Regular manicures are fun and all, but if you want to grow extra-long nails that can showcase more nail art and sassily click clack on your keyboard, you may need the help of a protective enhancement or extension of some sort — and acrylics are a classic option.
When I was a girl, I’d sit next to my mom at the salon and watch her nail technician apply acrylics, enthralled by every dip and swipe of the brush. Naturally, I wanted acrylics myself, but the answer was always no until I was well into high school. And that’s because my mom was worried that they’d damage my nails. Was she right? Are acrylics bad for your nails? Read on, because Bustle pinged a few nail care experts to find out.
How Are Acrylics Applied?
Applying acrylic to the nail beds is an “artform,” says Los Angeles-based manicurist Chelsea King. “Using acrylic is an effective way to add length and strength to your nail,” she tells Bustle. Techniques can vary, but you’ll first begin with a basic manicure. Then, an acrylic brush gets dipped into a monomer liquid and then immediately pressed into a polymer powder, which creates a chemical reaction and, in turn, a moldable paste of sorts. That paste is applied to your natural nail (or lengthening tips), and dries and hardens in just a few minutes, King explains. From there, they can be filed and shaped to the desired finish.
How Do Acrylics Compare To Gel Nails?
Builder gels and gel polishes are popular enhancements that are pretty close to acrylics in that they are similar chemically and all harden on the nails and add thickness. The finished look isn’t that different between the different enhancements either, says King. But the big difference is that gel requires a UV or LED curing light to set and harden the product while acrylic hardens on its own without any additional gadgets. King says she tends to prefer using hard gels because the acrylic fumes can be pretty strong and potentially dangerous if you’re not in a well-ventilated room.
Acrylics are also stronger than gels — which can be a double-edged sword. Acrylics are less likely than gels to chip and break, but when they do break, you could be dealing with more than a ruined mani. If you’ve ever worn acrylics for any length of time, you may have experienced the following. You’re cleaning the kitchen countertop or reaching for a car door handle and hit your nail at just the spot that it basically snaps in half, breaking your natural nail too — causing excruciating pain and bloody chaos. Gels, on the other hand, are more flexible (like a natural nail), and so, while still hard and protective, they bend with your nail to absorb impacts like those, Brittney Boyce, nail artist and founder of press-on brand Nails of LA, explains.
Are Acrylics Bad For Your Nails?
Now for the moment of truth: Acrylics may have a bad reputation, but King says they aren’t inherently damaging if they’re applied and removed properly. “Sometimes if the natural nail is filed too much during the prep process, it can make your natural nail thin and painful — or create what is called ‘rings of fire,’” she explains. When getting an acrylic fill-in, sometimes your nail tech may file your grown-out natural nail when filing down the artificial nail. “So, over time, you will get ring shapes on your nail where your nail is very thin,” King says. Another common issue? The use of cheaper, potentially harmful acrylic alternatives. King notes that some salons use methyl methacrylate acrylic (MMA) versus ethyl methacrylate acrylic (EMA). The former kind, according to King, is actually a dental product and is extremely hard. And this variety of acrylic makes the gruesome break described above more likely.
With acrylics, there’s also the potential for an allergic reaction, says dermatologist and nail specialist Dr. Dana Stern, M.D. Specifically, she notes that an irritant contact dermatitis could happen, which is a reaction that occurs immediately after the exposure to chemicals used in acrylics and would typically affect the skin surrounding the nail or nail bed. “Symptoms would include immediate burning or pain and subsequent inflammation, redness, and even blistering and lifting of the nail off of the nail bed,” she explains. If you feel a burning sensation, she advises that you ask your technician to immediately remove the acrylic.
Another possible reaction, Stern explains, is a delayed hypersensitivity reaction, which occurs in someone who has been repeatedly exposed. “Over time, the person’s immune system learns to recognize and react to that chemical, and so the littlest drop or exposure can set the reaction into a full inflammatory cascade,” says Stern. Technicians themselves and people with eczema or who tend to have a compromised skin barrier are at greater risk for these sorts of reactions. Also worth noting? Stern says that long acrylics are more likely to harbor debris and bacteria (which is why it’s important to keep them clean).
Just be sure to never use acrylics to conceal and ignore nail abnormalities. “The nail is a window into our health, and so covering the nail hinders the potential ability to see if there is an issue going on,” says Stern. “When you see your board-certified dermatologist for an annual skin check, come polish and acrylic free.”
How Should Acrylics Be Safely Removed?
To safely remove acrylics, King says they should first be filed down with a hand file or an electric file until they are very thin and then soaked in acetone to remove the remaining product. “This shouldn’t damage the natural nail at all, the only downside is it can be a bit time-consuming,” she tells Bustle. When an electric file is used incorrectly, Stern says it can damage the nail and/or cuticle barrier — so you should be sure to see a professional nail technician for the removal job.
For the soaking process, note that MMA acrylics will become gummy after soaking, says King, while EMAs will flake off. And since acetone is such a strong, harsh ingredient, Stern recommends protecting your nails and cuticles by applying a barrier emollient before soaking.
Of course, all the experts say to resist the urge to ever peel off or otherwise forcibly remove your acrylics. “If your nail tech pries off acrylics with a [plastic] nail tip — run!” King says. “That is the worst thing you can do for your nails since it is ripping off layers of your natural nail.” Stern says aggressive removal can cause damage to the nail matrix, the half-moon part of the nail that actually produces the nail plate. “Matrix damage will result in abnormalities observed on the nail, including surface irregularities, white patches, bumps, and grooves,” or even infections, she explains.
And remember, you still have to care for your cuticles when wearing acrylics. Stern suggests hydrating regularly with a cuticle oil or ointment. As long as you follow expert-recommended best practices, you should be good to enjoy your gorgeous mani.
Chelsea King, Los Angeles-based manicurist and nail artist
Dr. Dana Stern, M.D., New York-based dermatologist and nail specialist