Shifting Gears: Switching Between Acrylic and Gel Services


Alternating between gel and acrylic services during your busy workday requires refocusing your mind and modifying your technique. Here are some tips to make transitioning between mediums easier.

Do you remember trying to learn an enhancement service for the first time? Maybe in school you learned how to do acrylic nails, then your first salon only offered gels — or perhaps you had the opposite experience. Even if you were lucky enough to be exposed to both mediums in school, chances are good that you’re more comfortable with one enhancement product than the other.

A lot of professionals choose to specialize in one type of service; however, a client’s lifestyle or natural nails may sometimes dictate a need for something else. Knowing how to transition back and forth between the two services quickly and smoothly — whether for salon work or even for competition — can make all the difference in your level of frustration or ease.

 <p>Nail tech Geneva Holcomb uses a practice tip between clients when she’s switching from one enhancement medium to another.</p>

Making the Switch

Let’s take your choice of brand out of the equation and talk at a basic level about successfully using a liquid-and-powder acrylic system alongside a light-cured gel. The first step to switching back and forth between the two is a mental one, requiring you to shift gears. “When I have to change from gel to liquid-and-powder, I have a pep talk with myself,” says Geneva Holcomb of Geneva Nailed It at Salons D’Allon in Webster, Texas. “I have to ‘turn off’ the gel skill, the floating of the brush over gel, and tell my liquid-and-powder skill to turn back on. I will pull a couple of tips out and practice before I start on my client. This helps me get back into the rhythm of press and guide versus floating. I have even done this in front of a brand new client.”

Shannon McCown of Distinctive Nail Designs in Bend, Ore., agrees with the need to switch mental gears when you switch services. “You have to get out of your ‘L&P head’ and think about a gel application,” she says. “A gel nail is built in layers, similar to a stack of pancakes, not the zone-to-zone way that liquid-and-powder is, so you have to visualize that to become comfortable with the thinner layers of gel. Try to always keep contact between your gel and the brush.”

<p>Applying gel requires a push, float, and pull technique, says Classy Claws’ Sara Steinbrink.</p>

Can you imagine being at a gym and taking an aerobics class, then a yoga class, then two aerobics classes, then another yoga class, followed by swimming? Tired muscles aside, you would also need to adjust how you approach each activity. It takes some conscious thought to make the mental jump from one activity to another. This would be similar to a schedule that looked like a liquid-and-powder application followed by a gel application, two more liquid-and-powder applications, one more gel application, then a spa service! Being able to change your mindset between services will help the rest fall into place.


Application Techniques Compared

Beyond the battle in your head, the techniques you use to apply each medium are going to be different. Fortunately, despite all the differences between gel and acrylic systems, there are still a few things that are common to both. The preparation of the nail is generally the same, as is the finish filing. The main differences come in product placement and the way you interact with it during the application process.

<p>With acrylic, you’re fighting the clock, so a firm pressing and stroking of the product is best.</p>

The first thing to look at is picking up the right amount of product to work with. “For acrylic, pick up a little less than you think you need, and for gel, pick up a little more than you think you need,”  recommends Guin Littlefield, a nail tech at Shear Magic Styling Salon in Grand Junction, Colo.

You may have noticed that when you use a liquid-and-powder style system, it’s really easy to end up with nails that are too thick and spend a lot of time filing. In contrast, it’s difficult to build up an apex on a gel nail and they often seem to be too thin and flat. By heeding Littlefield’s advice, you can eliminate both of those issues.

Assuming you have the right amount of product on your brush, your next consideration is how to apply it. “Liquid and powder is more of a press, stroke, and stretch technique; whereas gel is a more of a push, float, and pull technique,” says Sara Steinbrink of Classy Claws in Livonia, Mich. “Gel users need to be mindful that acrylic has a time limit. This means that the product-ratio and temperature of your room will determine how much time you have to move your product into place before it completely polymerizes (hardens). Use firm presses and strokes to get the product where you need it to be before time runs out.”

<p>When using acrylic, pick up a little less product than you think you need, advises nail tech Guin Littlefield.</p>

Littlefield echoes Steinbrink’s advice: “With acrylic we have to push or press the product where we want it to go, while with gel you want to touch it lightly and move only the surface — the rest will follow.”

Tips for Brain Switching




Pick up less product

Pick up more product

Press, stroke, and stretch

Push, float, and pull

Keep a steady pace

Slow down

Smile Lines

Another obstacle can be the smile line. It takes skill and practice to master a smile line. Throw in remembering all the pointers for each different type of product as you move back and forth between appointments and it could become a challenge. “With acrylic you work quickly and get to build the white and maneuver your brush to get the depth of the smile line you need,” says Brandi Norris of Glitter & Gloss Nails by Brandi Leigh, in Bonham, Texas. A key here is using the proper brush angle and pressing the product so that it knows where to go.

<p>“A gel nail is built in layers, similar to a stack of pancakes,” says Shannon McCown.</p>

On the gel side, she gives us this tip: “You can take the string of gel and outline the perfect tip with the desired smile line, essentially tracing out a guide. Then you can fill in the body of the tip. Any perfecting of the smile line can be done at the end, because until the product is cured you can change up anything without messing up your nail!” That string of builder gel serves as a guideline. Because of the way it flows, it’s easier to work with it when you have an obvious parameter for the smile line.


Get Your Rhythm Right

Norris’s advice for mastering the transition from acrylic to gel is simple: Slow down. “When you use liquid-and-powder all day, every day, you’re in a fast-paced rhythm and that’s what you are used to. With gel you can slow it way down. Literally, you slowly and gently float your brush on top of the gel,” she says. “If you try and apply gel as you would acrylic, you have a big wavy mess.” A longtime acrylic user, Norris admits she was absolutely terrified of gel. “But once I slowed it down, I was able to make a gorgeous nail,” she says.

By following Holcomb’s habit of applying product to a practice tip between services, you can get yourself in the groove quickly. This will make it more likely that your brain is truly in the right gear and on the same page as your hands. Working with each medium properly will keep you from struggling when you switch and you’ll find that your time constraints won’t always be tested. 


<p>Holly Schippers</p>


Holly Schippers is a contributing editor to NAILS and a member of Team CND. Follow her FingerNailFixer blog on

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