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Gels vs. Acrylics: What’s the Difference Between Fake Nails?

Is the science behind dip nails any different than the science behind gels?

Amanda Edwards/Getty

Fake nails: Depending who you ask, they’re either works of art, an absolute necessity, tacky nonsense, or a special-occasion treat. To me, they’re miracles of chemistry — and the way I completely, totally trashed my nails.

There are three basic types of fake nails, all of them from the acrylic family of plastics. The term "acrylic nail" usually refers to liquid and powder mixes, which are combined in front of you into a blob of dough, shaped onto your nail with a brush, and then air dried. Gel nails are painted on from a little pot of gloop and then cured under a UV light — the same basic technology as "soft" polish gels, but resulting in a harder nail. Dip nails are created by brushing the nail with glue, sprinkling on the same powder used in liquid and powder systems, and then adding an activator, sparking a chain reaction between the acrylic and the glue to create a hard, smooth surface.

(All of these systems grew out of dental technology, used for bridges and crowns. Many major nail product companies started in dental products before branching out to cosmetics. OPI, for instance, originally stood for Odontorium Products Inc.)

The author's own nails, with acrylics. Photo: Cat Ferguson

Extensions, aka the artificially long nails you might think of when you hear "acrylics," are not part of every dip or gel manicure. For added length, the products are applied either over a tip — a long piece of plastic glued to the end of your nail — or over a form, a little sticker under your natural nail that guides the extension and peels off once the nail is hard.

Each of the systems have benefits and drawbacks. "Gels have a harder, non-porous surface, so they’re less likely to stain — like if you work with hair color," Alisha Rimando, executive vice president and creative director of Artistic Nail Design, told me. "The downside for me is they don’t soak off. You can’t get them off unless somebody files them off."

Acrylics, being more porous, are both more likely to stain and easier to soak off in acetone, because both dye and remover can get in between the molecules of the plastic. That’s a selling point if there’s a possibility you’ll want to take the nails off yourself. Acrylics are also widely available and tend to be less expensive than gel. But a major drawback is the horrible smell liquid and powder systems usually give off during application. If not put on correctly, they can also be uncomfortably thick.

Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty

Dip nails can be applied quickly, and they don’t take as much skill as acrylics. According to Doug Schoon, a scientific consultant to the beauty industry and president of Schoon Scientific, they’re softer and more flexible than other extensions, because of their chemical makeup. Depending on your nails and your lifestyle, the softer consistency of dip nails might add comfort, or increase breakage.

Gels, acrylics, and dips all harden through chemical reactions that bond short chains of molecules into long ones, called polymers, solidifying the nail in the process.

In both gels and acrylics, the polymers hold hands with each other in ladder-like "cross-links." In dip powders, the polymers are tangled up like hairs in dreadlocks, but they don’t interconnect. "Gels and [liquid and powder acrylics] build net-like structures that are much more durable and stronger," Schoon told me.

Like any product in our great capitalist experiment, nail extensions can be the subject of misleading marketing, customer misinformation, and even outright fraud.

Like any product in our great capitalist experiment, nail extensions can be the subject of misleading marketing, customer misinformation, and even outright fraud.

"Acrylic is liquid and powder, gel is gel. Period. If your nail tech can't tell you exactly what the product is called, if it comes out of a labelled mystery pot, or [they] insist it's gel even though it's powder, you're probably sitting in the wrong chair," Robyn Schwartz, a nail technician and Akzentz Certified Educator, told me.

(I experienced this the first time I got acrylics, after walking into a random cheap salon and asking for gel nails without knowing what I was talking about. Don’t be like me! If they paint your nail with thick goo out of a pot and then stick your hands under UV, it’s gel. If they mix liquid and powder and mush it on, it’s acrylics. And if they paint your nail and then sprinkle powder on, it’s dip. Don’t let them literally dip your nails into a jar of powder — that means they’re using that same powder on multiple people, which is unsanitary.)

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Gel is usually more expensive than other systems, but is it better?

"A lot is marketing," Rimando told me. "When gel first started being promoted, everyone was like, ‘It’s much safer, it doesn’t damage nails.’ Consumer perception allowed salons to charge more — plus, you can’t sell gels in gallon containers like you can acrylics, so you can’t get a volume discount."

Some technicians will tell clients a product is a gel/acrylic hybrid, or a "powder gel." Neither of those exist, although it is possible to put a gel nail polish over liquid and powder acrylics. "Solar," "crystal," and "diamond" nails are all phrases salons use to make either gel, liquid and powder, or dip systems sound fancier (and more expensive). But they’re still going to be the same basic technology.

Photo: Boston Globe/Getty

As for safety, when done properly, fake nails shouldn’t damage your nails much. "Nail technicians push what they know, so they’ll swear one is more organic and safer, and they’re not," Schoon told me.

Technicians aren’t the only source of misinformation. "Gel manufacturers are out there implying that gels are healthier for the natural nails. There’s no reason to believe that at all," Schoon said.

Most damage attributed to nail extensions is actually caused by over-filing the nails, which is most likely to happen when a technician forgoes a hand buffer in favor of a drill fitted with a file tip to remove the top layer of natural nail. ("I’ve never met a nail tech in 30 years who under-files," Schoon told me.)

Over-filing is no joke. After months of acrylic fills at discount salons, I soaked the nails off, and here’s what my nails looked like — note the red line on my middle finger in the second picture, where a tech filed down nearly to my nail bed:

The author's nails, post-acrylic removal. Photo: Cat Ferguson

Some over-filing can be attributed to history. In the bad old days, fake nails were often made out of methyl methacrylate, or MMA, more commonly used for making tooth crowns and cementing hip and knee replacements to bone. It is also the raw material for making Plexiglas.

"[MMA] doesn’t bond to the nail all that well, so the techs would shred the natural nail with a coarse file to make the MMA stick. It’s very hard to soften in acetone, and you’ve shredded the nail so when you remove it you damage the nail tremendously," said Paul Bryson, a chemist and the director of regulatory compliance at OPI.

After the nail is filed down that far, it is much weaker than the MMA. If the fake nail catches on something, the damaged natural nail is more likely to give way than the super-rigid plastic, resulting in injuries — including the whole natural nail tearing off the finger.

If you get a tech who does it right, you’re pretty unlikely to sustain any serious damage.

The FDA first warned consumers about methyl methacrylate in the 70’s, and most professional societies and cosmetology schools now advise techs to only use the much safer ethyl methacrylate. Many states have banned using MMA for fake nails. Some discount salons still use it, because it’s so much cheaper — watch out for unlabeled containers of product, a very strong smell, and suspiciously cheap manicures.

Unlike MMA, modern enhancement products can stick with just enough roughing up to take the shine off your nail. While MMA has largely been "hounded out of the industry," as Bryson put it, some nail techs still over-file nails into that very rough texture, which can seriously damage the nail, and even the skin underneath.

If you get a tech who does it right, you’re pretty unlikely to sustain any serious damage. But even with the over-filing, I loved my acrylics. I wore them for months and never lost one, despite being incredibly rough on my nails. So knowing that picking between gel, acrylic, and dip is a matter of opinion, your lifestyle, and your nails — as opposed to safety — I talked to some people who prefer dip or gel over acrylics.

Giselle Guerra, a senior in psychology at St. John’s University in New York, is extremely into her dip nails. "I’ve done acrylics a few times, and it always falls off right away, it’s so annoying. A week and a half is a long time for me with acrylics," she told me. "If you hit something, [dip nails] bend with it, so it won’t hurt as much. If I press down on it right now, it bends a little."

Photo: Oxygen/Getty

Amanda Mull, a fashion and culture writer in Brooklyn (a friend of mine who, incidentally, introduced me to the idea that professionals can have crazy-ass fake claws), gets her gel extensions done at a salon that specializes in fakes, rather than regular manicures.

"If you’re looking for fake nails of any sort, the most important thing you can do is check out salons near you and find ones that do a ton of extensions," she told me. Dedicated salons will have much more experienced technicians, she pointed out, since that’s their specialty.

Mull wore acrylics in high school, because that’s what all the salons near her offered and what all the other girls wore. When she first went back to fake nails about a year ago, she got dip nails, but found they broke off pretty regularly. So she switched to gels based on a recommendation from a salon that specializes in extensions.

Photo: Hindustan Times/Getty

"The acrylics I had were a little bit bulkier, and the process of putting them on seemed a little bit messier than gels," she told me. "[Gels] feel a little bit more like a natural nail, because they’re not as thick, but they’re just as hard. I can still click them together like Dolly Parton, which is one of the main joys of fake nails."

Overall, I got the same basic advice from pretty much everyone I talked to: Whichever system you choose, the most important step in leaving with healthy nails will be your technician. So don’t be afraid to ask questions before sitting down. Ask about their filing techniques, how they plan to get the things off when you don’t want them anymore, which products they’re most comfortable using, and how they clean their tools.

You may feel like an obnoxious client, but let’s be serious. If a salon doesn’t want to answer those basic questions, do you really want to put your nails in their hands?

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