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What Is Nail Primer?

Angela Farrer
Angela Farrer

Nail primer is a manicure product applied to natural unpolished fingernails prior to applying colored polish or artificial enhancements. It works as both cleaning agents and adhesives. Many formulas are acid-based and, therefore, must be used carefully to avoid chemical burns and irritation, but newer ones contain a higher percentage of solvents or have no acid at all, reducing risks. Usually produced and sold as liquids, they normally go on easily with a brush and are a staple in both salon and home manicures.


Nail primer helps polish bond to the nails so that manicures last longer.
Nail primer helps polish bond to the nails so that manicures last longer.

This product has two main functions. The first is to create a tiny amount of roughness on the nail plate, which gives polish or artificial nail enhancements something to cling to. The second is to form chemical bonds between the natural nail and the polish or acrylic tips. These results mean that, when applied properly, the primer can prevent polish from chipping or fading and keep fake nails from prematurely lifting.

How It Works

A nail primer may serve as an adhesive before colored nail polish is applied to a person's nails.
A nail primer may serve as an adhesive before colored nail polish is applied to a person's nails.

In most cases, a nail primer contains acids or other agents that remove both oils and bacteria. It also has a dehydrating effect, which is actually desirable because polish and enhancements don't stick well to wet surfaces. The molecules of the product have two "arms," and one bonds to the nail surface while the other bonds to the polish or fake nail. For this reason, people often compare it to double-sided sticky tape.


Nail technicians typically go through some basic steps to prepare nails for this product. They usually clean the nails and soften and exfoliate the cuticles. Some manicurists prefer to roughen the surface of each nail with an emery board to remove the natural oils, although others caution against this step because it can increase the chance of nail irritation, and because it can thin the nail plate. The next step is to put on an adhesive protector on each of the client's fingers to avoid the product coming in contact with the skin, followed by the actual application of the nail primer.

In most cases, nail primers are liquids that go on with a brush, similar to nail polish. Technicians can use two techniques to apply it, however. They can put a dot of the primer on the nail plate and let it spread by itself, which is done more to get the chemical bonding effect, or they can spread it with the brush, which is more common, and which is more for cleaning and roughening. In either case, the natural nail should be completely covered. Experts usually say that using more than one thin coat is not necessary, with two reserved only for people who consistently have trouble with lifting or chipping. More than this can cause damage, because although the primer doesn't "eat" the nail plate, it can seep down into the nail bed and result in irritation or even separation of the bed from the plate.

During the application process, it is important to allow the primer to dry fully before proceeding any further. Failure to do this means that it doesn't get a chance to adhere properly to the nail plate, which defeats the purpose of using the product. Depending on the type used, it can be chalky white or shiny when dry.


There are three main types of nail primer: acid, non-acid and acid-free. The first kind, which is most frequently used with acrylic tips, has been used for years and is relatively standard, usually made from 30 – 100% methacrylic acid (MA). Despite its popularity and long history of use, many people don't like this version because it is so highly corrosive, increasing the risk of burns, and because it has a tendency to yellow enhancements, particularly if not allowed to dry well.

The non-acid formulas do contain acids, but just not methacrylic acid. They are about 70% solvents and only 10 – 30 percent adhesive agents. The lower percentages typically allow technicians to use them on more sensitive clients, although experts don't recommend promoting them as gentler — the effects depend as much on the type of acid as the percentage used.

The most recently developed kind is acid-free, which can be put on generously and which is said not to discolor or burn. Some technicians believe these formulas are even better than the non-acid ones, and they usually consider them to be about as effective as versions with MA. This type is becoming increasingly popular in salons.

From the scientific standpoint, the main difference between these versions is the type of chemical bonds they create. Ones with acid create a hydrogen bond with the natural nail and a covalent bond with the polish or enhancement. The acid-free kind creates only covalent bonds. Scientists consider hydrogen bonds to be relatively weak, because they are based only on an electrostatic attraction. Covalent bonds are stronger, because they involve the sharing of electrons between atoms, which is why acid-free primer formulas usually create better adhesion.

Discussion Comments


@feasting – I've seen some brands of nail primer advertised that dry in seconds. The kind I use dries rather quickly.

I use an acid-free version that could also be called a base coat. It won't discolor my nails or skin, and there is no chance of getting a chemical burn from it.

I've read that the kinds that contain acid that are designed for use with acrylic nails can damage your skin and nails. I don't know why anyone would put themselves at risk by using these.

If you take care of your natural nails and use an acid-free primer before applying polish, you shouldn't need artificial nails. Also, you will save a ton on the cost of a manicure by doing it at home.


I rarely use nail primer, but I know that I should. It just seems that I'm always in a hurry and trying to get my nails done as quickly as possible.

How long does it take for nail primer to dry completely? Is it possible to buy kinds that dry in under a minute?

Most of the nail polish that I use dries totally in 60 seconds, and I love this. If I could find a primer that did the same, I would use it.


It sounds strange to me that a manicurist would remove the oils from nails before applying primer. It seems like that would be bad for the nails in the long run. I've never used artificial nails because I'm afraid that all the chemicals and glue would do bad things to my natural nails.


I made the mistake of just applying the polish directly to my nails without primer for many months. Over time, my nails became stained yellow, and even when I took the polish off to let them breathe for a few weeks, it didn't fade.

The yellow just had to grow out. It took a long time for my nails to look normal again.

After that, I made sure to use primer before applying polish. If I ran out of primer, I would just wait until I could get some more, because I wasn't going to go through all that again.

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    • Nail primer helps polish bond to the nails so that manicures last longer.
      By: starush
      Nail primer helps polish bond to the nails so that manicures last longer.
    • A nail primer may serve as an adhesive before colored nail polish is applied to a person's nails.
      By: gulserinakin
      A nail primer may serve as an adhesive before colored nail polish is applied to a person's nails.