What Are Soft Gel Nails?

I think we have grown by leaps and bounds when identifying whether what we are getting done at the salon are gel nails.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about….

A few years ago, clients were getting misled into thinking that liquid and powder nails (what we often refer to as acrylic nails) were a gel nail service.

I know. Messed-up. And that was because when the powder and liquid mix, it turns into a bit of a gel consistency (… for like a second or two at least) before it hardens.

To add more confusion, it became popular to topcoat acrylic nails with a light-curing gel topcoat, and there you have it… gel nails-right? Hmmm. So…

I’m so excited to dive into this conversation. Let’s get started!

While every nail enhancement is a form of plastic, there are differences in their chemical structure.

In a previous video I created, I went into detail about what gel nails are, so you can check that video out after this reading. Still, in a gist, gel nails are typically made from a synthetic resin source. Resin is something that can actually come from trees! But in our industry, we use synthetic resin.

To give you a visual of what this substance is.

A few or several ingredients are mixed in this resin depending on what consistency and function this Gel will need.

In nail gel, one of the ingredients added is a photoinitiator. The photoinitiator is what causes the gel substance to harden or polymerize.

The final product is a gel nail.

We’ve answered the question of “what is gel?” regarding nails.

But I’ll let you know that in our industry, we have both Hard and Soft Gel. I’ll help you understand in a moment.

Let’s get into understanding what Soft Gel Nails are.

Before I jump into these specifics, let me say that Full Coverage Tips adhered with Gel are not the definition of Soft Gel nails.

Here are 5 defining characteristics of Soft Gel Nails.

#1 Soft gel nails are a nail service done with soft Gel, aka porous acetone-soakable Gel. So hard Gel would be the opposite, hard and non-porous/non-soakable.

Soft Gel needs to be light cured, just like hard Gel, but the main difference between the two is that one can be soaked off with acetone, but the other cannot.

Here are popular examples of soft gel products and brands:

  • -Full Coverage Extension Systems, like Apres Gel X
  • -Builder-in-a-bottle products, like Luminary & The Gel Bottle Inc
  • -Soft Potted Gel Nail systems like Bio Sculpture and Japanese Gel nail brands like Kokoist, Vetro, and Leafgel (You can use code PPN10 for a 10% discount ;)).
  • -And of course, good ol’ gel polish like Shellac & Gelish are also soft Gel
  • Remember, Soft Gel simply means it can be soaked off with acetone.

#2 Soft gel nails are manicured natural nails with soak-off Gel.

We’ll talk about structured manicures in a moment, but let’s talk about a simple gel manicure. 

Do these still even exist? Or must everything have to be thicker than average nowadays?

Yes, simple brushed-on gel polish manicures, like those done with Shellac and Gelish, are still provided in salons. Still, consumers and nail techs have shifted away from these thinner viscosity gels and left them to the runway models. These Shellac-thin gel manicures require you to soak off the Gel every 2 to 3 weeks before a new application, which wears the natural nails down.

The good news is that if you or your client just want a thin gel application that is also long wearing… that is totally possible with soft potted gel formulas like Japanese Gel. Those gel nails do not have to be removed and serviced every 2 to 3 weeks. But instead more like 3 to 5 weeks.

#3 Soft gel nails are manicured natural nails with structured gel overlays.

When doing structured gel overlays, you use products like a builder in a bottle or soft potted gel systems. 

Now, a Hard Gel overlay was hardly ever referred to in the industry as a structured overlay because structured is the only way to apply Hard Gel. Otherwise, it will break, chip, or lift. It simply will not last if not structured.

Whereas with your soft gel products, you can apply them flat or structured and not run the risk of breakage.

A structured gel overlay is a thicker gel application that is perfectly balanced with an apex to support the natural nail.

#4 Soft gel nails are natural nails extended with free-forms or half-tips.

That’s right. You can use soft Gel to extend natural nails with paper forms and even old-school half tips.

I highly recommend using a soft potted gel system like Japanese Gel because these systems include a rigid but lightweight, soft builder gel. This soft builder gel is strong enough to extend the free edge of the natural nail using forms. You will then use this same Gel to overlay that new nail. Likewise, you could attach half-tips and then use the soft-builder Gel to overlay that new extension. And believe it or not, I still enjoy this method.

#5 Soft gel nails are natural nails extended with full coverage tips

That’s right! You’ve learned thus far that Soft Gel is not limited to extensions when using only full-coverage nail tips.

This service should be referenced as Full Coverage Tip Extensions to avoid confusion. Manufacturers and nail techs can further specify that they are soak-off. And I would really hold off on using the term soft gel nails to describe full coverage extensions, as you have just now learned that we can create several soft gel nail services. 

And here’s the thing, anything a soft gel can do, hard Gel can also do, and vice versa.

So then, you may be asking yourself, Which should I choose?

I’m sad about saying this because there are amazing Hard Gel nail companies out there, but Hard Gel is dying as a standard service in the salon. It really has nothing to do with trends but rather with the compatibility of the product and the natural nail. In my free masterclass, I go deeper into this conversation; I’ll leave the link HERE for you.

I would only consider using Hard Gel if my client or I wanted an extreme length or shape, as Hard Gel would be more durable in such cases.

With that being said, many customers will inevitably end up with Hard Gel services because Soft Gel nail services, as detailed today, are not offered in their area. If you are considering becoming a nail tech, this is where you bridge the gap and create an opportunity for yourself.

Alright, let’s bring it home.

As you can see, “soft gel nails” are not just Full Coverage Nail Tip Extensions. Soft gel nails consist of using a soak-off gel nail product and providing a nail service with this product.

The soft gel products typically involved are:

  • Usually, full coverage tip extensions.
  • Builder-in-a-bottle systems.
  • Soft potted gel systems.

The services that can be done with Soft Gel include simple gel manicures, structured overlays, free-form and tip extensions, and full coverage tips.

I hope today’s video cleared a whole bunch of things for you!


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Content written by Paola Ponce.

Loved this blog? Then I think you’ll love learning more about my journey as a specialized gel nail solopreneur in the nail industry. Click here to get instant access to my free training. These blogs are copyrighted material, and any use of this blog is not permitted without written concern first. Some of these blogs contain affiliate links that give us a small commission when qualifying purchases are made. Thank you for your support that helps us to continue creating valuable resources and content like this.

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