Everything You Should Know About Shellac Nails and Other Gel Manicures

Contemplating your first Shellac manicure? Here's everything you should consider.

hands with gel nail polish manicure
Photo: honey_and_milk/Getty Images

Once you've had a taste of gel nail polish, it's hard to go back to regular paint. A manicure with no dry time that won't chip for weeks is hard to give up. Luckily, virtually every nail salon offers some form of gel manicure nowadays, so you'll never have to settle.

One of the most popular gel systems is CND Shellac–you've probably seen it around if you're a salon hopper. At this point, it's so popular that some people use the term "Shellac" when referring to gel manis in general. Curious how Shellac compares to other gel systems and whether it's worth seeking out? Here's the full story.

What is Shellac nail polish?

Before we get into Shellac, you should understand gel manicures. They involve a multi-step process: A base and color coats are followed by a top coat, and the coats are cured with a UV light between each layer. This all adds up to a paint job that's superior to traditional manicures in several ways: they're glossier, last two weeks or longer without chipping, and don't have any dry time.

All of the above is true for CND's Shellac gel manicure system. However, it brushes on like regular nail polish more so than other gel options, according to CND Co-Founder and Style Director Jan Arnold. It also has a notably extensive shade range; Salons can choose from over 100 Shellac nail colors.

The most noticeable difference between CND Shellac nail polish and other gel options is how easily it removes, Arnold says. "The Shellac formula was created so that when acetone-based removers are applied, the coating actually breaks into tiny pieces and releases from the nail, allowing for an effortless removal," she explains. "When correctly applied and cured, tiny microscopic tunnels form throughout the coating and when it's time to remove, the acetone penetrates through these tiny tunnels, all the way to the base layer and then releases from the nail. This means no scraping and forcing the coating from the nails like other gel polishes, preserving the health and integrity of the nail underneath."

The major downside to Shellac and other gels is that they entail exposing your skin to UV light. Repeated UV exposure is a major risk factor for non-melanoma skin cancer. If you decide you still want to go through with a gel manicure, you can cut the fingers out of gloves with UV protection, or buy a pair specifically designed for wearing to appointments, like ManiGlovz (Buy It, $24, amazon.com). In addition, some people experience allergic reactions to some common ingredients in the polishes used for gel manicures.

What is Shellac for nails made of?

CND Shellac's name is inspired by the glossy sheen of shellac, but the polish formulas don't contain actual shellac. Like other gel nail polishes, CND Shellac contains monomers (small molecules) and polymers (chains of monomers) which link up when exposed to UV light. CND has full ingredient lists for its base, color, and top coats on its website. (

How to Remove Shellac Nail Polish at Home

Some gel systems are sold as at-home options, but Shellac is salon-only, so if you want to try it out, your first step should be Googling "Shellac nails near me." A little DIY can help with maintenance though. Arnold recommends applying a nail and cuticle oil daily to keep the coating and keratin of your nails "working as one." (

Removal can also be an at-home venture. "We highly recommend professional removal, but in a pinch, it is possible to remove Shellac at home," says Arnold.

Disclaimer: Improper removal can wreak havoc. "It is important to know that the nail plate consists of layers of dead keratin–incorrect removal can damage the nail keratin through mechanical force such as prying or peeling, chipping it away, scratching it off, nail filing it off," Arnold says. "This aggressive mechanical force is what will weaken the nail structure."

With that in mind, if you decide you want to attempt to gently removing your Shellac at home, take the following steps:

  1. Completely saturate cotton pads with CND Offly Fast remover, place one on each nail, and wrap each tightly in aluminum foil.
  2. Leave the wraps on for 10 minutes, then press and twist wrap off.
  3. Clean nails with remover one more time.
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