If social media is anything to go by, nail extensions — from acrylics to gels — are a canvas for cool nail art. We've spotted oyster tips (strategically applied pearly polish that fans claim gives the classic French manicure a run for its money) and metallic swirls (created by layer upon layer of gel polish and topped with chrome powder). Now there's a new manicure trend sweeping TikTok and it asks just one thing of nail extensions: that they look as natural as possible.
Enter: hyperrealistic nails.
@natoridoesnails fr i am on my nail growth journey but i had to cheat just to see what the potential was 😎 #hyperrealistic #diygelx #nailgrowth #gelx #nails #nailsartvideos #nailideas #nailtutorial ♬ Fantasy - Mariah Carey
What are hyperrealistic nails?
With 229.5 million views and counting on TikTok, hyperrealistic nails have got us all second-guessing which of those enviably long, durable tips are real and which are an impressive illusion. They are essentially a set of extensions, typically gel extensions, gel X (a soft form of extension) or acrylic, which create the appearance of naturally long and healthy nails — almost as if you grew them yourself.
Rather than trying to be glossy and minimalist like the French manicure or the trending 'milky' manicure, the hyperrealistic manicure is more about mimicking the exact details of natural nails. You'll spot yellow-tinged tips (rather than bright white) and even nail grooves for an extra dose of realism, like this manicure created by celebrity manicurist and nail educator Julie K on Instagram.
If you have very short nails but have always dreamed of elongated tips that prompt people to ask, "Are they real?", then this trend is for you. Gracie J, multidisciplinary nail artist and indie brand founder, says that hyperrealistic nails are considered both a technique and nail art, while nail artist Arielle Mosses refers to the trend on Instagram as 'special effects'.
Sometimes, as TikTok DIY nail enthusiast Natori Perez-Takashima explains, nail artists even "accentuate the lunula, which is the half moon shape at the base of the nail". The finished result is long tips that could fool anyone into thinking they're your own. "The allure is having the appearance of perfectly sculpted 'natural' nails, all without having to go through the growing process," says Gracie J (not to mention the disappointment of them inevitably breaking or chipping). Look to these deceptively natural nails by manicurist Bree on Instagram.
Why are hyperrealistic nails so popular?
There's a handful of reasons why hyperrealistic nails are catching on fast. The first, as Gracie J mentions, is that many people struggle to achieve length without some form of professional help from an extension. "For many, dream nails are long, strong and healthy," says Gracie J. Slow nail growth or nail breakage can be down to a wide variety of factors such as your lifestyle and how often you use your hands, not to mention diet and overall health.
The second reason is our obsession with minimalist nails. On TikTok, the hashtag #minimalistnails boasts almost 10 million views. Paring things back is firmly on the agenda.
@nectanails I this this is my favourite nail trend so far🙂💗 #hyperrealisticnails #naturalnails #nailart #nailforms #buildergel #tutorial #nailinspiration #nailsmagazine #viral #tiltoksa #nectanails #squarenails ♬ Agape - Nicholas Britell
How do hyperrealistic nails differ from the American manicure?
Many people on Instagram and TikTok have been quick to call hyperrealistic nails just another version of the American manicure (a take on the French manicure but with a sheerer ombré tip). The experts will tell you that while the two do have similarities in that they both appear very natural, they aren't the same.
The American manicure can be created with anything from regular nail polish or gel polish to BIAB (builder in a bottle) or an acrylic extension. Hyperrealistic nails, however, always require an extension; that's kind of the whole point of them. The second difference is the subtle (but crucial) shade difference. The American manicure takes far more inspiration from the classic French manicure. "Visually this is often a muted French manicure-like design with a sheer, pinky-nude overlay as the final finish," notes Gracie J. The hyperrealistic nail tends to feature a yellowed tip because that's what a natural free edge of a nail actually looks like. "This is finished with a glossy or matte top coat," Gracie J explains. Look to this picture posted to Instagram by nail artist Kris Kie and this manicure by Konings NailBeautique.
How to achieve the hyperrealistic nail
Don't be fooled: Just because hyperrealistic nails appear simple doesn't mean they're quick and easy to achieve. There are a few ways to master the look, as Gracie J explains, including using custom or pre-mixed acrylic colours, gel extensions, press-on extensions, fibreglass or silk wraps. A professional salon appointment is recommended regardless.
It's also helpful to bring along reference photos so that your nail technician knows your desired outcome. Once your nail pro has chosen the type of extension that suits your nails best, it's time for the precise colour-matching (unless they did an acrylic overlay, which is already tinted). Often this mix is a touch of yellow, brown or taupe and a cream shade. "This is painted along where the free edge starts, all the way to the tip," says Natori. Once cured (if gel) or dry, this is finished off with a matte or glossy top coat (like these nails posted to Instagram by nail artist Naglar) depending on your preference.
Aftercare always applies, too. "No picking, peeling or ripping nails off," says nail artist Kate Williamson, "because this will cause massive nail damage," for example ridges and tears. "Oil those babies like your life depends on it," instructs Kate, who champions a regular glug of cuticle oil, "and book in regular infills to keep them in check."
What are the benefits of hyperrealistic nails?
The hyperrealistic nail trend isn't particularly cheap as it requires professional skill and extra materials like gel or acrylic. But Kate explains that those who visit the salon regularly will find that opting for simple nails is always one of the best choices for minimal nail growth. "The longer you can push the nail design before an infill, the better," particularly for the overall health of your nails, says Kate.
What are the downsides of hyperrealistic nails?
As with most nail trends, there is a downside to the hyperrealistic manicure. The irony is that many of the enhancements used to create healthy-looking nails can actually damage the nail plate. That's not to say all of these enhancements are damaging, but they can be.
"Acrylics are great for nail-biters or people who use their hands a lot, and they can be used to fix splits in the nail, too," Kate says. They're also very durable and can be an excellent choice for many. Gracie J adds: "We've evolved with the times to produce better quality products and better techniques, which are more suitable to the health of clients' nails." The bigger risk is user error: If you're prone to picking off your acrylics, it's likely you'll lift off some of your natural nail in the process, which can take months to repair.
The same applies to gel extensions, which are wonderful for helping people grow their natural nails but if picked off or removed incorrectly at home, can leave your nails worse for wear. Gel extensions enlist hard gel, which is non-porous, meaning you can't soak them off using acetone. You'll need to get them removed by a professional who has an electric file (or E-file). Your chosen nail professional will likely use this tool to drill away and remove the gel.
Attempting to use an E-file at home is never a good idea as drilling beyond the hard gel can damage the nail plate and prevent healthy regrowth. Visiting a professional for both application and removal is always recommended as nails can often become damaged and weak underneath the extension.
Lastly, how much does a hyperrealistic manicure cost?
Judging by both TikTok and Instagram, demand for the hyperrealistic manicure shows no sign of slowing down. In London, acrylic nail extensions can start at around £25 to £30 but this will vary from salon to salon. Infills tend to be cheaper at around £20 but it's a good idea to double-check the price with your local salon beforehand.
Refinery29's selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission.