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Acrylic Brush or Gel Brush? What's the difference?

Sharyn Reeve

So, a really common question people ask, is about how to choose a brush for acrylic application, or gel application. 
And another, is why can't they use one brush for both. 

So sit down, grab a coffee and lets talk about brushes!

My personal preference, is sable brushes. 
Because I like the way they behave. And that's a personal thing. Some people prefer nylon - especially for gel and that's okay. 
As the main things that differentiate a brush for acrylic and a brush for gel are primarily to do with the shape and bristles.

Shape

So lets start with why the shape is important.
I'll talk about acrylic first. As there is more to those. 
When you are working with acrylic, you have to mould and shape a bead that is setting, into the right place and shape. Which means you want a snappy feeling brush - and snap means the bristles will come back into their shape easily. You want it to be a tear drop shape, with a wider belly (the middle section of the bristles) and a fine, pointed tip. 
The belly, is the section of the brush that holds the monomer. 
The tip (or flag) of the brush is the pointed piece that allows you to control where the acrylic bead goes and allows you to blend the product well. 


With a gel brush you are looking at quite a different shape, as you don't need a 'belly' for monomer. 
With gel, you want to find a firm brush, with much shorter bristles. 
So think short, dense and wide.
Reason being, is that gel is heavy so you need a brush with bristles that wont bend and sag when you pick up a gel bead. 
You also want a dense bristle, so you can float the gel into place, without the brush bending and affecting your gel bead. 
Many gel brushes lean towards a square shape, some oval at the tip, and some pointed. 
The tip of a gel brush is entirely personal preference - I started loving square brushes until I discovered pointed and they were a game changer. The fine points allowing me so much more control over placement. 

 

Bristles

Right, so the next consideration for brushes is what they are made of. 
Gel brushes can be nylon or sable. 
Acrylic brushes are just sable.

Again, lets start with acrylic! 
Acrylic brushes are only ever sable, as it holds liquid well and allows you to create your bead properly. 
You need to 'prime' all sable brushes, so even if you go from one brand of monomer to another you still need to re-prime the brush. Changing is inconvenient. When I've had more than one brand of acrylic, I always just ensure I have seperate brushes to make sure I'm not going to get cross contamination or cause adhesion and reaction issues when using the products. 
I'm going to make a whole other post about brush priming so stay tuned!

Now, gel brushes are often nylon because nylon doesn't absorb any liquid and the gel floats off it. Makes them easy to clean (you don't want to clean your acrylic brush with the same cleansers as you will wreck the cuticles on the sable bristles and make them stiff and ugly) and they are nice and easy to place the gel where you want it with the nylon bristles. 
The easy clean is why you can use one gel brush, for multiple gel products though - so one brush can be used for base, builder, colour, top and it's no problem - because they clean well! 

However nowadays with all the advances in brush construction, there are many people utilising the benefits of sable for gel brushes too. 
Gel cleans off sable a little less easy. 
So I tend to use (yet again, personal preference here) sable gel brushes for my core gels, but I lean to nylon for color gels, hard gel colors, gel polishes and gel art paints. 
Simply because while I have more control over the product with the combination of snap and density in the sable brushes, it's really hard to clean colours out - and it will shorten the lifespan of your sable brush using a UV cleanser or ISO based cleanser to clean sable.  

 

Sharing Brushes

Now, many people want to know why they cannot use their acrylic brush to do gels with an that ones a hard no I'm afraid! 
If you were to use a sable acrylic brush that you have been doing acrylics with for gel, you might get some funky reactions going on if you weren't 100% sure that you had dried every last little bit of monomer out of the brush - which is darn near impossible.
Monomer in the gel might cause the gel to be less stable, it could prevent it curing properly and it could lead to service breakdown. 
You may also find powder particles rearing their ugly head if the brush isn't completely clean!
Gel also will build up a little in a sable brush in particular, giving you a firmer shape to the brush as well as preventing the bristles from absorbing enough monomer, changing your bead ratio.

You cannot use a nylon gel brush for acrylic for one simple reason. 
Monomer melts nylon!
That's the main one, but as an aside nylon isn't absorbent so you will struggle to pick up a bead. 
The liquid just slides on off, meaning you will find it trickier (not impossible) to keep your liquid/powder ratios correct.

If you were to use a sable gel brush for your acrylic you would have less issue with service breakdown as gel brushes are so much cleaner. 


Basic Brush Care

Nylon

  • Easy to care for. 
  • No maintenance, cleans easily of product. 
  • You can use any ISO based cleanser on it and it's fine. 

 

Sable

  • More sensitive to chemicals
  • Clean only with monomer to keep the bristles conditioned and prevent drying out
  • Avoid alcohols, acetones and harsh chemicals that will strip the cuticle from the bristles, dry them out and make them lose their shape. As like the hair on your head, you will get drying bristles that will lose shape, get fuzzy, get harder and lose their softness 
  • If you use them in water based paint, you will only need water to clean them
  • If you use them in gel, you will need to use a cleaner to get them really clean again, which means risking the condition of the bristles.

 


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