Fancy Fingernails for a Novice
October 1, 2021 5:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering getting a manicure with some sort of artificial nail. I have questions.

I don't currently do much with my nails. But my thumbnails are chronically splitting and I want to protect them so that maybe they will grow out past the split and stop.
I've tried nutritional supplements (like biotin, collagen, etc.) as well as applied treatments, like cuticle oil, brush on stuff, etc.
I'm thinking about going in and having my nails "done" to protect these thumbnails - is this a good or bad idea? What type of nails should I have done (if any) - I was reading that gel nails are less bad for my natural nails than acrylic?
I'm sure I can ask the manicurist for a short style, so they are more like what I'm accustomed to - is there anything else I should ask for?
posted by hilaryjade to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Check out Nail Career Education on youtube for all things fake nails. She's a pro nail tech and salon owner who has been doing acrylic nails since the 80s. Her channel has a very high amount of focus on teaching and technique, like what to expect from your nail tech, the differences between acrylic and gel (gel is acrylic, just a different formulation), the differences in technique (tips vs forms, etc), and has many videos featuring short nails. Depending on what your nail situation is, you might also like dip nails but that's something you can ask your tech about. I have a friend with shitty nails (no judgement) who did dip for a few years before she started getting acrylics. (She switched to acrylics for the length.)
posted by phunniemee at 6:29 PM on October 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I got gel nails once for a special event. My nails were pretty trashed afterwards, like some of the surface layer of the nail material itself had come off. It can be pretty hard on your nails to remove gels. I'm not sure gels are the best solution to your problem.

I have found the superglue that's applied with a brush - this is usually sold in the nail section of the drug store - to be helpful for stabilizing damaged nails until the damage can grow out.
posted by ice-cream forever at 6:54 PM on October 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Traditionally, your fake nail options were acrylic vs gel. Generally in order to apply these, they basically completely ruin your own nail, add on fake tips, and then apply the gel or acrylic (which as mentioned above are pretty similar), and then the polish. You have to get them "filled" every 2-ish weeks, where they add extra gel at the base of your nail and change the polish.

It got confusing about 10-15 years ago when they came out with something called "soak off gel" which is what most salons call "gel" now. This is basically a new type of thick polish that cures instantly with UV light, and is extremely chip-resistant. It's really hard to get off yourself, they basically soak your nails in pure acetone and then use a tool to pry off the gel. I wouldn't say it ruins your nail, but it could weaken overly weak nails.
posted by radioamy at 6:56 PM on October 1, 2021

I have had both gel and acrylic nails before. I think that what you want is gel nails, but only if you are willing to accept a few caveats.

Acrylic nails can make your nails appear longer immediately (because they basically build a fake nail on top of your real one). If you want fancy long shaped nails stat, they are a good way to go. They do not appear terribly natural, but who cares? However, not all salons do them and they are expensive. They also will do nothing to protect your natural nails when they are removed (and no, you probably shouldn't remove them at home, if you don't know what you're doing—you have to go in someplace). You should expect that when they come off, your natural nails will be pretty much trashed.

Gel nails (meaning soak-off gel), on the other hand, just coat your natural nail. In my experience, the gel helps support my natural nails and allows me to grow my nails longer. When the gel comes off, I find that my natural nails are slightly weakened. But, I usually get gel polish reapplied immediately. With the new gel again supporting them, the nails grow out and appear natural, just as though I happen to have nice long nails with regular polish on them. I have found that I can get gel reapplied 3-4 times before I need to let my nails "rest" with regular polish for a little while, which means that I can have nice longish nails. It lasts until the nails grow out to the extent that I need to have them redone—no chipping. Gel is at almost every salon and, in a pinch, you can buy some pure acetone and remove it yourself (but you probably don't want to—let the pros do it!)

So, in short: I think that if your goal is to have nice longish nails, and you're OK with keeping polish on them at all times, you should get soak-off gel nails. I don't think that any kind of polish or fake nail will help you if you want to ultimately have nice nails without polish. To achieve that, as far as I can tell, you have to just have naturally strong nails and be willing to reduce the amount you work with your hands, alas.
posted by branca at 7:09 PM on October 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oooh! I can answer this one! I’m a chronic nail biter and have been getting my nails done regularly for a couple of years now. Here’s what I’ve learned:

First, the available options can sort of be viewed on a spectrum of thickness/adherence, in the following order: regular nail polish > gel polish > dip > acrylic. Gel polish is more like regular nail polish and dip is more like acrylic.

1. Regular polish: you can still ask for this at the salon. They usually do a clear base coat, 2 layers of color, and a clear top coat.
2. Gel polish: As mentioned above, gel polish is applied like regular polish but they put your hand under a UV lamp between coats. It cures magically in like a minute so you don’t have the annoying dry time of regular polish. It also lasts a bit longer before chipping/peeling.
3. Dip powder: I’m pretty sure dip powder uses the same basic chemistry as acrylics but applied differently. They paint your nail with a bonding material and then dip your finger into a pot of colored powder that adheres to it. After a couple of coats, they buff the color and apply a topcoat. Dip is thicker and lasts longer than gel, but not quite as long as acrylics.
4. Acrylics: These are applied by mixing powder into a bonding agent and applying it to the nail like a putty. The acrylic “putty” is sculpted over the nail with a paintbrush in one thick coat. Then they can either apply regular polish or gel polish over this layer. Acrylics (though they can be applied over your natural nail) are usually done over “tips…”

* Tips!” These are fake plastic nails that are glued onto the very end of your natural nail. They overlap your natural nail by just a couple of millimeters and are literally put on with superglue. They are necessary if you want longer nails than what you currently have. I Know you can get tips under Dip and Acrylic. You MAY also be able to get them under gel polish but I’m not sure. The issue is the seam where the fake nail meets your real one. With dip and acrylic, they are thick enough to cover the seam and buff out the imperfections.

*NAIL DAMAGE! For all the options I’ve mentioned (except maybe regular nail polish?) the nail tech will likely use a drill bit with a nail-file like texture to rough up the surface of your nail. This helps the polish/dip/acrylic adhere to the nail so it will last longer, but it also unfortunately fucks up your nail by removing the top layer. You can ask them not to use the drill, and they will instead use regular, manual nail buffers. Tips are especially bad for your nails because the glue (which I mentioned is literally superglue) can tear off additional layers once the polish/acrylic starts to come off.

Here’s what I would suggest: If you’re happy with the length of your nails and your thumbnails are not currently cracked, I would ask for gel polish. When you sit down with the nail tech, tell them you don’t want the drill. This will ensure minimal damage to your nails and the gel polish should be thick enough to protect your nails while they grow out. If you want longer nails, ask for a “full set” (this basically means fake tips) and specify whether you want dip or acrylic (dip will be thinner and more natural, acrylic will be a little thicker but last longer). They will ask you how long you want them and what shape you want (e.g. square vs rounded). The tips will damage your nails more, but if you go back to get them filled a couple of times (“filled” means they buff off the top layer and reapply the dip/acrylic down to your cuticle where your nail has grown out) then eventually your nail will grow long enough for the fake tips to be removed. Then you can go back to gel polish over your natural nail.
posted by a.steele at 8:01 PM on October 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

I got gel nails and absolutely did not find them to help grow my nails longer. When they were removed they took the top layer of my nails with them. I don't know if it was done incorrectly or what, but never again.
posted by Anonymous at 8:22 PM on October 1, 2021

Disclaimer: I haven't done any "artificial" nails more serious than gel polish. I probably won't, due to the damaging processes others already described. I don't think any of them can really be used as a bridge to getting your own nails healthier. I did finally start taking care of my own nails earlier this year.

Cuticle oil definitely helps, but it takes a while for the existing damaged part of your nail to grow out. We're talking probably several months, and you need to apply fairly frequently. It will make your hands and cuticle look nicer within a few days to a week, in my experience; it's just a lot longer for the nails themselves.

When I stay on top of keeping my cuticles in good shape and nails polished, they almost never break or peel. The layers of polish add physical strength, and I am also way more careful not to use my nails as tools when they look nice.

I don't use any specific "strengthening" polishes or products, as they can be pretty drying and make your nails more likely to break.

It does take a bit of time commitment to maintain your own nails, but most people can make home manicures last a week or two fairly easily, using high quality polishes with a good base coat and top coat. You can stretch this some by reapplying top coat every few days. (I change my nails more often, but it's become an artistic/meditative outlet for me.)

I previously thought I couldn't really do my own nails because I am terrible at painting them and can't stay in the lines. Using a cleanup brush is a game changer here, but not strictly necessary.

If you do have a split that is threatening to break in a painful way, there is a simple way to patch it using a piece of a tea bag until it grows out enough to file or trim it. Many tutorials on this exist.

Okay, well, thanks for coming to my home manicure propaganda session. If you send memail, I will happily obsess over more natural nail painting stuff.
posted by ktkt at 9:28 PM on October 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

You can do gel polish at home if you want more control over the process. The minimum you need is the light, a base coat, and a no-wipe topcoat. Color is optional. You could do just your thumbs if you wanted, or try it on other nails first for practice.

It's not necessary to soak off the polish if you are wearing it to protect your nails. When the manicure begins to grow out, you can use a good quality glass file to shorten your gel-polished nails, then fill in the gap at the top of the nail, and also cover the now exposed edge, with the gel and cure it (basically you are working with a UV curing epoxy). Remove any polish in areas you don't want before curing. It's not going to have the "perfect" look the salon will get by removing all the polish down to the nail bed and reapplying but it sounds like that's not a priority for you. If it's too irregular you can smooth with the glass hand file, if you aren't using powered equipment like a salon would it's easy to avoid filing down to your natural nail.
posted by yohko at 11:45 PM on October 1, 2021

Best answer: I have a very strong recommendation on this. If it is only your thumbs that are splitting, I would go for a regular manicure with regular polish, and request NO DRILL or electric file. (The surface of your nails does need to be sanded/roughened to give polish something to adhere to, but doing it by hand is much less damaging.) I would also ask for your splits to be patched. Your nail tech can do this with a spot of acrylic, or with nail glue and a tiny silk bandaid, or with powder, or whatever -- the technique is usally the tech's choice.

The point is: a) it will fix your immediate problem; b) it will not require you to commit all 10 of your nails to technique requiring both professional application and professional removal; c) it is by far the least damaging; d) as the lowest tech approach, it will also be the least expensive.

PS: If it matters, I do my own UV gel nails at home.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:41 AM on October 2, 2021 [3 favorites]

This is extremely simple. Go to a nice salon and ask for dip. Tell them not too thick. Your nails will look great and they are less damaging than gel. It takes like an hour. Get a pedicure while you’re there, it’s the best.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 8:02 AM on October 2, 2021

Best answer: I do my own gel on a fingernail that always splits, it's very easy. Don't apply to whole nail , only the affected area, then it won't harm the nail bed. Just lightly buff the area first & use the supplied cleaners etc. It will fall off of it's own accord in 2 or 3 weeks and you can re-apply
posted by canoehead at 8:02 AM on October 2, 2021

My key piece of advice is do not allow the tech to use an electric drill on your cuticles!! Do Not. You will get cut. And at the point they're filing down your cuticles you're most likely covered in nail and product dust which gets in the cut and becomes infected! Ask me how I know....
My infection lasted over a year and was all kinds of painful! I've not had artificial nails since. I will never get them again.
Also, the salon where I went would not admit to or accept responsibility for their actions. Although they'd injured me my Dr bills was 100% on me. Sorry for the tangent. Just be sure to insist they only push your cuticles back. No drilling.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 8:36 AM on October 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: No one's mentioned this yet, but I have a vote for something different -- press-on nails. Specifically, Kiss Impress nails.

I have the same issues you describe, plus I throw my hands into things all the time and break my nails if they are at all longer than my fingers. The Kiss nails stay on at least a week, usually more like 10-14 days, and they protect my nails, while *not* hurting the surface of my natural nails.

Gel removal and acrylic removal both destroy my nails and make them worse.

Tips: You can get two manicures out of one box. Be sure to use the alcohol wipe first and to hold them very firmly to your nail for at least 30 seconds when applying. And wait as long as possible (ideally overnight) to get them wet for the first time. I like to do mine before bed for that reason.
posted by fiercecupcake at 6:47 AM on October 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, fiercecupcake I love these! I just got my set yesterday, application was easy, they seem to be adhering well. The "short" style is a perfect length. My fingers are still getting used to the pressure-like-feeling of them, but I can tell they are adapting. They look pretty and my split thumbnails aren't catching on things and splitting worse (and hurting!) constantly. I'm excited about this solution, thanks so much for replying!
posted by hilaryjade at 8:15 AM on October 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

So glad! I hope they work for you -- it's the only way I can grow mine out without them cracking and breaking all over the place. I'm really rough on my hands. Fingers crossed! (Heh.)

When it IS time to take them off (I usually wait till I've lost one or two), get some hot tap water and put a splash of soap or body wash in it. Soak for 10 minutes and then try to remove them with a wooden orange stick. If they don't want to budge, soak another 5 mins and try again. Not having to use acetone will also help your natural nail not peel.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:19 PM on October 14, 2021 [1 favorite]

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