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What Are Nail Overlays? [Everything You Want To Know]

Have you heard of or been introduced to nail overlays? Are you wondering what they are and whether or not to give them a try? Well, here is everything you are going to want to know about this particular manicure.

So, what are nail overlays? A nail overlay is an artificial coating of acrylic or gel that is applied on top of the natural nail, usually in multiple thin layers. Overlays do not typically extend the nail and instead use the existing natural nail as a base. Overlays can be combined with nail extensions for extra length and a more customized look.

Whether you have long nails, short nails, big nails, or small nails, nail overlays are a quick and easy way to achieve a glossy and glamorous manicure that lasts for weeks at a time.

They are also a great way to add length and strength to your nails, whether they are already thick and strong or weak and brittle. 

Nail overlays are also an effective solution for those of us who have absolutely zero patience for letting our nails grow longer naturally and want longer nails now.

They can be as simple or ornate as you like, and you can even add nail extensions beneath the overlay itself for that extra bit of length.

Whether you choose a simple overlay, like gel or shellac or nail extensions, depends on the look you are trying to achieve.

With proper training, nail overlays can become part of your home manicure routine, or you can visit your favorite nail tech for the latest in overlay trends.

But what are they made of, how are they applied, how much do they cost and tend to last for?

Let us answer all the questions and more!

What Are Nail Overlays Made Of?

There are three types of nail overlays, all of which are made from a different material: Gel, shellac, or acrylic. All of which are artificial ingredients that harden when exposed to air or UV light.

Let us now take a closer look at each one:


Gel overlay is made of acrylic monomers and oligomers, which are types of tiny plastic molecules commonly used in cosmetics.

Acrylic monomers are liquid plastics that bond or stick together when cured under UV light.

The type of acrylic used in gel overlay is not as thick as pure acrylic overlay and is much more flexible.

After curing, the previously-liquid gel turns into a hard, chemical-resistant coating.

A gel overlay lets you build on your natural nail shape and length with the added bonus of a thick and glossy pop of vibrant color (or not, we love every shade of nude).


Acrylic overlay is made of liquid or powder acrylic polymer, which is similar to resin.

Acrylic polymer is basically a type of plastic made up of slightly larger molecules than those used in gel overlay.

Acrylic overlay is favored by nail technicians for its transparency, resistance to breakage, and flexibility.

It can be applied to the surface of the nail using a powder dipping method, or it can be painted on, similar to the process of acrylic nail extensions. 

Acrylic Dip

Acrylic dip powders are a newer method of acrylic overlay.

Dip powder involves prepping the nail and then painting on a special transparent base lacquer, which is a glue-type liquid that helps the acrylic powder stick to the nail.

You can repeat this process until the desired thickness is reached, but 2-3 coats is usually enough.

Once you’re satisfied, a topcoat is applied and helps set the underlying coats of base liquid and powder.

No UV light is needed to dry this type of overlay, only air. This is because the chemicals in the base coat and powder react with air, which causes them to bond and harden.


Shellac overlay is a combination of ingredients found in gel overlay and traditional nail lacquer.

Shellac is thinner in consistency than acrylic overlay and gel overlay, but it is just as durable and leaves you with the same glossy finish.

Because of its formulation, shellac overlay looks more natural than gel and acrylic overlay.

Similar to gel overlay, shellac overlay must be hardened using a UV lamp between coats and after the final topcoat is applied.

Exposure to concentrated UV light sets the overlay and ensures a long-lasting finish.

How Are Nail Overlays Applied?

Nail overlays are typically applied by being brushed onto the surface of the nail. But first, the nail must be properly cleaned and prepared.

Unless you request a full-blown manicure, your nail technician will at the very least ask you to make sure that your hands are clean, then they will buff the surface of your nails, gently push your cuticles back and then file your nails to your desired shape.

Then, a base coat is applied. The base coat is essential for protecting the nail bed and ensuring that the layers to follow can cure properly. 

The rest of the process differs depending on whether you choose to stick with a basic overlay or whether you’re adding acrylic extensions into the mix.

If you’re opting for acrylic nail extensions, this is the part where the lightweight acrylic tip is glued onto your natural nail and shaped according to your preference. 

Next, the acrylic, gel, or shellac overlay is brushed on.

Gel and shellac overlays usually require a few coats and about 45 seconds to two minutes of curing under a UV lamp per coat.

After the final topcoat is applied, you’re all set!

While overlays are generally similar in their composition and application process, they require different methods for repairing chips and breaks.

Acrylic overlays have the potential to be filled, whereas gel and shellac overlays must be completely removed and then replaced.

An acrylic fill consists of covering or filling in new nail growth with the same mixture of acrylic powder and liquid used to apply the original overlay.

Acrylic nails can be filled because the new acrylic will bond to the existing acrylic, which can withstand being filed down to match the existing acrylic.

Gel and shellac cannot be filed down, as they are softer and more flexible than acrylic. To fix gel and shellac, you have to start from scratch.

Keep in mind that nail overlays should always be removed by a professional.

Do not; I repeat, do not try to peel your overlay off, as it could peel or crack the surface of the nail.

Compromising the surface of the nail can make your nails vulnerable to excess bacteria and infections.

It could also thin out and weaken the nail bed, causing ridges in the nail itself.

When you visit a professional to get your nail overlay removed, they make sure to use the proper products to remove the overlay.

Usually, the nails are dipped in acetone for several minutes, which slowly loosens and eventually dissolves the gel, shellac, or acrylic.

This reveals a strong and intact nail bed, which is what we aim for.

How Much Do Nail Overlays Cost?

A basic set of nail overlays can cost anywhere from $20-$60.

Depending on the nail salon you visit, a basic one-color gel overlay can start at around $25.

A basic set of acrylic nails, including acrylic nail extensions, can start around $45.

Sure, simplicity is great, but sometimes you really want to take your nails to the next level, so you opt for some customized nail art.

Nail art and other add-ons could significantly increase the total cost of your nail treatment, but why not treat yourself?

The cost of add-ons varies from salon to salon, so make sure to double-check with your nail tech before getting started.

How Long Do Nail Overlays Last?

Nail overlays typically last between 10-14 days but have the potential to last longer.

Some nail overlays last longer than others, and all nail overlays will last longer than regular nail polish.

Depending on the type of nail overlay, you will likely start to see signs of wear around the two-week mark.

Acrylic nails tend to last a bit longer, between 3-4 weeks, before needing a fill.

How long your nail overlays last also depends on how often your hands come into contact with heat, water, detergents, and other products that contribute to the overall wear and tear of the nail itself.

You will definitely want to keep your nails away from heat-producing styling tools and be sure that you’re not applying too much pressure on your nails when you type those all too frequent “As per my last email” emails.

Regardless of your lifestyle and habits, check with your nail technician to make sure you’re updated on proper aftercare.

Is An Overlay Good For Your Nails?

Nail overlays can have some significant benefits for those who have trouble growing their nails.

We all know someone who always, and I mean always, has an overlay on their nails.

But is this actually good for your nails?

Well, it depends on your natural nail bed. Nail overlays can help strengthen weak nails by forming a barrier that protects the natural nail from damage.

Those with brittle nails find that a few consecutive nail overlays can give their natural nails some time to grow longer and stronger.

On the other hand, those with already thick, strong nails have found that too many overlays in a row can actually weaken the natural nail.

It’s important to remember that overlays are forming a barrier over your natural nail, which can impact overall nail health in the long term.

Taking a short break between overlay treatments to let your natural nails breathe is always a good idea.


As the name suggests, nail overlays are artificial manicures where acrylic, gel, or shellac are applied on top of the artificial nail.

While they all have their uses and merits, in the end, all nails are unique, and knowing what your nails need to stay healthy will help you figure out which type of nail overlay is best for you.