Photo: Jonathan Storey, Getty Images

It used to be that the most pressing decision you had to make at the nail salon was which polish to pick for that special mani-pedi treat.

But with the advent of today's gel technology, a dizzying plethora of nail enhancement options now temptingly lay before you.

A paint job that stays fresh for two weeks? Check. Nails so strong, you'll even take on dishwater? Check. Designs you thought only Nicki Minaj could rock? Check to that!

The problem is, it's confusing to figure out the difference between all of the gel options available today. If you walk into a nail salon and ask for "gel," that can translate as a variety of offerings. Even more challenging can be getting a straight, accurate answer from the specialist behind the table, who is sometimes more interested in the salon's bottom line than whether or not the treatment will benefit you.

"It's not uncommon for a woman to read about a new service like Shellac, or hear about it from friends, and then ask for it at her salon, only to be given something that isn't it at all, and -- even worse -- is not a fit for her lifestyle or level of maintenance," says Jan Arnold, co-founder of CND.

The truth is, gel nails are not a one-size-fits-all remedy that works for everyone. The type of gel you select -- if you decide to pick one -- should depend on two things: how nail color figures into your personal sense of style, and the degree of upkeep you're willing to commit to the look.

"Some women want a classic neutral that lasts and lasts, while others would feel creatively stifled by that, and instead prefer to change polishes often, so that nail color is more like an accessory," says Arnold.

Yet deciding what you want is only half the battle; you also need to make sure the salon gives you what you're asking for.

With many nail salons suffering the brunt of the sputtering economy, common cost-cutting measures may be affecting the quality of your manicure -- particularly when it comes to gels, which are costlier and take more time to apply.

"We've had issues with some salons substituting UV lamps and polishes into the Shellac system, which can adversely affect how the product applies and wears," says Arnold. In an attempt to make sure consumers receive a consistent experience wherever they go, CND will now require salons that carry Shellac to receive certification, with routine quality visits made to make sure everything is in proper order.

If you want to take the plunge and indulge in the gorgeously glossy finish of gel nails, check out the cheat sheet below for guidance on the perfect choice for you. And take special note of warning signs you should be on the look out for, to make sure your salon is not cheapening out on your experience -- and results.

Please note that cost ranges are estimates only, and can vary greatly by region of the country and local cost of living standards.

Photo: Alamy

Traditional Clear & French Tip Gel

What It Is: Traditional gel is sculpted and painted onto the nail from a pot, which adds strength and a picture-perfect shape to nails. The surface must first be buffed down for the gel to adhere properly, and then set under a UV dryer. Most technicians use more than one coat of gel to build a consistent look across all nails. The French tip version cushions a half-moon of color between sheer layers of gel, while the clear version can be painted over with your color of choice, just like a regular manicure. While the French manicure is completely dry after the UV setting, paint over the clear version still needs to dry like regular polish. It's recommended you get a 'rebalance' every two weeks, to even out the area of growth near the cuticle.

Cost Range: $50-$80 for initial set; $30-$60 to rebalance

What You Should Know: Nails need to be filed down for rebalancing, which is most commonly done with a rotating drill filer. Not everyone is comfortable with the concept or sensation, and an unskilled technician can damage your nail or the surrounding skin if the tool is wielded incorrectly.

Beware: In an effort to speed up the service and get more chair turnover, some technicians rush and apply the gel too thickly. Not only does that make for an obvious looking gel manicure, but it can burn your nail beds when placed into a UV dryer, as a glob of gel heats up more rapidly than a thin, lacquer-like application.


OPI Axxium Gel

What It Is: Applied just like a traditional gel, the defining quality of OPI's version is that it comes in a slew of the brand's most beloved shades, like I'm Not Really A Waitress, Bubble Bath and Lincoln Park After Dark. Each layer is cured under a UV lamp, and lasts the standard two weeks. Unlike a traditional gel that can be shaped thicker over areas or certain nails that need it, you must be mindful of applying the same amount of Axxium Gel to each nail in order to achieve the same hue for all fingers. When you want to change colors, the current manicure must be soaked and then filed off.

Cost Range: $25-$45

What You Should Know: Axxium Gel - and other colored gels like it - can have a more abrasive and damaging removal process, since you need to get every speck of color off the nail to start anew. (The only way to get around this is to choose a darker nail polish shade.) Some users also claim that the gel version of shades doesn't exactly match the nail polish version of the same name.

Beware: The cheapest way for a salon to soak off a colored gel product like Axxium is to have you dip your hands in acetone, and sit for 15 minutes. A higher quality salon will use a far less damaging and effective method: the technician will file just the the tip of the nail to break the seal of the gel, and then place cotton balls soaked in acetone on each nail, individually wrapping each digit with foil to keep the cotton in place. After placing hands in a heated dryer for 10 minutes, the gel should lift right off.


CND Shellac

What It Is: The first hybrid between nail polish and a gel, a Shellac manicure consists of a UV base coat, two coats of Shellac color, and a finishing UV top coat -- all of which are painted straight out of nail lacquer bottles. In fact, CND refers to the product as a 'power polish' instead of a gel. While each layer is cured in a UV dryer, there is no filer drilling or soaking involved, like with traditional gel products. The nail is just dehydrated first with a slick of alcohol in order to make the polish adhere better, and the layers of product are sheer enough to allow the natural nail to breathe through. When set correctly, the finish stays glossy and true for two weeks, and is removed with finger puppet-like acetone wraps that break down the bond between the Shellac and the surface of the nail.

Cost Range: $35-$45

What You Should Know: Since Shellac is a hybrid polish, it doesn't offer the strength and sculpting possibilities as a traditional gel. But in return for the lightness of the product, removal is easier and less damaging to the nails. The application also takes about 50 percent less time than a gel manicure.

Beware: For the product to set correctly and not peel, all of the components -- from the dryer to the polish and topcoat -- must be part of the Shellac system. Many salons have components like a UV dryer that they swap in to save a few bucks, but this will prevent your layers from curing correctly. Another common cost cutting method is to use regular nail polish colors between the Shellac base and top coat. Again, this will adversely affect how long and well the manicure wears. Check to make sure all items used during your Shellac experience are labeled with the CND logo.


Harmony Gelish

What It Is: Commonly confused with Shellac, Gelish is a polish-to-gel hybrid that requires no filing or soaking in application and removal process. However, Gelish is more of a gel, and comes with an optional shaping layer that a technician can use on clients who have weaker or poorly shaped nails to create more of a substantial gel finish. Gelish also claims to last longer than Shellac - up to 21 days.

Cost Range: $35-$45

What You Should Know: While it may not be the same type of filing that traditional gel nails require, Harmony does recommend that the very top of the nail surface be buffed down to marry the product to the nail.

Beware: The Gelish system is among the lowest priced gel nail products on the professional market, so the propensity for technicians to mix and match other products with the dryer and make unskilled errors like failing to buff and dehydrate the nail for the best application is greater.



What It Is: While solid CalGel colors are painted on from a pot like traditional gel, nail art lovers flock to the brand for the creative possibilities that are painstakingly swirled on to the nail bed with a fine brush. With over 80 shades to choose from, you can also have a unique hue custom-blended. Thought by many to be the most durable of all options, CalGel claims to last for up to four weeks, and requires a 15 minute soaking to remove.

Cost Range: $30-$40 for a solid shade; designs depend on intricacy and typically start at $45, and can reach $85+ in cities like New York and LA.

What You Should Know: If you're going for a design, be prepared for the time it takes to perfect your creation. Regular clients cite application times that hover around and above the two hour mark.

Beware: CalGel application -- especially designs -- require the most artistic skill of all gel options. It's advised that you use a salon that is known for carrying the service as their main offering, or else risk a messy yet expensive result from a technician who is merely making it available to cash in on the trend bandwagon.

So can a manicure really stay fresh for two weeks straight? Check out the before and after photos of how our nails fared with Shellac.