Confused On What To Ask For At The Nail Salon? Here’s Your Guide

Not everyone is nail-literate, and going to the nail salon can feel a bit intimidating if you aren’t sure what to ask for. Let us help!

By Hannah Leah5 min read
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Marina Demeshko/Shutterstock

There's a multitude of things you could do with your nails, and social media is full of ideas. It’s not as simple as picking a color anymore, oh no. Today, there are countless types of nail products, nail shapes and art designs available, which is a great thing, but it can make the nail experience a little more challenging for someone who knows nothing about it. Here’s a breakdown of each type of nail service so the next time you to to the salon, you know exactly how to communicate what you want to your nail tech.     

Regular Polish (Basic Manicure)

Length of Wear: 5 - 7 days

This is probably the simplest thing you can do with your nails, but beware: It will also chip the fastest. Regular nail polish, or nail lacquer, is applied to your nails over a base coat, and is removed with nail polish remover. The service is simple, quick, and fairly basic.

The Process: A basic manicure often begins with soaking nails in soapy water. Then pushing back the cuticles; shaping, filing, and buffing the nails; base coat; two coats of color; and finishing with top coat.

Pro Tip: Don't let the nail tech cut your cuticles! Nail techs are not permitted to cut live skin, not to mention, this will result in tough regrowth, frayed cuticles, and possible injury. Instead, ask to push back cuticles only. Nail techs may, however, trim hang nails or dead skin that has grown up your nail plate.

Gel Polish

Length of Wear: 14 - 21 days

Gel polish can be described as the bridge between regular nail polish and gel. It’s more durable than regular nail polish, but far less strong than standard gel. The most notable differences between gel polish and nail polish are that it requires an LED light to cure (i.e., harden and set) the product, and it must be removed by soaking in acetone (drugstore nail polish remover won't even make a dent). Depending on the brand, some are tougher than others. For example, CND Shellac and Orly Gel FX are softer and easier to remove, while brands like Young Nails, Mia Secret, and Kiara Sky are sturdier, but also take longer to take off. The service is ideal for someone who wants slightly more strength than nail polish offers. However, if you have weak and/or flexible nails, you may still be prone to chipping and lifting.

The Process: A gel polish manicure is performed dry (i.e., no soaking in water). First nails are prepped (pushing back cuticles, filing, shaping and buffing the nail). Then gel is applied: one coat of gel polish base coat, and cure; two to three coats of gel polish color, curing after each; and finish with gel polish top coat, and cure.

Pro Tip: While technically you can remove gel polish at home, it's always best to have a nail professional remove it for you. Just don't let them file into your natural nail while removing it, as that is what causes thin and weak nails, not the gel polish itself.


Length of Wear: 3-4 weeks

This type of gel is a thicker viscosity than gel polish and is more similar in chemical structure to acrylic. Hard gel is applied with a brush straight from a pot (no bottle-and-brush in this service), and like gel polish, each layer is cured under an LED light. The benefits of gel are that it's odorless and durable, yet at the same time quite flexible. Most people can go three to four weeks of wear without any breaking, even if you have weak or brittle nails. Additionally, gel can be filled (meaning as the natural nail grows out, more gel can be added to the regrowth area without taking all of the product off). Gel comes in a variety of colors as well, so you could use clear to coat your natural nails and then top with gel polish color of your choice, or you could opt for a soft pink gel, for example, which will give you a "permanent" light pink manicure once finished with top coat. The biggest drawback to gel nails is that they cannot be soaked off; they must be filed off, usually with an electric file — which means you'll have to return to the salon when you want the gel removed.

The Process: Again, gel manicures are preformed dry. Nails are prepped, then the nail tech will apply gel in thin coats using a small brush, curing after each layer. An electric file is often used to smooth and shape the nails, although sometimes hand files are used. Once the nails are finished, you can top with any nail polish or gel polish color or design of your choice.  

Pro Tip: Make sure your nail tech uses extreme caution when removing gel from your nails so as to not file into your natural nail. It's okay (preferred even) to leave a thin coat of gel on the nails to grow out as you wean yourself off of a gel service.


Length of Wear: Up to 4 weeks

Acrylic uses a mix of powder polymer and liquid monomer to create a durable nail coating that hardens as it dries. Acrylic can be applied directly over the natural nail (overlay), over nail tips to create length (tip and overlay), or can be used to lengthen the natural nail using a paper form (sculpted acrylic). Extending nails with a form is the best way to create a nail that looks like your own; a tough, sticky form is applied under your nail and is used as a guide to extend the nail, then is removed once the acrylic hardens. Acrylic is ideal for someone who wants a stronger nail structure and to create extra length, and it's the perfect base for any kind of color and nail art — even 3-D embellishments, like crystals and acrylic flowers. Among its benefits, acrylic can be filled after each service, like gel, and it can be soaked off to remove. However, acrylic monomer does have an odor when applied that some can find off-putting.

The Process: Nails are prepped, then the nail tech will dip her brush into liquid, then pick up a bead of powder, and place it on the nail. The brush is used to create the nail shape, picking up more beads of product until the nail looks right. After filing and shaping the nail, a color coat is applied (regular or gel polish), and is finished with a top coat. 

Pro Tip: Acrylic looks most natural when applied directly to the natural nail or sculpted, though many salon nail techs are not well-versed in using forms to sculpt acrylic, as it's a more time-consuming service.


Length of Wear: 3-4 weeks

Like many trends from the '90s, dip nails are having a resurgence as well. Dip is made up of, essentially, acrylic powder and cyanoacrylate (also known as nail glue). The service is quick and relatively inexpensive as compared to gel and acrylic services. Another point of difference is that you don't have to create a base before topping with color; with dip, the color and base are combined in one. However, because of that, dip nails can't be filled and must be soaked off after each service. And, because dip is so incredibly strong, the removal process is lengthier than gel polish and often involves filing as well as soaking in acetone.

The Process: After prepping your nails, the nail tech will apply a clear dip base and then will literally dip your finger into a colored powder (although pouring on top is more sanitary). This process is repeated until the desired effect has been achieved, then a clear activator is applied to set the product. Finally, nails are finished with top coat.

Pro Tip: Don't be fooled by dip being touted as "healthy," "organic," or "better for you than acrylic"; these are all marketing tactics to encourage a sale. Remember, it's nail glue and acrylic. If you already have weak nails, the removal process can be too aggressive and cause further damage to your nails, making traditional acrylic or gel, which can be filled, a better alternative.

Extras: Nail Art and Finishes

There are plenty of extras that can be added to your manicure, no matter the service. Different types of finishes are quite common these and days and can be applied to most nail services. Think: matte, iridescent, and glitter top coats.

Nail art is another extra that can be applied to any nail coating, even regular nail polish. It can be created using nail polish, gel polish, gel paint, acrylic, even decals, stamps and glued-on embellishments. However, it's important to note that nail art includes an up-charge, usually per nail, but some nail techs charge by level of difficulty. Know that if you bring in a picture of different types of designs on each nail over a set of longer gel or acrylic, your manicure could set you back $100 or more. Even asking for a French manicure will usually incur an additional charge due to the time it takes.

Closing Thoughts

The beauty of nail products today is that there's really something for everybody. However, all come with a list of pros and cons, and none of them will mimic exactly the look and feel of natural nails. That being said, all of these options are worth trying, just know that they also require some level of maintenance — but it’s worth it for the beautiful nails! 

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