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Artificial Nails: Acrylics, Gels, and Silks

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Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

WebMD Feature

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.

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.

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