Artificial Nails: Acrylics, Gels, and Silks

From the WebMD Archives

There are plenty of reasons to get artificial fingernails. Maybe you're going to a wedding or reunion and you want to look sharp. Or perhaps you've had trouble growing your nails long and need assistance.

Gel, acrylic, and silk nails are widely used. Most people choose gels or acrylics when they're committing for a longer time. Silks are most often used for a shorter time to strengthen nail tips or repair nail trauma, rather than making nails longer.

Acrylic Nails

Your nail technician will mix a liquid with a powder and brush the mixture onto your nails. They'll usually cover your entire nail, though sometimes they'll just add tips or a flexible form that they can sculpt to extend your nails.

The product hardens as it is exposed to the air. You may notice a strong odor during the application process, but it isn't harmful, provided the room has good ventilation.

Upkeep: Over time, acrylics grow out with your nails. Every two to three weeks, you should return to the salon to have your nails filled in. Your technician will gently file down the acrylic edge closest to your nail bed, then fill in the empty area between your nail bed and the existing acrylic nail.

Removal: When you decide to have your acrylics removed, your nail technician will remove them quite easily, with no forcing or prying, after soaking your hands in nail polish remover for 15 minutes.

"If you accidentally catch on something, like the edge of a drawer, the whole nail can get lifted off of the nail bed," says dermatologist D'Anne Kleinsmith, MD, of West Bloomfield, Mich. "When you break that seal, you're able to get a yeast or fungus or bacteria brewing in that space."

Gel Nails

Unlike toothpaste-thick gel products of the past, today's gels have a similar consistency to nail polish.

They are brushed onto your nails, nail tips, or nail appliqués to extend length. After your nail technician applies each coat, you must put your nails under ultraviolet (UV) light for up to two minutes to "cure" or harden the product. There is no odor during the application process.

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There have been reports of skin cancer risk from the UV exposure, which may be a consideration, though you're not getting exposed to a lot of UV light per session.

Gels are more expensive than acrylics, but they may hold their color longer without chipping, so you may not mind the steeper price.

Maintenance: Like acrylics, gels grow out with your nails and need to be filled in every two to three weeks. Your technician will gently file down the gel edge closest to your nail bed, and then fill in the empty area between your nail bed and the existing gel nail.

Removal: You can remove most gel nails by soaking them in nail polish remover. Some nail-sized wraps are filled with nail polish remover, which can loosen the artificial nails enough for removal, without drying out your hands.

As with acrylics, you could get an infection in your nail bed if minor trauma (such as getting your finger caught in a door or accidentally banging your nails against a countertop or other hard surface) causes your gel nail to lift your entire nail off.

With either gels or acrylics, the nail doesn't have to come completely off your finger to cause an infection. If it's loose, but still attached, that could be enough for bacteria or other germs to cause problems.

Silk Nails

These fabric wraps are glued in place to strengthen weak nails or help a cracked nail grow out. Some wraps are made of silk, but others are made of linen, paper, or fiberglass.

Your nail technician will fit the material to your nail's shape, hold it in place, then brush on glue.

Silks are intended to be temporary, and the adhesives will loosen within two or three weeks, or sooner if you wash dishes by hand without gloves. Your nail technician can remove or reapply them at your follow-up visit.

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10 Tips for Artificial Nails

  1. Go to a pro to get your nails. At-home products "require a lot of skill, far more than do-it-yourself hair color," says Doug Schoon, co-chair of the Professional Beauty Association's Nail Manufacturer Council on Safety.
  2. Don't peel off your artificial nails. "They're designed to adhere to the nail, so if you peel them off, it yanks off the top layer of your nail," Schoon says. After they're off, your own natural nails should look healthy. Go to a pro to get it done right.
  3. Choose a nail technician based on recommendations from friends, rather than basing it only on location or price. "A lot of people walk into the salon down the street because they see a price in the window that looks attractive, but they're not getting the same service as they would going to someone educated with the right skills," Schoon says. "If your nail technician isn't experienced, she can file your nail plate too thin when applying gels or acrylics, which can damage your nails."
  4. Your nail salon should look clean and disinfect tools between clients.
  5. Your nail technician should wash their hands before working on your nails and ask you to do the same.
  6. Leave your cuticles alone. Don't let anyone at the nail salon cut or push back your cuticles. Breaking the seal between your fingernail and nail bed can lead to infections.
  7. Don't bandage or try to repair a damaged nail yourself. Go to a professional so you don't get a nail infection.
  8. Ask your technician how to care for your nails between visits. "It's important to get a good, knowledgeable nail technician, someone who can teach you how to properly maintain your nails," Schoon says.
  9. Speak up if something seems off. Tell your technician if you're in any pain after your artificial nails have been applied, because they aren't supposed to hurt. If you develop rashes or itchiness around the fingertips or your eyes, face, or neck (which many women often touch with their hands), Kleinsmith says you could ask your doctor if you're sensitive to one of the ingredients in your artificial nails.
  10. Go natural now and then. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends skipping artificial nails occasionally, to give your own nails a break.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 07, 2012

Sources

SOURCES:

D'Anne Kleinsmith, MD, spokeswoman, American Academy of Dermatology; dermatologist, West Bloomfield, Mich.

Doug Schoon, co-chair, Nail Manufacturer Council on Safety (part of the Professional Beauty Association); president, Schoon Scientific, Dana Point, Calif.

Professional Beauty Association: "What to Look Out For in a Nail Salon: INTA/NMC Consumer Guidelines." 

American Academy of Dermatology "Artificial Nails."

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