“What’s the difference between gel, acrylic, silk, or fiberglass?”
"Is one better for my nails than another?”
With the variety of options available for nail services today, it can sometimes seem over-whelming and the technical jargon can be very confusing. The information provided here applies to ALL professional nail services. It is intended to help you better understand what you should expect from your nail services and what to be wary of. No one particular professional nail product is better for your nail than another. All are safe to use if used as directed, so the real issue is to find a well educated nail professional that can recommend which enhancement option will meet your expectations and is best suited for your lifestyle.
Acrylic– A liquid and powder product that is carefully mixed to the correct ratio by the nail professional. A brush is dipped in liquid (monomer) then in powder (polymer) and the resulting “bead” is applied to the natural nail. Acrylic has become a staple for enhancement services and is available in a wide variety of colors ranging from crystal clear, all through the color spectrum to black. Colors can be custom mixed to compliment your skin tone, applied in artistic designs or to create the look of polished nails (without the chipping). Acrylic is also available in glitters, shimmers and can even have confetti pieces in them. Acrylic air dries and is pliable for a couple minutes so it can even be shaped into three dimensional designs, also known as 3D or inlaid art. Acrylic has a fairly strong odor during the application process but creates a strong and rigid enhancement. A quality salon will make every effort to minimize the odor and vapors from acrylic and other nail products.
Gel – A gooey, gel-like nail product (oligomer) which does not need to be mixed by the nail professional. It is applied to the natural nail and must be “cured” with an ultra-violet light source (U.V. lamp) where photo initiators cause the gel to harden. Before any shaping can be done, a cleanser must be used to remove a sticky layer which remains on the surface. Gel is relatively new as an enhancement service but has been very popular in Europe and Canada for years. Gel is also available in a wide variety of colors ranging from crystal clear to a full spectrum of colors and can also include glitters. Gel is a flexible but durable and relatively low odor product (commonly referred to as odorless) so is popular for use in spas or where odor may be a concern.
Gel Polish - This product is actually a sub-category of "Gel" and is a common addition to other enhancement services. Gel polish must be cured under a UV Lamp just like other gels. Typically a colored gel applied in place of polish. It is a popular alternative to traditional enamel polish because it is completely dry once your service is complete and it is less likely to chip than a traditional polish.
Gel Sealer- Is another sub-category of "Gel" and is a common addition to other enhancement services. Gel polish must be cured under a UV Lamp just like other gels. It is a high shine product that is typically applied in place of a traditional polish top coat or in place of buffing nails to create a high shine. Sealers may or may not have a sticky layer to remove and are available in a variety of clear, sheer and shimmering shades.
Powdered Gels – This is not a category of gels but rather a manufacturer’s description of a nail system whichdoes in fact use powder and does indeed need to cure under a U.V. lamp. Acrylics and gels are essentially the same chemical compound, except that acrylic application requires that the nail tech mix the liquid with the powder to create the compound where as gel is single component of a gel-like consistency. Some low odor acrylics “cure” or harden with the help of a photo initiator which requires that they be placed in a U.V. lamp. This system is popular for training uses because of its slower set up time and reduced odor. (When students go to their licensing exams, many of the sites are not ventilated to accommodate the odor created from traditional acrylics.) It is not a popular service in salons because low odor acrylics do not have the same strength, clarity, or color stability (can turn yellow or grey) as traditional acrylics. Beware any nail tech who tries to charge you a premium price for a gel service but uses liquid and powder.
Fiberglass/Silk- Also known as "wraps" are created by applying alternate layers of a resin or glue (cyanoacrylate) with cut strips of fiberglass or silk to provide strength and reinforcement of the natural nail. Wraps are very useful for repairing broken natural nails when other enhancement services are not desired.
No Light Gels- A gooey resin or glue (cyanoacrylate) is applied to the natural nail then sprayed with an “activator” to cure (harden) the resin. Oftentimes fiberglass or silk is added within the layers or acrylic powder may be sprinkled on to increase strength. This system creates a very flexible and low odor nail enhancement that is suitable for an overlay on the existing nail but not ideal for extending the length of the nail as it is not as strong as its alternatives.
Acrylic Dip Systems– This service is an alternative to traditional acrylic services. Dip systems are a combination of resin (cyanoacrylate) and acrylic powder (polymer) used to reinforce natural nails. A coating of resin is applied then dipped into a fine acrylic powder and re-coated with resin. A more sanitary method is to sprinkle the acrylic powder onto the nail. An activator spray is commonly used to speed up the curing (hardening) process.
“What is the artificial nail process? What should I expect?”
Arrive for your appointment about 5 minutes early with clean nails free of polish. It is not recommended that you bring children or guests with you as this will detract from your service. Do not bring food or drinks with you unless necessary. You should expect to be in the salon about 1-1/2 hours for a new set of nails.
A responsible nail professional would perform a consultation to establish what your expectations and needs are then recommend a service that best serves your needs. The service should start with both of you washing your hands, then they should demonstrate or explain to you what sanitary precautions they take for your protection (ie: new file for every client, disinfected nail tools).
Your cuticles will be pushed back and tissue adhered to the nail plate will be gently scraped off to ensure good product adhesion. The surface of your natural nails will be lightly buffed or filed and the free edge (finger tip) shaped or shortened. A tip (plastic extension, usually really long) will be glued to the tip of your finger nail then cut to desired length and the seam blended to your natural nail to create a tip & overlay service. Alternatively, your nails may be sculpted. (See “What are sculpted nails?”)
The recommended nail product (see “what’s the difference..?”) will then be applied over your natural nail and the extended nail edge to create strength and length. Once set, the product will be shaped and smoothed with a file or electric file (commonly incorrectly referred to as a drill) and blended to your natural nail so that it looks as if it were your own. They will then be buffed, or sealed with top coat or gel, to create shine. Your should then receive home maintenance tips and schedule your next service appointment (2-3 weeks) before you leave. (See “how often do I need to get my nails done?”) Some may even offer a hand massage to finish.
“Do artificial nails damage my natural nails?”
Although your natural nail needs to be filed slightly for the product to adhere, it should only be enough to remove the shine and must be done with care to protect the natural nail as much as possible. Professional quality products do not require that the nail be “roughed up” for product to adhere. A sensible nail professional understands that keeping your natural nail healthy is like having a strong foundation under a home – it’s essential for good structure. Care must also be taken during your maintenance services to avoid overfilling the re-growth area. If your nails appear very pink in some areas and are sensitive, your nails have been over-filed.
“Is it supposed to hurt when I get my nails done?”
“My nails felt like they were burning when they were filing my nails, then they put the gel on and it got so hot I wanted to cry! When they were filing them they cut my cuticles with the drill. Another time I needed a new set and they stuck this tool under my nail and just pried the old nails off - it was so painful!”
Let us start by saying very clearly for the record - NO NAIL SERVICE should EVER hurt or burn. When files (either manual or electric) are used inappropriately, clients may suffer from burning sensations, cuts, abrasions, and excessive thinning of the natural nail plate. This damage can be long lasting and sometimes permanent. Your nail takes approximately 6 months to grow from your cuticle to the tip of your finger so any damage created during a initial application or maintenance service may take up to 6 months to leave your natural nail.
If you ever experience pain or a burning sensation, you must notify your nail care professional at once and something should be done to alleviate the pain. If you feel that your concerns are not being properly addressed and they are not making an effort to make the experience pain free for you, you are not in good hands and you should feel no guilt in stopping your service and leaving the salon.
If you experience painful burning on your natural nail when your nails are being filed, then they are likely being over-filed, meaning that your nail plate is being excessively damaged. If there is a burning sensation coming through your nail enhancement, this can be caused by filing too fast, the friction creating heat. Your nail professional should be able to alleviate this effectively by adjusting their speed or grit of file. (Be wary of technicians using a dremel tool rather than an electric file with variable speeds, as they usually are unable to reduce the speed, or the friction that it causes.) Heat may also be experienced with gel application but it should be very minimal. If you feel more than just a little heat, then the technician needs to reevaluate their product choice/and or application technique. This excessive heat can cause permanent damage to the nail and should be avoided at all costs.
Nail enhancements should NEVER be pried off the nail. This is not only painful and causes the nail to be excessively thinned but may cause permanent damage to your nails. Nails must be removed by soaking in product remover, or by gently filing and buffing them off with extra care so as to not damage the natural nail. Nail enhancements should only be removed by nail professionals that can take care to preserve your natural nail and leave it as healthy as before you had your enhancements applied.
No nail products intended for the nail plate should come in contact with your skin and you should not experience any burning sensation or itching from them. Great care should be demonstrated to keep nail products from coming in contact with your skin. If this care is not taken, you many not see any immediate effects, but with prolonged exposure, you risk developing an unsightly and painful allergic reaction to the products.
Don't be afraid to complain! There are agencies who oversee your welfare in the salon. Depending on which country, state or province you are in, it may be called the Board of Cosmetology or your local health agency. These agencies are there specifically to protect the public. If you sense hazards or suspect something is not as it should be, make a point of voicing a formal complaint to the appropriate local agency. They have the power to investigate, correct actions that are unsafe, levy fines and in extreme cases, even close irresponsible and unsafe salons.
“Why do some salons charge so much more than others?”
Not all nailists are equal – just as not all hair stylists are equal. Many of us wouldn’t dream of selecting our stylists based on price because we know that this typically reflects their skill level and quality of work, not to mention the salon's standards. Selecting your nailist should be no different. A nail professional that uses only professional good quality products, has many years of experience, advanced training, enters competitions, or is renowned within their own industry will certainly charge more than one new to their career for example. Even the standards of cleanliness and professionalism of the salon itself warrants a higher price when you think about it. A high end salon or restaurant will charge more than your typical neighborhood salon or café.
The best way to select a good nailist is to see their work first hand or in a portfolio. Look to see a license or certificate of education on display and preferably, certificates of continuing or advanced education. Ask them questions and see how comfortable they are explaining their sanitary precautions or what products they use.
“I’ve been told gel is “healthier” and “better for my nails” – true?”
This is absolutely not true but it has been a rampant rumor, even amongst nail professionals. Many product manufacturers will claim that their product is better for, or healthier for the nail but the truth of the matter is that none of them can legitimately make these claims and none will state it in writing. Any professional product manufactured for the nail industry is safe to use on the natural nail if it is used as directed by the manufacturer. The problem is that many nailists are not well-educated enough to see the discrepancies that make these claims a myth. Many nailists are promoting gel in an effort to distinguish themselves from “discount” nail salons that commonly use MMA (methyl methacrylate) acrylic. (See “What is MMA?”)
“What’s with those discount salons?”
You may have noticed, depending on where you reside, an increasing number of salons offering only nail services. Many people refer to them as “discount” salons. While it is typically true that these salons offer discounted nail services, you should make an informed decision before selecting a nail salon based on price. That being said, discounted doesn’t necessarily mean poor skills but you should be cautious and investigate why they may be cheaper. It is unfair to lump salons under these labels or to discriminate by race. Industry professionals refer to these salons as “non-standard” salons, meaning that they do not meet our nail industry’s typical standards for sanitation standards, quality products or commitment to customer service and client satisfaction.
Many of these salons use a low quality product called MMA (Methyl Methacrylate) because it is very cost effective. (see “What’s MMA?”) However, MMA has been proven to be damaging to nails and in fact, has been banned for use on nails for years, but because it is difficult to prove, many get away with it. This product frequently yellows, is typically cloudy, and is almost impossible to remove from the nail unless it is pried off. Another way these salons cut costs is to not use mandatory disinfection agents due to their expense, nor take the time to use them effectively. Risking your health with these tactics is no laughing matter as bacteria and serious viruses such as Hepatitis can be contracted in salons. Typically, these salons restrict their nail services to time slots less than one hour and the quality of work and damage to your natural nails will reflect this. There are common complaints regarding a lack of professionalism such as taking a walk in client and making scheduled clients wait well past their scheduled appointment, talking to other employees in another language in front of clients, not talking to the client, causing clients pain and getting frustrated with them if they show it, over charging or charging additional fees for things that are typically included in a salon service, and not understanding English well enough to give clients what they asked for.
“What is MMA?”
Many “discount” salons (see “What’s with those“discount” salons?”) use a low quality product called MMA (Methyl Methacrylate) because it is very cost effective. However, MMA has been proven to be damaging to nails and in fact, has been banned for use on nails for many years. Nails created using MMA may cause permanent damage to the natural nail. This is due to the fact that the product is so hard that any damage to the nail can cause the natural nail beneath it to tear off into the nail bed. If you have MMA on your nails you will most likely have had your natural nail filed quite heavily because the acrylic doesn’t adhere to the nail well without “roughing it up”, thus leaving it very weak and susceptible to tearing. Because MMA is so hard, it is also difficult to file and to remove, so some irresponsible nailists will attempt to pry it off the nail when a removal is needed which is very painful and further damages an already badly compromised nail. Salons using MMA typically use a high speed dremel to file the nails, which can be very painful due to the heat caused by friction. Quality professional nail products are made with EMA (Ethyl Methacrylate), a much more costly version of the acrylic liquid that is non-yellowing, flexible yet strong and can be applied thinly without becoming brittle, and can be removed without prying it off.
MMA Fact Sheet
MMA info from the Nail Manufacturer's Council
MMA info from Health Canada
“How often do I need to back to have my nails done?”
Typically, nails should be “filled” (also known as a maintenance service) every 2-3 weeks, depending on the rate your nails grow, how well you take care of them, the length you wear them, and the length of your own natural nail plate. If you are new to nail enhancements, have short nail beds (pink area), are hard on your nails, or are wearing them about 1/3 the length of the nail bed or longer, you will likely need to stick to the 2 week schedule. If you have long nail beds, wear them shorter in length, & take good care of them, or your nails grow slowly, and you are coming in for services without repairs, you can stretch your fills to 3 weeks and in some cases, up to 4 weeks.
“What happens to my natural nails as they grow longer?”
Your natural nail grows from the cuticle area where it is created in the matrix area of the fingernail. Even with an artificial nail coating, your nail continues to grow as usual, no slower and no faster. Some are under the impression that their nails grow faster because they are not accustomed to seeing their free edge (white area past your fingertip) so long and seeing the gap over the next couple weeks that shows how much the nail has grown out from the cuticle area is sometimes surprising. So the overlay is simply protecting your natural nail as it grows so it does not break, tear or split. Your nail health will not be compromised if you are with a good nail tech as they will know to not over-file the natural nail both and compromise the nail health or structure.
“What are Solar Nails?”
"Solar Nails" originated as a line of products manufactured by "Creative Nail Design" many years ago. Since that time, the term has been loosely used to refer to pink and white (Permanent French) acrylic nail services which uses acrylic to create the classic French look usually applied with nail polish. Typically, you can expect to pay more for this service. However, many salons now use the term interchangeably to refer to other variations on services to warrant charging a higher price such as: a higher grade of acrylic product, acrylic nails with a gel sealer, or even UV (solar) gel nails. No professional industry publication will refer to Solar Nails as a type of service because it is a brand of product, not a style of application such as gel or acrylic.
“What are Crystal Nails?”
"Crystal Nails" refers to the application of clear enhancements, typically acrylic. The free edge (tip past your finger) can be extended with clear product to give the illusion of crystal clear nails. Your natural nails will grow within a week so that you can see your natural free edge through it. Crystal nails are a good base for nail art and designs can be created that will cover the free edge that will grow out. Crystal clear products are usually of higher grade than those that appear milky or cloudy and may warrant a higher fee.
“What are Sculpted Nails?”
This term refers to an application technique wherein “forms” (pre-shaped metal or adhesive paper) will be wrapped around the tip of your finger to serve as a platform to build an extension on. Once the product has been applied and has set, the forms are removed. This is an advanced technique (although it used to be the only way to create length) so only those who have been in the industry awhile or have extensive training use this technique with success. The alternative is to create the length by applying a plastic “tip” to the nail edge and sculpting nail products over top of it. Sculpting allows room for far more creativity if you like nail art.
“What is Permanent French?”
This term refers to the classic popular French look (white tips) but created with white gel or acrylic rather than nail polish. The advantage of this service is that it will not chip as polish would and needs to be filed off, hence “permanent”. You should expect to pay more for this service as it requires a higher skill level to create the French with nail enhancement products. As your nail grows, the white area will also need to be “filled”.
“Why do people get artificial nails on their toes?”
A new popular service is to get a gel overlay on toes. Unlike for our finger nails, this is not usually to make them stronger or longer. Although nail products can be applied to repair nails or recreate a permanently damaged nail, product is usually applied to serve as “permanent polish”. Benefits include: no drying time (as with nail polish) no chipping, high shine, and results last for weeks.
“Why do I need to use cuticle oil?”
Cuticle oil is vital to your natural nail health whether you wear nail enhancements or not. That being said, a quality cuticle oil will provide much better results than one with poor quality ingredients. A good cuticle oil will contain fine grade pure oils that are very small in molecular structure so as to penetrate the nail structure and the nail enhancement. If your cuticle oil does not soak in, the oils are not doing the necessary work to help the nail become more pliable, keeping the nails strong and flexible. When the natural nail is too dry, it is more prone to chipping and cracking as well as becoming stained and misshaped. (Think of a wood bread board, when it is oiled, it does not stain or frey and stains will wash off the protective barrier the oil created.) When the nail tip is dry it will often curl inward and pull away from nail enhancements providing a crevice that attracts bacteria and creates a risk for infection. The oil actually fills microscopic voids in the nail and nail enhancement structure which helps to provide more strength. (Think of anything porous vs. solid and how easy they are to break in comparison)