What Are Acrylic Nails: A Complete Guide

For those of you blessed with strong, resilient nails, we are eternally jealous. You can grow and clip your nails into any shape you want with no fear of breaking or splitting.

But the truth is that most of us don’t have superhuman nail strength, however much we wish for it.

Luckily, there are a ton of great faux nail alternatives that make us feel like superstars, and at the top of the list is definitely acrylic nails.

Acrylics allow us to boldly go where natural nails are just too weak to go. They can be done at almost every nail salon and look fantastic when correctly applied.

Whether you’re a seasoned acrylic pro or this is the first time you’ve heard of them, there’s always more to learn! Here is our complete guide to acrylic nails.

The Benefits of Acrylic Nails

Judging by their widespread popularity across the world, acrylic nails get a lot of things right.

Above all, acrylic nails are tougher, stronger, and more resilient than even the healthiest set of natural nails. The chemicals that form the material are similar to plexiglass! 

That means they stand up to heat, cold, scratching, scraping, and everything else, while still maintaining a fresh and glossy look.

Even if you opt to get a super-short set of acrylics, it’s a great feeling to know that your nails are tough as, well, nails! 

That added protection is a big bonus, especially for people who struggle with issues like splitting and hangnails. That’s why acrylics tend to be popular with the older crowd at the salon.

The next big upside for acrylic nails is the fact that they can be sculpted into any form you want, and the only real limit being your imagination (and the skill of the nail tech).

Whether you dream of sharp, sleek stilettos, long and smooth coffins, or just the perfect square/oval hybrid, it’s all on the table with acrylic.

The acrylic that ends up on your nail is a combination of two distinct chemicals, a liquid monomer, and a polymer in powder form, the latter one typically containing some color. 

To bring them together, simply dunk the tip of your brush in the gel, followed by a very tiny dip in the powder. They are quickly mixed in a designated bowl to form a small bead of malleable material, which is then spread and shaped over the nail.

As the process is repeated for each nail, the material will dry out quickly on its own and is sped up by even the slightest exposure to UV light. That’s why nail techs work so fast and precisely to get the shape right because they’re racing against the clock!

Once every nail is formed and nearly finished drying, you can select any colors, coats, and designs you want. You have a brand new beautiful canvas to work with, so use it!

Potential Downsides

While we love every acrylic manicure we’ve ever got, there are some drawbacks to this type of treatment we should also mention.

Expect to spend anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour at the salon for the complete procedure. The tech will go through the normal process of cleaning, washing, trimming, buffing, and prepping your nails before reaching for the acrylic materials. 

For some folks, the cost of an acrylic manicure is a bit much, and it’s rare that you only get one treatment. Midrange treatments cost anywhere from $35 to $45, while pricier colors and gels will run you between $50 and $60.

As InStyle points out, most clients return to the salon every 2 to 4 weeks to get their acrylics touched up and looking fresh, and those followup appointments can take their toll on the wallet.

There’s also the harsh truth that acrylic nails are not super friendly to the overall health of our skin and nails. The hardened polymer material is serious stuff, and can leave your cuticles dehydrated if you keep the treatments coming for months at a time.

Finally, there’s the removal process, which isn’t exactly a breeze. Expect to soak those fingers in acetone solution for at least 30 to 45 minutes to loosen up the polymers and clean off all the residual material.

Many nail salons will have their techs use a small sandpaper drill to file down the acrylics and accelerate removal, so sit back and watch that polymer dust fly!

Maintenance and Hygiene

Getting acrylic nails is a commitment, and it comes with a new set of rules that may not be so intuitive for newcomers. 

When you walk out of the salon with your first set of acrylics, take some time to get used to the new shape and length. Way too many good people have accidentally scratched themselves, or caused unnecessary damage by forgetting they had new long nails.

In other words, give yourself a grace period of a few days to get familiar with your acrylics. Relearn how to type on a keyboard without making a racket, figure out how to button up a shirt, and discover the best way to take your contact lenses out safely.

As far as hygiene goes, you’ll also want to step up your game.

That means washing your hands and nails more often and more vigorously, especially at the end of a long day.

Invest in a cuticle pusher, nail brush and any other mini tools you think will help you dig dirt out from under your acrylics. You don’t want any bacteria or fungus to build up, ever. 

There are a few things you can do to extend the lifespan of your acrylic nails, according to Harper’s Bazaar. Moisturizer and cuticle oil are your best friends, along with a rigorous cleaning routine at the end of every day.

Also, pro tip: invest in a lightweight pair of gloves for cleaning and cooking so you don’t run the risk of messing up your perfect nails. It’s weird at first, but worth it in the long run.

DIY Alternatives

If you need a break from the salon or just want to save some green, you can try any one of the many DIY acrylic options currently on the market.

One stroll down the beauty aisle at any store will overwhelm you for sure, so have an idea of what you’re looking for ahead of time.

Your first foray into DIY acrylic should be a kit geared for total beginners. 

This should contain all the essentials, including plastic nail tips, primer, dehydrator, liquid monomer, powder polymer, and a little brush and bowl combo for mixing.

The instructions on the box should be pretty straightforward as well, with clear images that you can follow and plenty of tips. We recommend you watch a few YouTube videos to see how its’ done, especially when it comes time to mix and apply the material. 

While it may take a few attempts to master the technique, you’ll figure it out sooner than you think. Pick up some plastic nail forms if you need some training wheels since these are molds that apply a perfectly-shaped acrylic every time.

If you aren’t ready to leap to DIY acrylic, press-on nails are a great stepping stone, and are almost impossible to mess up!

Trust us when we say faux nails have come a long way since the 90s and early 2000s. 

These products offer you a huge range of styles and shapes to choose from and can be applied in around 10 minutes once you master the process. Don’t love the shape that comes in the box? The best press-ons can be filed however you want, just like real nails.

Plus, they are more affordable than many of the home acrylic kits out there and have a huge cost advantage over the nail salon treatments.

Finally, when it comes time for removal or replacement, these nails come off easily in a warm bath of natural oils, meaning you don’t have to soak in nasty acetone for an hour.

So no matter where you are on your acrylic journey, you’ve got options.


Hopefully, you’ve learned everything you ever wanted to know about acrylic nails, and then some! It’s an amazing invention that has revolutionized the way we manicure.

Whether you prefer the full salon experience, the at-home DIY kits, or the super-simple press-on nail alternatives, there is bound to be an acrylic nail solution that fits your needs!

We recommend you try all three approaches and see how you like each one. Your comfort and style are the top priorities. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the art and science of acrylic nails, along with lots of other cool nail-related topics, be sure to bookmark our blog and sign up for our email newsletter.

We’re also active on social media if you need some Instagram inspiration, so give us a follow and check out the latest styles.


Woman’s World


Harper’s Bazaar

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