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Everything You Need to Know Before Getting Acrylic Nails

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Head to your fave nail salon for your much-anticipated mani appointment, and you'll notice that the service menu is filled with seemingly endless options—and they all sound good. Most of us are familiar with the classic manicure in seasonal colors (or that same nude shade you can’t help but reach for every time), but you can also opt for longer-lasting options like gel nails, dip powder nails, and acrylic nails. There are even some salons that create intricate nail art designs that transform your nail beds into tiny works of art. What mani option you choose comes down to you and what you're looking for in your pursuit of picture-perfect nails.

If you’re ready to refresh those hands with a new mani, one key thing to consider is whether you want to paint over your natural nails or extend the length and durability of your nails with artificial nails. If the latter is more your style, an acrylic manicure has been a popular nail option since the 1970s. Acrylics are ideal for someone who loves having long nails but has trouble growing them out, because, let’s face it—we do so much with our hands that it’s not always easy to get the nail length we want. But is this type of manicure bad for your nails? And how exactly is it different from a gel manicure? We break it all down for you below.

About the Expert:

Nell Smith is a nail artist who views nail art as accessible installation sculpture and applies multimedia techniques and art history into her work. She is self-taught and has been working with gel as her primary medium for over a decade.

What are acrylic nails?

Acrylic nails are false nail tips glued to your natural nails and held in place with a thick, durable coating that can be customized with any nail shape, color, or art that you want. 

Instagram is filled with mesmerizing manicure and nail art videos that show the process of applying acrylic nails, but for those that need a refresher, an acrylic mani begins like most manicures you've probably had: The nails are trimmed and buffed, then the cuticles are pushed back. Next, a nail dehydrator is applied to remove any oil from the nail bed, and nail glue is used to adhere a plastic tip to your nail to extend its length.

Here is where a bit of chemistry comes in. Nail artist Nell Smith explains, "Acrylic nails are composed of polymer powder and liquid monomers." When the two ingredients are mixed together, they create a putty-like consistency that's molded to the nail to create a thick, durable coating over both your natural nail and the nail extension that has been applied. The nail technician will work quickly to expertly shape the acrylic nail to match the shape of your nail bed before it air dries. Finally, the new nail is filed to your desired shape (like stiletto, square, or almond) and then topped with the nail polish color of your choosing, plus any desired nail art.

Acrylics are quite different from something like press-on nails, as acrylics create a much stronger bond to your natural nail. At-home acrylic nail kits are available, but if this is your first time venturing into acrylics, the safest bet is to leave your mani to a professional manicurist.

Are acrylic nails bad for you?

Acrylic nails are not inherently bad for your natural nails. According to Smith, proper application and removal are really what will determine how much acrylics will affect your nail health. "If your nails are drilled down before the acrylic is applied and the removal consists of the product being ripped off, then, of course, your nails are going to be toast," she says.

"Proper application doesn’t involve 'scoring' or sanding down your natural nail. All that is necessary is buffing off the surface oils with a light buffer (by hand, no drills with sanding bands), dehydrating the nail’s surface, and properly priming with a primer that is from the same product line as the enhancement product so there is no chance of product breakdown or discoloration. If you have a nail tech who cares and takes their time to ensure the health of your natural nails, you can totally get fake nails without your natural nails being torn to shreds afterward."

It's also important to note that there are two types of acrylic used by nail salons: ethyl methacrylate (EMA) and methyl methacrylate (MMA). Pro tip: Make sure your nail artist is using ethyl methacrylate. "MMA is a dental acrylic that is extremely hard and doesn’t soak off in acetone, so you essentially have to file it all the way off, which causes damage to the nail plate," Smith says. "MMA also adheres so well to the nail plate that in the event of a nail break it can potentially rip off your entire natural nail with the enhancement." Ouch...EMA it is!

How long do acrylic nails last?

Acrylic nails can last anywhere from a week to two months, depending on how well they're applied and how well you take care of them. Smith says the duration of a set of nails has a lot to do with how the product was applied. "Is the enhancement overlapping onto the skin?" she asks. "Was the tip placed correctly? Was your nail tech rushed?"

She also says it depends on how much you care for them while you're wearing them. "If you are conscious of your nails and treat them with care, they can last a month or more," says Smith. "I’ve seen sets of nails I’ve done last anywhere from a week to two months." She says wearing gloves while washing dishes and avoiding any blunt force that could potentially wrench the nail forward or backward are both good practices to keep in mind to extend the life of your manicure. Sooo...a good excuse to get out of doing the dishes? Down.

What’s the difference between acrylic nails and gel nails?

Acrylic nails are made by combining polymer powder and liquid monomers, whereas gel is more like a traditional polish except thicker and goopier.

If you see your nail tech combining two ingredients together in front of you, then you know it's acrylic; gel doesn't require any pre-mixing of powder and liquid. 

"Gel is from the same family of ethyl methacrylates as acrylic, but instead of polymerization occurring through two products meeting and starting a chain reaction, the hardening or 'curing' takes place in a UV or LED light stimulating a photoinitiator in the product," Smith says.

These two techniques can get confused as they both technically fall under that "fake nail" category. What can make it more confusing is a manicure can sometimes include a hybrid of the two methods: Gel nail polish can be applied over acrylic nails. And if you want a nail extension for your gel manicure, that's sometimes made of acrylic and then glued to your nails.

Nowadays, though, if you want a nail extension with a gel mani, it's more common to use gel nail extensions, which are pre-shaped nail tips made completely out of the gel. These will essentially look just like acrylics, but they can be less damaging and require fewer chemicals during application.

"Gel is my personal favorite product to use," says Smith. "It typically has no odor and you can achieve anything you can possibly imagine because it is so versatile. There are so many different products to play with under the umbrella term 'gel'."

How do you remove acrylic nails?

"Removing a nail enhancement typically consists of filing off the top layers of product and soaking in pure acetone for 10 minutes or so," Smith explains. "Adding heat can help accelerate the product breaking down in the acetone. You can use a heating pad around foil wraps or a bowl of warm water. It’s important to be patient and never force the product from the nail surface—the product should slide right off the nail without much effort or scraping to ensure the health of the natural nail."

While it is possible to remove gel nails or dip nails at home, you should avoid removing acrylic nails at home if you can. This is a step best left to the experts, because while the removal process is similar, most nail techs will use a nail drill to first file down the acrylic coating.

Once the nails have been removed, hydrating your natural nails is always key. "Acetone can dry out your nails and make them brittle," says Brown. "Moisturizing the nail after the removal is extremely important to help with rehydrating the nail plate for flexibility."

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Article Last Updated October 6, 2020 12:00 AM