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What are Acrylic Nails?

By Nychole Price
Updated May 21, 2024
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Acrylic nails, also known as press-on nails, or fake nails, were first invented in the 1970s. The original versions were nothing more than pieces of plastic shaped like fingernails. They didn't look natural and provided no benefit to the natural nails. Today's acrylic nails are much stronger, look realistic and provide great benefits, as well as beauty, to the person who wears them.

The term acrylic is a shortened version of methacrylate, a combination of a monomer liquid with a polymer powder. The polymer powder found in fake nails is polyethylmethylmethacrylate, or PMMA. This chemical is what gives the nails its strength and durability. The chemical units of the monomer liquid react when mixed with the chemicals in the polymer powder to form long fibers that dry and harden to resemble a natural fingernail.

At every nail salon, sculptured nails are applied using the same basic process of cleansing, priming, mixing, sculpting and finishing. This process is used to prevent the possibility of developing an infection under your acrylic nails. It also ensures that your nail plate isn't damaged during the application process.

Cleaning the nail bed is the most important step in the acrylic nail application. During the process of applying fake nails, there is a possibility of developing tears in the cuticle. Bacteria can enter into the blood stream, resulting in a fungal infection. The nail bed is cleaned with an isopropyl alcohol,which dissolves oil and grease and kills bacteria.

Priming the nails is done to help the acrylic adhere to the nail bed. The most common type of primer is methacrylic acid, which dissolves a thin layer of the natural nail. This makes the nail bed rough and anchors the acrylic deep into the nail.

The acrylic resin is mixed directly before the application. Once mixed, the manicurist must work quickly, before the acrylic hardens. Once the acrylic resin hardens, it is unusable, as it can't take the shape of the natural nail.

Sculpting the nail involves placing a nail shaped form over the fingertip, which holds the acrylic resin in place. The nail forms are made from either a thin metallic foil or plastic. They are attached to the nail bed and sculpted with a file to the desired shape. The premixed resin is then applied to the nail form and allowed to harden. After hardening, the nail form is removed.

Finishing the acrylic nails involves filing and manicuring the dried resin. It is polished with the clients desired color, then painted with a clear coat. As the natural nail grows, the client must get the acrylic nails filled with more resin.

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Discussion Comments

By anon934667 — On Feb 21, 2014

I had acrylics done at salons for a long time. I found it so expensive for the designs I wanted that I would put off going for a fill, then the lifting and discolouration would be disgusting. I started doing them at home. It was hard, especially trying to do your dominant hand. I started watching videos online and they really helped.

The initial start up costs seem pricey at first for proper tools, but in actuality, it's very inexpensive in comparison to salons. Forget at home kits; buy proper supplies. I recommend a smile line cutter tool or a q cutter.

Just apply the acrylic and allow it to harden a bit, then use the tool to cut the smile line so there’s no messing around with wet acrylic and a brush one handed. Product consistency is very important, so practice making acrylic balls before trying on your nail. Use a gel overlay for crazy shine. I can redo them every week if I want. The best part is that I choose how much nail I file off.

By cloudel — On Jun 02, 2012

I tried to learn how to apply acrylic nails at home by watching an instructional video, but I messed up. Now, I only get them done in a salon.

It is more expensive, but at least the nail technician knows what she is doing. I can’t afford to keep making a mess of my natural nails, because they are already in such poor shape.

I’ve never had pretty nails. They have ridges and they are discolored. They have white spots here and there, and they are just too thin. So, getting acrylic nails is my best option.

By wavy58 — On Jun 02, 2012

@Oceana - My best friend owns a beauty salon, and she does some pretty impressive acrylic nail jobs. She offers several wild colors and designs, and many people take advantage of this.

She often gets requests for the acrylic nail tips to be a different color than the body of the nail. I have seen her paint a girl’s acrylic nails red and the tips black with white polka dots.

For detailed work like this, she uses a nail art pen. It’s very helpful for making dots and stripes on top of a solid color of polish.

By Oceana — On Jun 01, 2012

I think the prettiest acrylic nails are the ones painted to look natural. They have an ultra smooth pinkish polish covering them, and the tips are white.

Basically, it looks like a French manicure. I have done this with my natural nails before, and I loved the results.

With acrylic nails, the effect is usually more dramatic, though. You can have much longer nails with more tip area this way.

I try to grow out my nails as much as possible before doing a French manicure, but they often start to chip a little on the ends, and I have to trim and file them down. This wouldn’t really be an issue with acrylic nails.

By shell4life — On May 31, 2012

Acrylic nails sound dangerous and destructive. I think that covering up your natural nail bed for weeks at a time would suffocate it. Also, you are messing up your natural nails.

So, the manicurist applies something that actually melts away a layer of natural nail? That doesn’t sound healthy at all. Would you want a layer of your natural hair or skin melted away? Why are your nails any different?

I’ve always had strong nails that don’t break easily, so I’ve never been tempted to try acrylic nails. I think that even if my nails did chip easily, I would just keep them short to avoid having to do damage to them by applying acrylic nails.

By candyquilt — On May 30, 2012

@burcinc-- Acrylic nails should not be removed at home! Your nails will definitely get damaged if you do!

A lot of people complain about the damage acrylic nails cause, but they don't handle them properly. First of all, I don't recommend keeping acrylic nails for very long. Anything that covers your natural nails prevents the nails from "breathing" and is unhealthy. I think that acrylic nails should be refilled several times tops. So, after about a month and a half, two months of use, it's time to have them removed.

And always go to the salon to have them removed. They have a special way of removing them to prevent damage to the nail and they do it for free!

By burcinc — On May 29, 2012

@simrin-- No, they're not the same thing. They're made of the same substances but the gel nails are more flexible and the method of applying them is different.

Acrylic nails definitely look cute but they also damage nails a lot. I kept mine on for about five months. The hardest part about them was that I had to keep going back to the salon for the refill. I must have gone about ten times in those five months!

Otherwise, they're fun, strong and they hold nail polish really well. Nail polish on my natural nails last a week at most, but with acrylic nails, it lasts for two weeks easily. I really liked that about them.

I don't know if I'll get them again though. I removed them myself at home and it damaged my nails so badly. There were stripes all over them and they were so brittle because the top layer had been removed. If you already have nails that are brittle and hard to grow now, they will be impossible to grow after acrylic nail removal.

By SteamLouis — On May 29, 2012

I've never gotten acrylic nails before but I really want to. My natural nails are nice but they're thin and break before they grow too long. So I've always had to keep them short. But painting short nails and trying to do nail designs is not easy and not as fun.

I have a couple of friends who have acrylic nails. I love how their nails look perfect and polished all the time. And I've been told that as long as I get them filled and trimmed once in a while, I can keep them for a long time.

I just have a question, the nail salon I'm planning to go to, also has something called "gel nails" on their website. Is gel and acryclic nails the same? Which is better?

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