nail, giving it extra strength and proper structure,” she says.

A newer subtype of gels gaining popularity is polygel, a hybrid formula that sits somewhere between a hard gel and an acrylic.

Although it’s still cured with UV light, it’s not as thick as an acrylic or traditional gel and is buffed off rather than soaked off.

How long do gel nails last?

Jessica says gel nails can last up to four weeks.

“This depends on the type of gel, the skill level of the technician and the way you wear your nails,” she says.

How do I remove gel nail polish?

“Depending on what type of gel you have had applied, you can remove it at home,” Jessica explains.

Jessica recommends filing down most of the top coat before applying a cotton wool pad soaked in acetone remover for 10 minutes.

“Then, take off one wrap at a time and gently push off the product with an orange wood stick and gently buff the nails with a soft buffer before applying cuticle oil,” she says.

“Soft gel is a lot easier to soak off than any other product. However, hard gel can’t be soaked off and this product needs to be filed down, which is easy to do with an e-file.”

Shellac nails

What are shellac nails?

The process of shellac nails involves the use of a special in-salon nail polish formula that is best described as a halfway mark between traditional nail polish and a nail gel formulation.

According to Lynda, the process of shellac is similar to a traditional gel polish manicure in that it requires a UV or LED lamp to dry or “cure” the gel.

How long do shellac nails last?

“Shellac nails typically last two weeks with high shine and no scratches,” Jessica says.

How do I remove shellac nail polish?

It is advisable to visit a nail salon to remove the polish and ensure your nails aren’t damaged.

If you try to remove it at home, Jessica advises it is important to soak your nails.

“The process is filing the top coat off, applying an acetone or gel polish to remove the product and soaking for up to 10 minutes,” she says.

Shellac v gel v SNS: Which is best?

Nail art is subjective and unsurprisingly so is the preferred formulation.

Ultimately the best nail formulation comes down to personal preference and what kind of nail art or design you’re after; for instance, French manicures are easier to achieve with shellac versus SNS.

“It depends on many factors, including the technician or artist,” Lynda says.

Which manicure offers the best look?

“The boom of BIAB gel nails is a lot more natural and has better durability than SNS or traditional acrylic nails,” Jessica says.

“My clients love the lightweight feeling and the clean girl aesthetic of the gel product, which can come in many different tones to match different styles and skin tones.”

Which manicure causes less damage?

When it comes to keeping your natural nails safe, Jessica says any of these nail enhancements can cause damage if removed incorrectly.

“If you need to remove them, you should always seek a professional opinion and ensure you follow the steps to removing them safely,” she advises.

“Never pull any product off your nails, including shellac polish, even if it lifts a little as it will tear the nail plate as you pull it off.”

For more on nail care and trendy polishes:

Originally written by Charlotte Brundrett, February 2022. Updated by Melissa Hong, February 2024.