Acrylic nails have been around for nearly seventy years, and loved by many for the strength and creative expression they offer. While once associated with working class and minority communities, acrylics have long been adopted as a mainstream nail option at the salon.
While acrylics come and go in the trend cycle, with new systems like polygel and “builder in a bottle”, you might be scratching your head about how acrylics are different and whether you should stick to the tried-and-tested method, especially when more independent Instagram nail artists appear to be moving away from acrylics again. But don’t get it twisted — acrylics still have a plethora of benefits that might make them perfect for you.
We spoke to nail technicians, a cosmetic doctor and an acrylics enthusiast to answer all your burning questions about acrylic nails — everything from how to remove them safely to how to wipe your butt when you have them on. Here is everything you need to know about acrylics.
What are acrylic nails & what are they made of?
Acrylic nails — often referred to only as acrylics — are a type of artificial or "fake" nail style performed at nail salons.
Thi Vu, Director at Bondi Nails in Sydney explains that acrylic nails are a mixture made up of acrylic powder and a liquid monomer that is built over your natural nails for strength, or built out with extension tips or sculpting forms to add length to the natural nail.
Acrylic nails have been around professionally since the 1970s, but were first invented by dentist Frederick Slack, who experimented with dental acrylics to fix his own broken nail two decades earlier.
As Cosmetic Physician and founder of Skin Club Dr Vihang Sharma explains to Refinery29 Australia, the materials at its core are made of acrylic plastic derived from a chemical called methacrylate. Because of this, acrylic nails aren't considered to be eco-friendly because the core ingredients take approximately 200 years to decompose.
"Unfortunately, when acrylic plastic is dumped in landfill, it can lay there for many years, slowly releasing toxic gases and chemicals into the environment which can affect the air and water," says Dr Sharma. But he emphasises that it's not just acrylic nails that contribute to microplastics — because gel nails do, too.
Who should get acrylic nails?
Nail artist and founder of CJ Artistry in Western Sydney's Granville, Jade Pham adds that there are both perks and considerations when getting acrylics. "The pros are that you get instant length, structure and strength to your nails," she explains to Refinery29 Australia. "The cons to acrylics are that there is regular maintenance to upkeep your nails and they are artificial."
Pham says that generally, acrylics can be worn by most people. However, some people may negatively respond to the acrylics, which can cause pain, swelling, itching, redness and blisters. "To determine this, we can test the product on a nail, and if the client suffers from any symptoms, they may be allergic to the acrylic system," she says. "However, if the pain goes away after one to two weeks, it may have just been an irritant reaction."
Just like when you're introducing any new beauty product into your regime, a patch test is always the go — so don't be afraid to ask your nail tech to do one before committing to the procedure.
What is the process of applying acrylic nails?
"To ensure that acrylics last as long as possible, nail preparation is key," Vu tells Refinery29 Australia. As a first step, your nail tech should push back your cuticles to get rid of any loose skin or hang nails, followed by a discussion as to whether or not you would like to add length to your natural nails or not.
"If you wish for longer nails, we then go in and add length using nail tips or nail forms to create desired length and shape," says Vu. "Tips will then be measured, cut and filed."
However, it's still possible to apply acrylics onto natural nails without any form of extensions — a process called acrylic overlay. "This is very helpful for nail biters who just want the added strength to grow out their natural nails," adds Vu.
A whirring grit tool known as a sanding band is then used to gently rough the surface of the nail bed to ensure the acrylic adheres properly, before the nail beds are wiped down with alcohol to remove all dust and oil. Then, primer is added to the nails before the acrylic application before the fun begins.
"We dip a special acrylic brush into a liquid monomer and then into acrylic powder," explains Vu. The combination of nail liquid and powder bonds into a malleable blob known as a bead. "We then place this bead on the nails and sculpt to create a seamless and thin artificial nail."
Once the clear acrylic has been spread over the nail, there is a short wait while the bead sets. Once it's fully air dry, it is filed manually to ensure that your desired length and shape is achieved, before an electric file is used to smooth out the nail.
The final step, Vu shares, is to get creative. "The last step is to apply colour, top coat, nail art, diamonds or whatever your heart desires," she says. "And voila!"
How much do acrylics cost?
It really depends on where you go, but on average, a full set of acrylics will generally cost around $45-$55 in Australia. At CJ Artistry, Pham prices builder in a bottle, gel and acrylics the same because of the quality of products they use across the board. But she explains that many independent nail techs and artists will charge more than a nail salon you'd find in a shopping centre because of the cost of goods.
"In the market, gels are priced higher than acrylics," says Pham. And of course, prices will always depend on where you go and can differ dramatically between each city, town and suburb.
Why do people go for acrylics?
Maria, 25, tells Refinery29 Australia that when she's in an acrylics mood, she gets new sets done every two or three weeks. "I love my little mittens to look cute and fabulous, and acrylics are the only ones that hold onto short nails the best, I reckon," she says of her nail weapon of choice. On the occasions that she has branched out and tried soft gel extensions, she says they fell off after five days because they had "nothing to grip onto".
"I love a long round — not too almond," Maria says. At the same time, she finds that her nails do become thinner when the acrylics are on, making it harder to grow them out in a classic Catch-22.
How are acrylic nails different from SNS, gel and regular polish?
You know you're getting acrylics because of the liquid and powder combination. They also set by themselves without the aid of an LED light. You can still apply gel polish or Shellac on top of acrylics after the bead has set on top of the nail bed.
While SNS also involves a powder, the nail is painted with an adhesive base polish first before your finger is dipped into a jar and the excess is tapped off in layers — kind of like using a glue stick on cardboard paper and sprinkling glitter on it. Once nails have grown out with SNS, you need to get them removed completely. "SNS and acrylic are probably considered similar in the sense of formulation, however all types are all slightly different," adds Dr Sharma.
Then there's gel extensions, commonly referred to as hard gel. The mixture is a goop in a pot — kind of like an acrylic bead but pre-mixed — that is cured with an LED light to dry and stick. This is different from a gel polish, or a soft gel, which is a harder, stronger form of nail polish set with LED lights in between layers. Dr Sharma adds that these types are lacquers that won’t add length to the nail but can strengthen them a little depending on the formula. Shellac is a patented brand of gel polish, like Heinz is for baked beans.
Finally, there's the good 'ol manicure you can do either at home or at the salon that are basically a couple of swipes of polish, and you're good to go. And how is it different from acrylics? "Regular nail polish is simply a lacquer made out of ingredients like nitrocellulose and usually ethyl acetate or butyl acetate," explains Dr Sharma.
I think SZA said it the best when she said, 'picking up a penny with a press-on is easier than holding you down' because when you've had acrylic nails on for long enough, you can do anything.
maria, acrylic nail enthusiast
Have acrylics gone out of style?
If you follow independent nail techs on Instagram, you may notice that many only work with gel these days and have seemingly abandoned acrylics. But Pham tells us that acrylics aren't a faux pas just yet, and it all comes down to preference.
"Gels have been gaining popularity in the last one to two years and I'm predicting it will be the nail system of choice for people this year due to the ease and flexibility in the product," she says, explaining that it requires less steps, technique and skills training from a tech perspective. "They are also softer and quicker to remove than acrylics. However, they also have their own pros and cons just like any product. People need to still be aware that there is no product that is "healthier" than the other. People can still suffer from reactions with gel as well."
How long do acrylic nails last?
With proper TLC, acrylic nails can last for a couple of months before the original set starts to chip or show wear and tear. However, filling in over-nail regrowth is imperative to achieve this duration and prevent unsightly nails.
"Acrylics are enhancements that need to be filled in when nails have grown out," explains Vu. "By doing this, we don't have to remove the enhancements to do a new set. This ensures that we don't have to cause any unnecessary damage to your natural nails in order to refresh and create a new-looking set of nails."
The original acrylics are filed down slightly if they've started to lift off the nail bed before an additional bead is placed over the newly exposed natural nail. This should be done every two to three weeks depending on how fast your natural nails grow.
"To ensure they last as long as possible, we recommend using cuticle oil daily, don’t use your nails as tools, and come in regularly for your infill," says Vu.
Can acrylics damage your nails?
Pham says that acrylics have been the longest-standing nail product to date in comparison to SNS and gel manicures. "There's constantly new nail systems hitting the market, but nothing has surpassed acrylics and it's due to the strength and longevity of the product."
If you choose not to fill in your acrylic nails, they might look a bit unsightly, but that's as far as the risk goes. "There are a lot of myths around acrylic nails being 'bad' for you and I don't believe this statement in entirely true," says Pham. "Any nail enhancement you get should be maintained every two to three weeks. This is to ensure that structure is restored to the regrowth of your nails. I have been wearing acrylics for 17 years and have had no reactions or issues."
Any damage to nail plates that can occur (with any nail system) is generally due to trauma or nail health, she continues, saying that many of the reasons are contextual rather than the nail product you're using — including if your nail tech is untrained or if you pick or bite your nails.
Dr Sharma counters that people that use acrylic nails can potentially fall victim to the "dreaded snapped nail" where the nail lifts from the bed, which can often lead to infection, but this again can be down to multiple factors. He warns that applying acrylics can require some hefty filing for them to stick, and removal can further weaken nails, meaning that the nail bed can sometimes be damaged at the start and end of the set's lifecycle.
Dr Sharma agrees that there aren't any long-term safety concerns with acrylic nails themselves, but says that over time, there is potentially concern over other materials used in the process, such as glue that can cause skin issues like contact dermatitis, as Pham also recognises. As always, picking a nail tech you trust will help mitigate any risk.
How do you remove acrylic nails?
While it can be very tempting to take matters into your own hands, Vu warns that you might be doing more harm than good by not just returning to the nail salon for removal.
"Acrylics should never be ripped off or hacked off," says Vu. "This will cause serious damage to your nail bed."
Acrylics should always be removed using the soaking method. A nail tech will file the bulk of the acrylic off with an electric file, leaving a thin layer behind. The nail is then wrapped in an acetone-soaked cotton wool ball and aluminium foil.
"The acrylic will soften and we can gently scrape the remainder off without damaging the nail bed," says Vu. "We then gently buff the nail bed, leaving it smooth and shiny."
Once the old acrylic nails are off, you can get them redone, opt for a simple manicure or just a cleanup if you want to let your natural nails breathe between sessions.
What tasks are easier and harder with acrylics on?
"I think SZA said it the best when she said, 'picking up a penny with a press-on is easier than holding you down' because when you've had acrylic nails on for long enough, you can do anything," shares Maria. "There are more things that are better with acrylic nails: you look cuter, you can scratch your head, you can scratch your body. People love when you touch them — it's nice!" She also finds putting necklaces on easier because she has more to work with than her actual nails.
The only hurdle that Maria has encountered with acrylic nails is typing, but she acknowledges that her colleagues who get longer nails than her have adjusted and don't have problems with them anymore. If your job requires constant keyboard use either on a laptop or phone, make sure you practice before returning to work or request shorter a nail length.
Maria's only horror story with acrylic nails was when she once went to make her bed when she had an especially long set on, and her mattress landed on her. "Your brain doesn't recognise acrylic nails as appendages," she reflects. "So it kind of fell onto my hand and ripped a nail off. It's very common — it happened to my sister too in another situation." The experience landed her in the ER and she had to wait for her natural nail to fall off and grow back.
As for debris and muck building up under acrylic nails, Maria says it's easy to clean them with basic hygiene practices. "I think Trisha Paytas makes it seem a little bit gross because she sucks all the food out from under [her extension nails] — I love that for her, but personally I think it's easier to manually remove stuff from under nails. Basically, just wash your hands." A lot of people instinctively use another nail to dig out the underside, but be careful about microtears or damaging your natural nail.
"I think acrylic nails would be harder for girls who have sex with girls, but then they get that cute little 'gay nail' which is such a vibe," she says of the choice to keep one nail short in same-sex relationships. Masturbation can also be harder with acrylics, but Maria says a vibrator fixes all.
She shares that it's actually a misconception that wiping your butt in the bathrooms is harder with acrylic nails. "I don't think mine have ever been long enough to get in the way. Most of the time, I never even think of my nails when I'm doing that."