(The Nail File)

A Complete Guide To The 8 Most Popular Manicures On Salon Menus

Plus, how to choose the right one.

Originally Published: 
Different types of manicures

A trip to the nail salon used to be simple — between selecting a polish color (or two if you were feeling bold), deciding if airbrushed acrylics fit your lifestyle, or mulling over service upgrades like a paraffin wax treatment or adding on a pedicure. But the beauty industry has grown in every aspect. From in-demand hair colors to varying facial treatments, every lane — including manicure options — is seemingly endless. Today, going to the nail salon, while still a pleasure, requires putting a lot of thought into choosing the manicure type that’s right for you.

While the salon menus are lot bigger, most offer eight leading manicure styles: basic, hard gel, Shellac (soft gel), acrylic extensions, gel extensions, dip powder (SNS), sculpted, and polygel. Both gel manicures and dip powder are beloved for their high shine and chip-resistant finish. However, the two techniques couldn't be more different, making the choice even more discerning.

“Thinking about your weekly activities is a good place to start when considering which type of manicure to get,” says celebrity nail tech and salon owner Candice Idehen. From there, understanding what each service entails will help narrow down the selection process.

Ahead, Idehen, along with celebrity manicurist Julie Kandalec and celebrity nail artist Natalie Minerva, shed light on the most common types of manicures, including the application process, average cost, and more.

Basic Manicure

What It Is: The basic manicure puts the care of the natural nail first and uses a lacquer that can be taken off with regular polish remover.

How It’s Applied: The simplest option on the salon menu, this process includes removing any old polish, shaping, cuticle maintenance, application of a base coat, two coats of color, and a top coat. The main purpose of this service is grooming so Kandalec says there is a strong emphasis on the health of nail plate which is gently buffed before the polish is applied.

How Long It Lasts: Since this service is done with regular polish, it isn’t meant for long wear and typically lasts between three to seven days.

Average Price: $15-$40

Pro Tip: To extend the life of your manicure, dehydrate the nail by either asking for a waterless service or ask an alcohol pad be used to remove any oils before painting on the color of your choice.

Hard Gel Manicure

What It Is: A hard gel manicure uses a UV or LED light to cure the gel polish to the nail, which results in a high-shine finish that is long-lasting and perfect for intricate nail art and designs. However, this also means it can not be removed with standard remover and must be soaked off with acetone instead. “Hard gel is inflexible, which is helpful for people who want a stronger nail that does not bend or break,” says Idehen.

How It’s Applied: The process is much more involved so you should be prepared to spend more time in the salon. “To start, the gel coating is brushed on and manipulated into place before the LED curing which usually lasts one to two minutes per layer,” says Kandalec. The curing process hardens each layer of polish to the nail (including the base and top coats), sealing it so that it withstands chips and scrapes.

How Long It Lasts: The recommended lifespan is up to three to four weeks. However, if you’d like to keep the same style you can book a gel rebalance appointment (a fill-in service similar to that for acrylics) to back fill the portion of the nail that has grown out.

Average Price: $40-$75

Shellac (Soft Gel)

What It Is: While soft gel and Shellac manicures are essentially the same services, the difference lies in the polish. Shellac is the brand name of CND’s gel formula, the first company to create and trademark this type of polish. The consistency of this category of polish is porous and can be removed with acetone or acetone-based remover.

How It’s Applied: The process is similar to a basic manicure, except a soft gel manicure involves applying a base coat, two coats of gel polish, and a top coat, each of which needs to be cured under a UV or LED light.

How Long It Lasts: Shellac can last two to three weeks, but as Idehen notes, “in order to maintain healthy nails it’s recommended not to exceed more than 21 days.”

Average Price: $45-60

Acrylic Extensions

What It Is: Arguably the most well-known extension technique, acrylics use a mixture of a liquid monomer and a powder polymer with lengthening tips to create a hard and very durable layer. With such a strong coating, these will need to be soaked with acetone to break down the covering before buffing it off completely.

How It’s Done: After securing the tips with glue, a brush (usually made of Kolinsky sable) is first dipped into the liquid and then the powder to create a bead of product that is applied at the base of the nail and patted into place. Once fully hardened, an electric filer is used to shape and smooth the extension before polish and nail art is added.

How Long It Lasts: Acrylics can last up to four weeks but need to be filled in as the nail begins to grow out.

Average Price: $40-$85

Pro Tip: Both Kandalec and Minerva agree that quality products are key to preserving your nails when getting acrylics, stating that methyl methacrylate (MMA) — a common monomer liquid used for this service — can be damaging to the nails. “Ethyl methacrylate (EMA) is the safer option, so check with the salon to see which they provide before having the service,” Kandalec says.

Once the acrylics have been removed be sure to keep your nails hydrated and moisturized with cuticle oils containing vitamin E as this will help replenish them and restore their brittle condition.

Gel Extensions

What It Is: An easy way to add length to your look, these tips are made of pre-cured gel and applied in a similar fashion to a standard gel manicure.

How It’s Done: Extender gel, specifically made for this technique, is brushed onto a prepped, dry nail, then cured under the UV or LED lamp. Once adhered, the process follows the same steps as the hard gel manicure.

How Long It Lasts: Thanks to a hardening top coat, this manicure can last up to four weeks.

Average Price: $60-$150

Pro Tip: If DIY-ing at home, “File the underside of the extensions to add some traction before securing it to your nail as this will allow for a longer lasting set,” says Minerva.

Dip Powder (SNS)

What It Is: Short for Signature Nail System, SNS (commonly called dip powder) is a durable finish that uses colored powders applied in a series of layers.

How It’s Done: After the nails have been shaped and prepped, a resin adhesive is brushed on before the nail is covered with a pigmented polymer powder. These steps are then repeated until the desired tint is achieved. When ready to be removed, dip powder is also soaked off with acteone.

How Long It Lasts: The SNS process also adds a strengthening layer which can last up to three weeks but should be removed and reapplied as natural nails grow out.

Average Price: $60-$100

Pro Tip: “Despite the ‘dip’ nickname, it’s best to have the SNS sprinkled onto the nail for sanitary reasons as opposed to dipping fingers into polymer containers used on other customers,” says Kandalec.


What It Is: Designed to add length and shape, sculpted nails are created with builder gel by the technician before being adhered to the natural nail.

How It’s Done: Idehen tells TZR that the forms are used to shape the extension either underneath a typical faux tip or at the free edge of the natural nail. Once the desired shape and length is reached, the form is removed and the remaining extension is filed and primed for gel polish.

How Long It Lasts: This service lasts three to four weeks and requires a fill-in or a re-balance service to freshen up the set.

Average Price: $80-$150

Pro Tip: “With this technique, make sure to start sculpting the extension with a proper ‘C-curve’ based on round shape of the natural nail’s free edge,” says Minerva. The curve is formed by applying pressure to the sides of the extension and molding it into a C-shape. “This is critical for the manicure to last and preventing damage to your natural nails.”


What It Is: Also known as “acrygel,” this manicure style is composed with a clay-like thick gel that is shaped directly onto the nail.

How It’s Done: Once the gel is in place, it’s patted down and molded with a slip liquid and then smoothed with a brush. Next it’s cured under a UV or LED lamp and filed into the desired shape.

How Long It Lasts: Because polygel is hardened with the lamp, it can last three to four weeks. However, it but should be redone after three weeks to prevent it from breaking.

Average Price: $80-$150

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