Gel Overlay vs Gel Polish: What is the Difference?

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The terminology of a lot of manicure and pedicure stuff is pretty confusing. Who came up with these names?! For example, gel overlay vs gel polish, what on earth is the difference?

Gel nails can be applied using gel overlays and gel polishes. However, there are differences between the two products, so understanding them is crucial.

  • There are two parts to a gel overlay: the gel base and the gel top coat.
  • Base, color, and top coats are all part of gel polish.
  • A UV light is used to cure gel overlays. LED or UV lights can be used to cure gel polish.

In this article, we are going to take a look at gel overlay and gel polish to see what their similarities and differences are.


Gel Overlay vs Gel Polish

One of the big differences between gel overlay and gel polish is the thickness of the substance.

To get a feel for the difference, let’s start with a baseline of normal lacquer polish everyone is familiar with.

Traditional Nail Polish

Lacquer nail polish

Normal lacquer nail polish is quite thin. You just file your nails and apply the lacquer, and air dry, no need for fussy UV lights or anything.

Gel Polish

Gel Polish

Gel polish is thicker than lacquer.

Gel polish comes in loads of colors and creates really beautiful natural-looking nails. You just need to dry it, most likely under an LED nail lamp, but possibly a UV nail lamp (depending on the gel)

Gel Overlay

Gel Overlay or Builder Gel

Gel overlay (also called hard gel or builder gel) is a lot thicker than lacquer.

When working with gel overlay, an application of gel is made directly on the natural nail. In addition to the base coat, you have your coat of color and a top coat, both of which need to be cured under UV or LED lights.

With any gel coat, you need to make sure you have the right light for your gel. An LED light will not properly dry a UV gel, and vice versa.

When working with gel overlay, an application of gel is made directly on the natural nail.

Why Use Gel Polish?

  • It’s fun!
  • It Lasts a long time
  • It looks natural and beautiful
  • There is a big difference between gel polish and gel overlay. Gel polish is easier to do at home, and a bit closer to traditional lacquer in application

A few things to watch out for are bubbling with gel polish and peeling gel polish.

How to Apply Gel Polish

 It is quite simple to apply gel polish:

  1. Shape and file your nails as desired
  2. Push back the cuticles on the nail bed
  3. Stain the surface with a gel base coat 
  4. Coat nails with the color gel. Depending on your coverage desired, the number of layers will vary.
  5. Apply the LED light and cure for 30-60 seconds, based on your gel polish type. Don’t over-cure or under-cure your nails. Follow your instructions!
  6. Finish with a gel top coat 
  7. Cure the polish under the light again for 30 seconds to 60 seconds until it is dry
  8. You may need to wipe off the polish to remove any tackiness, depending on the brand
  9. That’s it! Bold and strong nails are now yours!

How Does Gel Overlay Work?

Gel Overlay

The term “gel overlay” refers to a gel applied to the nail’s entire surface to protect and strengthen it. In this process, the gel base is cured under UV light, and the top coat is applied.

The term “gel overlay” refers to a gel applied to the nail’s entire surface to protect and strengthen it.

While artificial nails cannot be used to strengthen natural nails, gel overlays can. In addition, it adds protection against chips and splits.

However, nail length is not increased by using it.

What Are the Types of Gel Overlays?

A gel overlay can be either hard or soft.

1. Hard gel

Hard Gel Overlay

 An artificial nail made of hard gel is composed of acrylic and monomers. A UV light cures the nail, making it hard and durable.

Artificial nails made from hard gel last for a long time and are quite durable.

2. Soft gel

Soft Gel Overlay

The soft gel is made by mixing acrylics with monomers and gels. After that, a UV light cures the nail to make it more flexible and softer.

Gel nails look natural and are ideal for those who want an artificial nail that looks like their natural nails.

How to Apply Gel Overlay Nails

Gel overlays can be applied in the following manner:

  1. Shape and file your nails as desired
  2. Push the cuticles back to prepare the nail bed
  3. The gel should be applied as a base coat 
  4. Apply the color gel polish you want or a building scalping gel
  5. A UV light is used to cure the product for 30 to 60 seconds
  6. Coat the gel with a topcoat. This step is optional
  7. Cure again under the light for 30 to 60 seconds
  8. Use cuticle oil to moisturize
  9. Finished! 

Who Should Choose Overlay Nails?

  1. Those who have weak or brittle nails. The added coatings will add strength and protection to the nails (note that if your nails are in really rough shape, take a break from any sort of nail polish and use some cuticle oil to restore your nails!)
  2. Those who want a long-lasting manicure without adding nail extensions. Overlay nails are perfect if you do not want exaggerated long nails but want a long-lasting manicure.
  3. You work in a job where long nails aren’t practical. Maybe you work on a computer a lot, or work in a kitchen or medical setting. These settings just don’t mesh well with long nails! 

Do You Have to Go To A Salon For Gel Polishes or Overlays?

You don’t have to go to a nail salon to get either of these types of nails done. Stronger nails can easily be achieved at home!

You will need nail buffers, UV or LED light, and acetone to get started.

And you need to make sure that all of your equipment and materials are compatible. If you’re just getting started with DIY, it’s a great idea to buy a nail kit that has everything you need. You will be guaranteed everything is compatible.

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Will Gel Overlays Damage Your Nails?

Gel overlays can be removable and repairable in case of accidents. However, their toughness tends to last longer but can cause nail damage and give your nails an unnatural appearance.

Several harmful chemicals can be absorbed into your body through acrylic and gel nail products. However the good news is that gel nails (particularly overlays) are much less likely to produce nail fungus than acrylic nails, since you’re not dealing with those acrylic tips.

Is Gel Polish and Overlay Safe to Use?

Gel manicures can indeed make nails look beautiful and last a long time, but they can also damage the nails over time. As a result of repeated use of gel manicures, nails may become fragile.

They can peel and crack, resulting in brittleness.

And then there’s the UV light, which you are constantly bathing your fingers in. That could potentially lead to skin cancer, as well as early aging of the skin. You can partially mitigate this with gloves.

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Note that LED lamps do not have this skin cancer risk.

Note that LED lamps do not have this skin cancer risk.

You can also find formaldehyde in conventional gel polish, an extremely toxic substance.

How Long Do Gel Overlays Last?

It is important to take care of gel overlays to extend their life as long as possible. Two to four weeks are possible with proper care.

How Long Can Gel Polish Last? 

On average, gel nails last two to three weeks. You might get more time out of them if you care for them. Always read and follow the instructions.

Time will differ for different people due to their nail type, how they care for the nails, and exposure to heat, water, etc.


Like everything else, there are pros and cons to gel overlays and gel polish. Depending on your needs, capabilities, experience, and the status of your nails, one option may be a better choice for you.

Both are easy enough to remove if you are not happy with them. Good luck!

Written by Kayla Young

Kayla is the founder of LuxeLuminous. She has worked professionally in the tanning industry for years. She has been interested in esthetics since childhood, and has tried every hair, skin, and makeup product ever produced (more or less).