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Acrylic Nails for Beginners: Everything You Need To Know About the World’s Most Popular Nail Enhancement

Trends in acrylic nails have shifted from super long to short and more natural — find out if they're right for you!

For the first time in recorded history, the sales of artificial nails are poised to outpace the sales of nail polish in 2023. Why this amazing rise in popularity of artificials after decades on the nail scene? Thank social media influencers, who have inundated Instagram and TikTok with innovative acrylic nail designs. And, of all the artificial nail approaches, acrylics continue to dominate. What makes them so compelling? They create a kind of smooth canvas that allows innovative designs to shine. (Click through to see the top nail designs of 2023.) And the creativity doesn’t stop with nail art, acrylic nails also make it easy to test out a new nail shape like the popular almond shape, so you can easily change up your look.

Plus, although historically acrylics were synonymous with long nails, times have changed. Acrylics are now commonly created with shorter tips, which is another trend among manicures. So no matter if you want to go for a natural-looking, short length or the longest-of-long, you can join in on the trend just by getting a set of acrylic nails.

But before you head to your local nail salon and test out the trendy nail enhancers yourself or decide if the manicure is right for you, you’ll want to know how they’re made, how much they cost, what kind of upkeep they need and more. Keep scrolling get the 411 on acrylic nails.

What is so great about acrylics?

We know: you’ve heard the rage about acrylic nails for years and your friends and family who swear by them. But why are they really so great? And why should you try them?

Acrylics are often desired for their durability and strength. As we age, our nails often become more brittle and weak. This is partly due to its loss of proteins, such as keratin. It is also common for our nails to form dents and ridges as we age, which commonly leads to insecurities surrounding your hands and nails.

Acrylic nails do wonders for easily covering these insecurities and creating a strong nail that you may struggle with naturally growing. Even more, they create an amazing canvas for designs and nail art. You likely scroll through dozens of nail designs on social media, thinking “I wish I had the nail space to do that”—with acrylics, you can!

What are acrylic nails and how are they made? 

“Acrylic nails are a type of nail enhancement that are made with a mix of a polymer powder and a liquid monomer,” explains nail artist Sigourney Nuñez. “Together, they create a small bead that can be used to create an extension or overlay.” Once a nail technician applies this acrylic to a client’s nails, the material hardens and becomes much stronger. It then can be buffed and filed to create the shape and length of the client’s liking.

A woman with light pink long, acrylic nails that's holding a woven blanket

And for a little background on how acrylic nails started, surprisingly, they were invented accidentally by dentist Frederick Slack in 1954. He had a broken nail, and used dental acrylic to remedy it. Since then chemists and nail professionals have developed much safer and better techniques to make acrylic nails, but it’s interesting how this nail enhancement got its start in such an unlikely and DIY way.

How are acrylic nails applied?

After you choose your preferred nail shape, length and color, your technician will begin your acrylics appointment by cleaning, soaking and filing your natural nails. If you requested length to be added to your nails, they’ll add artificial tips after that; but if you requested very short acrylic nails, they will typically skip this step. (Click through for classy, short acrylic nails inspiration.)

A manicurist is applying acrylic onto a woman's  nails in a nail salon

Next, the technician applies the acrylic to nails, then they sand down and shape the acrylics to your preference. Finally, they add any additional polish, nail art or decorations that you request.

To see how acrylic nails are created, watch the below tutorial from YouTuber and manicurist Natali Carmona.

How to get the look at home

While it’s best to get acrylic nails done at nail salons, you can get a similar look at home. For easy glue-on acrylic nails, try a kit like KISS Salon Acrylic French Nail Kit (Buy from Amazon, $8.17). All it takes is a little bit of glue and filing to create your preferred shape to get the appearance of acrylic nails in 10 minutes or under. (Click through to discover the best at-home nail kits for women over 50.)

How much do acrylic nails cost?

The price of acrylic nails varies widely between nail technicians. The average cost for acrylic nails ranges from $70- $80, says Nuñez. Of course, they can be less or more depending on where you live and the salon you go to. For a pink or white acrylic set, prices can sometimes increase as they can take more time to create.

And if you opt for nail art, the price of acrylic nails can cost over $100. For example, if you’re getting bedazzled almond-shaped acrylic nails or holiday-themed acrylic nails, you can expect to pay a premium price.

It’s also important to note that it might be tempting to pay a low price for acrylics, especially since there are “deals” of prices as low as $20 floating around online and discount salon booking websites. But there can be risk involved from getting a low-quality acrylic nails set.

How long do acrylic nails last?

The lifespan of acrylic nails varies widely from person to person. For example, if you’re someone that uses their hands for work quite a bit, especially for manual labor, you’ll earn quickly that acrylics won’t last long.

Mature woman looking at hands.

But generally, a set of acrylic nails should last for two to three weeks, and then you’ll need to go back to the salon to fill in the gaps that appear as your natural nails grow. And if you love wearing acrylic nails often, it might be worth considering removing them every two to three months to let nails “breathe” in between sets.

Will acrylic nails damage my real nails?

According to board-certified dermatologist Thomas Knackstedt, MD, most can use acrylic nails without it affecting the overall health of natural nails. However, it is possible that some can develop a contact allergy to dyes or glues used during the appointment.

Nail tech drilling and filing acrylic nails.

As is the case with many beauty treatments, the part of the process that can actually be the most irritating is the removal of acrylic nails. If you take good care of your nails and keep them in generally good health, the irritation should be fairly minimal. (Click through to learn how to safely remove acrylic nails at home.)

That said, a few may notice that their nails are particularly sensitive afterward and visibly brittle or discolored. If that’s the case for you, it may be best to consider alternate options for your next manicure. But if you don’t have any sensitive to acrylic nails, get them done at your heart’s desire— especially if you have a special occasion coming up when it’s time to impress.

Can acrylic nails lead to infection?

“When applied properly by a professional, acrylic nails are safe,” says Nuñez. “It’s important to be sure your nail tech is using an ethyl methacrylate or EMA liquid.” This liquid is used to create the acrylic and she says that you can gain insight into this based on salon pricing for acrylic nails as other alternatives of this liquid cost significantly less than EMA.

If your artificial nail is damaged or if you let your nails grow too long, a gap can develop between the acrylic and your actual nail. This can create a warm and moist environment in this space that can become a breeding ground for infection. And an infection might also happen if you request very long acrylics as bacteria can lurk underneath nails. Of course, if your technician uses unsanitary tools, this will put you more at risk for adverse reactions (as is the case with just about every beauty treatment out there).

Woman glancing down at her nails

Luckily, there are ways for those who want acrylic nails to keep themselves as safe as possible. Other than making sure that your nail technician properly sterilizes all tools used during the treatment, it’s also a good idea to select salons that display a current license and technicians who are licensed by the state board. For optimum safety, request a new nail file or bring your own (nail files cannot be sterilized like other nail tools). If you spot signs of a nail infection— such as redness, swelling and pus— after you’ve gotten acrylic nails, talk to a trusted medical professional about the best treatment for you.

Why do hands hurt after getting acrylics?

There can be a couple reasons why your nails may feel sore after getting acrylics. Perhaps your nail was over-filed. Or, as Nuñez says, “Getting acrylic extensions should not be a painful process, but sometimes you might feel a tight sensation on the nails that may feel sore.” The reason behind this, explained by Nuñez: “It’s the polymer powder and liquid monomer curing and hardening and making a firm seal in the first 24 hours after application.”

Although this can happen every now and then, it’s not a good sign if your acrylic nails hurt every time you get them done. If you’re still dealing with some discomfort a few days after your appointment, it might be time to find a different technician for the job.

Acrylic nails vs gel manicures

Hand under LED gel light.

When contemplating if you’d like to get acrylic nails, you’ve probably heard some women suggest that you try gel nails instead. Considering that gel nails are often grouped in the same type of beauty treatment as acrylics, it’s easy to confuse the two, or even mistake them as terms that could be used interchangeably. But in reality, they’re quite different and each technique has its pros and cons. (Click through to discover some fun jelly nail designs.)

Acrylic vs gel nails: They’re made of different things

While acrylics are nail enhancements made by combining a liquid acrylic product with a powdered acrylic product, gel nails are part of a more homogenous gel product that needs to be “cured” or “sealed” onto the nail with the use of a UV light between each layer. One helpful way to understand the difference between gel and acrylic nails is to think of gel as premixed acrylic.

Acrylic vs gel nails: They differ in how long they last

Acrylic nails are stronger and more durable than gel nails, but gel can actually be used to strengthen the natural nail and help protect it as it grows. Gel manicures may be a more practical choice for those who use their hands quite a bit as gel is more flexible than acrylics. However, acrylics can sometimes last longer because of its hardness.

Acrylic vs gel nails: They smell different

Another big difference comes down to the odor you’re exposed to when these treatments are being done. Gel is generally pretty odorless, but the same cannot be said for acrylics as the fumes can be strong. Thankfully the odor will not last on your nails after acrylics are made, and most nail salons have strategies in place that help eliminate the strong smell.

Overall, when it comes to the debate about gel nails versus acrylic nails, it’s hard to say which one is the “winner.” At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether you want to opt for acrylics or gels as it’s all personal preference when deciding which method works best for you and your lifestyle.

For more on acrylic nails and nail design inspiration, click through these stories:

How To Remove Acrylic Nails at Home — A Nail Pro Reveals Her 5 Easy Steps

14 Natural, Classy Short Acrylic Nails That Prove You Don’t Have To Have Long Nails To Make a Gorgeous Statement

Celebrity Manicurist: Why Jelly Nails Are Perfect For Women Over 50 — and How to Get the Look At Home

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