The one and only time I got acrylics done was in college. It was junior year and in a moment of spontaneity (and delusional hipness), my friend and I went to a nail salon and got colored French tips (mine were cobalt blue, hers were hot pink). We thought we were so cool.
As it turns out, in a quick poll among friends, nearly everyone I spoke with had a similar experience. Acrylic French tips in college, it seems, were something like a rite of passage and most people’s first brush with nail extensions.
It’s the overpowering acrid smell that first comes to mind—the potent odor of harsh chemicals that, as you’re sitting there, has you convinced that whole clusters of brain cells are dying with every whiff. One friend said she hated the smell at first, “but now whenever I pass the nail salon near my apartment, it reminds me of college.”
Acrylics—or acrylic French tips at least—may have only been popular among my cohort during our college years, but acrylics in their modern form have been around since 1954 (legend has it that Fred Slack, a dentist, broke his nail at work and replaced it by creating an artificial nail with dental acrylic). Since my brief stint with artificial tips, natural square-shaped, short (often unpolished) nails have been my go-to look for years, but as committed as I am to it, even I can’t help but be intrigued by Kylie Jenner’s talons or the incredibly intricate nail art—usually painted on a set of acrylics—on Instagram.
“Acrylics are old-school, and I do think they’re making a comeback,” says Mei Kawajiri, the nail artist whose masterpieces have been seen on the fingertips of everyone from Gigi Hadid to Marc Jacobs. She points to her own lengthy acrylics that she decorated with polka dots. “I really do like acrylics—I don’t think acrylics will ever go away.”
What are acrylic nails made of?
Powder and liquid monomer and polymers are mixed together to form putty-like “beads” that are then painted and shaped onto your nail with a brush and air-dried. There are two methods for acrylic nails: with a plastic tip (that is glued on and the edge is sanded down so that it looks naturally connected to your nail plate) and with a form (a sticker that’s wrapped around your nail and is used as a shaping guide for technicians; the acrylic goes on top and the sticker is removed at the very end).
Even though acrylics have been around for decades, the ingredients have largely remained the same. “There are new formulas that have improved the speed at which it dries or have ensured a smoother texture, but other than that, it’s the same,” says Yukaco, senior nail artist at Akiko Nails who has 13 years of experience.
Acrylics versus gel: How do you choose?
Acrylics are much stronger than gel—they’re harder to the touch—so they’re much more durable. “Generally, people who want to extend their nails to be really long, really pointy, or want 3D nail art, then acrylic is for them,” Yukaco explains. “If you want a more natural-looking extension, then go with gel, which is more flexible. If you use gel for very long extensions, it might break.”
For Kawajiri, she believes that it all depends on the person’s nails: “Sometimes with acrylic, lifting occurs for some people, so they prefer gel, and for others, gel extensions won’t hold, so they love acrylic.”
Take the time to research salons.
Not very many salons offer acrylics, which I was surprised to learn. When asked why that is, Yukaco says it’s because “acrylics require a skill that some technicians don’t have. They’re a little difficult to apply compared with gel. Also, the smell of acrylics is very strong and overwhelming, and many small nail salons don’t have proper ventilation.” In other words, seek out a technician who’s trained and experienced in acrylics.
Nail prep is crucial.
Any problem you might have with acrylics—pain, lifting, breakage—can be traced to how well your nail was prepped. The nail must be filed (but not too far or too much), it should be sanitized, and the top layer should be sanded down to remove oils. And if you’re using the plastic tip method, they should be perfectly aligned with your nail (a too-big tip can cause product to seep into the side walls and cause lifting; a too-small tip can pop up).
“It shouldn’t be painful at all,” Yukaco says. “If it hurts the next day, it’s because your nail technician did it wrong—they filed the nail too much or they forced the tip to make it fit.”
Are acrylics bad for your nails?
When done properly (again, can’t stress enough how important nail prep is), acrylics aren’t any worse for your nails than any other artificial extensions. Your nail health, obviously, isn’t going to be at level as it was prior to application (the removal process can weaken the nail’s natural state), but it won’t cause permanent damage. So why do acrylics have such a bad rap?
“Gel extensions are newer and more natural-looking, so many people assume acrylics—which have an intense look—are bad for your nails,” Yukaco says. “It’s not true. Gels aren’t better for your nails and acrylics aren’t worse for your nails.”
With an experienced artist, it can take an hour for application.
With a less experienced technician, it can take 1.5 hours or more.
They last for two to three weeks.
Return to the salon for fills to take care of new nail growth and to keep the edges sealed, which will prevent water from leaking in and harboring bacteria. Kawajiri recommends doing a fill once before removing the whole set.
Acrylics have a reputation for “popping off,” which Yukaco says can happen when you hit them against a hard surface, if you use your hands constantly (typing counts), if you have short nail beds, or if your nail was not prepped correctly (again, nail prep!).
Leave it to the professionals for removal.
Don’t even think about removing your acrylics by yourself. It can rip your nail out or cause damage. Acrylics have to be cut short, thinned using a file, and then soaked in acetone. The whole process takes about half an hour.
The cost can run upwards of $100.
At Akiko Nails, a set of acrylics cost $100, which includes a solid color coat of gel. For nail patterns, prices start at $3 and can go up to $20 per nail, depending on the intricacy of the design.