What are gel nail extensions?

gel nail extensions

The beauty world is super excited over the newfound popularity of gel nail extensions. But if you’ve never had them, you might be confused.

What are they? Are they the same as press-on nails? Are they better than acrylic nails? 

Spoiler Alert: They’re amazing. No, they’re not the same. Yes, they are better. 

If you want to know why, take a deep dive with us into gel nail extensions.

What are gel nail extensions?

When people think of gel nail extensions, they may picture different things. But here’s a quick breakdown of what we mean when we say “gel nail extension” — 

Gel nail extensions are pre-shaped nail forms that are attached to the top of your natural nail using builder gel and an LED nail lamp

what are gel nail extensions

Quick facts about gel nail extensions


To use gel nail extensions, there should be some length to your natural nail. The nail form won’t stick very well if your natural nail doesn’t extend past your finger tip.


Many established brands offer a variety of pre-shaped nail forms with their gel nail extension kit — including lengths (short, medium, and long) and shapes (coffin, stiletto, almond, and square).


You need an LED nail lamp to properly attach the nail form to your natural nail. Without a lamp, the gel won’t harden, and the form will slide right off. (Most kits include an LED lamp, so don’t worry if you don’t have one yet.)

Press-on Nails 

Gel nail extensions are not the same as press-on nails. 

Gel nail extensions attach to your nails for a few weeks with cured builder gel. Press-on nails attach to your nails for a day or two with nail glue. 

Press-on nails are typically made from plastic with a gel or acrylic overlay. Gel nail forms are made out of gel.

Gel Nails

Gel nails and gel nail extensions are also not the same thing. When someone says they got gel nails at the salon, this means nothing more than gel nail polish. Gel nail extensions involve a nail form that physically attaches to and extends your nails. 


PolyGels (or Poly Nails) are sometimes lumped into the gel nail extension category. However, even though these nail enhancements involve a gel solution (and are technically gel extensions), they do not involve pre-shaped nail forms. 

Rather than working with a pre-shaped nail form, you have to mold the nail yourself using a gel solution and a plastic or paper mold (you can also lay it over a nail tip). This process is more difficult to master and can take more time to complete.

showcasing different versions of fake nails, acrylic nails, and gel nails

What are the benefits of gel nail extensions? 

Gel nail extensions are really easy to work with. In fact, they’re so easy to work with that they’re often recommended for DIY home manicures. 

Aside from some minimal filing post-application, you don’t have to deal with extensive molding or shaping. That part is already done for you. The only thing you really have to worry about is making sure you get the forms attached straight and securely.

And since these extensions are so easy to apply and most of the hard work is already done for you, it’s a much faster process (more on this later). 

Other benefits of gel nail extensions include:

  • Lightweight 
  • Long-lasting
  • Fast removal process
  • Not bad for your natural nails

Dip powder is also a great at-home option. Here’s everything you need to do dip nails at home.

How are gel nail extensions applied?

  • Step 1: Use an e-file or 100 grit hand file to remove the shine from the top of your natural nail.
  • Step 2: Find the nail forms that best fit your natural nails. Remove the shine from the underside of your nail forms with an e-file or 100 grit hand file. 
  • Step 3: Apply the base coat and primer to your natural nail.
  • Step 4: Apply a layer of builder gel to your natural nail. Cure it for 30 seconds.
  • Step 5: Apply a layer of builder gel to the underside of your nail form.
  • Step 6: Press the form onto your natural nail and make sure there are no bubbles. Cure for 60 seconds.
  • Step 7: File the sides (if necessary) and buff the top of the nail.
  • Step 8: Finish off the application process with polish!

how to apply gel nail extensions step by step

The majority of gel nail extensions are part of a complete starter kit. This means you should receive all the products you need to complete a set (this includes the LED light). If you eventually run out of the polishes or nail forms, you can reorder them separately online.

What’s the difference between gel extensions and acrylic nails?

There are a handful of differences between gel nail extensions and acrylic nails. Let’s take a look at 3 important differences.

  1. Acrylic nails require liquid monomer, powder, and careful sculpting. Gel extensions require a nail form, builder gel, and LED light. While the end results ultimately look similar, the application processes are very different. Acrylic definitely takes much more skill and time.
  2. Gel nail extensions are typically more flexible than acrylic nails. This means you should experience less pain when they’re bumped or pulled on.
  3. Gel nail extensions don’t smell as strong as acrylic nails do. So if the odor of monomer and acrylic powder bugs you, gel nail extensions are a good option for you.

Where to get gel nail extensions?

If you’re interested in gel nail extensions, then you have two options: the salon or yourself. 

Keep in mind, not all salons offer gel nail extensions. Make sure you give the salon a call beforehand to see if they offer this newer type of nail enhancement. 

(Salons typically upcharge for gel nail extensions, so expect to pay a little more.)

If you want to try gel nail extensions at home, we love that idea, and we’d also love to help. Our Gelly Tip Starter Kit is a complete gel nail extensions kit that can be used by professionals and DIYers.

gel nail extensions kit

Watch our how-to video below and then take a look at our selection of Gelly Tip Kits to get started!