Fake nail
Photo: Lisa Shin
Real or fake? With the new generation of acrylics, gels, and wraps, only your manicurist knows for sure.
We have no problem with faking it—beautywise, at least. The blonde streaks in our hair aren't from the sun. And we rarely leave the house without a couple of coats of mascara. When it comes to nails, though, we've always left well enough alone. We thought fake nails would look glaringly artificial. But then we asked a few of the women we know with gorgeously groomed hands how they keep their nails so even, glossy, and strong. And this is what they said: "Acrylics." "Gels." And "Fiberglass wraps."

Suddenly tempted, but concerned about the effects of fakes on our nails, we decided to launch an O investigation. We grilled manicurists on techniques, quizzed doctors on safety, and dispatched intrepid staffers to nail salons to test out various options. Read on for the good—and bad—news about fake nails, including...

The good news: Traditional acrylics (powder and liquid) are generally considered the strongest type of artificial nails. "They're great for what I call crashers and bashers, women who do a lot of gardening or play sports," says Jan Arnold, cofounder of Creative Nail Design, a company that's been working with acrylic formulas since the seventies. (Their latest version, the Custom Blended Manicure, goes on in very thin layers and can be matched to your natural nail color.) The durability of acrylics also means that they can be sculpted beyond the nail edge, so you can get more length without gluing on a plastic tip first. Like other artificial nail options, they protect polish from your nails' natural oils, so it will last up to three weeks, says manicurist Bernadette Thompson.

The bad news: Acrylics have become more refined since they were first introduced, but they can look thicker and more obviously fake than other nail overlays if not applied in thin coats. Acrylics need to be soaked in an acetone-based solution for about 45 minutes before they can be safely removed.

Our tester says: "The whole process took an hour and a half. I found the acrylic smell wretched, but I loved how perfect my nails were afterward. They felt a bit strange, though—like an added pressure on my own nails; not painful, but they took a little getting used to. And because they're thicker than real nails, even though I kept them short, sometimes it was tricky to pick up a piece of paper or open my mail. After a week and a half, my nails had grown enough that I needed to go back to have the space between my cuticles and the fake nails filled in."

Average cost: (according to an annual survey by the industry trade publication Nails Magazine): $46 for a full set; $28 for fill-ins (these averages hold for most artificial nail services).


The good news: Gels are also made from an acrylic substance, but there is no liquid-and-powder mixing required and they can easily be brushed on in a thin coating. (A much less durable variation sometimes referred to as "glue gels" layers liquid glue with acrylic powder to get a similar effect.) Gels can be completely clear—ideal for women who just want a smooth, glossy finish on their nails to protect against chipping, peeling, and breaking. Unlike traditional acrylics, which can have a pretty powerful chemical smell, they're odorless.

The bad news: Gels are more flexible than regular acrylics, so they're not generally used to extend the nails. Most manicurists will glue a plastic tip underneath if you want extra length. Because the gel coating is less resilient, Arnold recommends gels for women who aren't too hard on their nails. Gels can be more difficult to remove than acrylics and need to be filed down a bit before they can be soaked off (for an average of 30 minutes).

Our tester says: "Two of my nails had broken quite far down, so the manicurist put tips on those to make them the same length as the rest before she brushed on the gel. I loved the result! My nails looked shiny and perfectly even, and I don't think anyone would have known they weren't mine. After a few days, they started looking a little chipped near the cuticle, though. They were definitely ready for a touch-up in ten days."


The good news: If your nails aren't very strong, wraps are a way to bolster them against breaks. They can be applied on all your nails or used just to patch up a tear in an individual nail until it grows out. "Wraps are great for women who keep their nails short but want a little extra strength," says Thompson.

The bad news: The glue that attaches wraps to the nails is water soluble, so this technique isn't a great option for women who like to swim, lounge in steam rooms, or cook a lot. Even with just daily showers and hand washing, "you'll probably need to have them glued back down every week," says Thompson.

Our tester says: "The manicurist glued tips on all my nails first because they were so short—I'm a biter—and then glued the silk on top. There wasn't the strong chemical smell that I've experienced with acrylics, so the process was quite pleasant—but, at an hour and 15 minutes, long. I thought the results were very natural. The wraps looked really good only for a week, though; after that you could see my real nails growing in underneath."

Manicurists may call these techniques "nail enhancements," but they're not improving the health of your nails. After you remove acrylics, gels, or wraps, your nails will probably feel thinner and more brittle because they've been smoothed down with a file to help the overlays adhere. That said, if you take the proper precautions, no permanent harm should be done. "It's like dyeing your hair; you can damage the existing hair, but once you stop and let it grow out again, it will be the same quality as before," says manicurist Deborah Lippmann. And she knows: A longtime acrylics wearer, she went back to her natural nails eight years ago when she started her own nail care line. The transition will take time—about four to six months to grow an entirely fresh, virgin nail, according to Lenora Felderman, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Medical College. To use artificial nails safely, the experts recommend that you:

  • Say no to drills. They file down the surface of the nails more quickly than a regular nail file, but they can traumatize your cuticles and nail plates. "If your manicurist takes out a drill, just tell her to put it right back," says Thompson.

  • Avoid infection. Make sure the manicurist doesn't cut your cuticles and that all tools have been sterilized. "Anything that disrupts the cuticle is opening up a pathway for infection," says Audrey Kunin, MD, associate clinical instructor of dermatology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine (and an acrylics wearer).

  • Keep length in check—you still want to be able to button your clothes. But even more important, longer nails are more likely to crack or break. If the impact is strong enough, the break could actually damage your nail plate (and at the very least, it will hurt—as our acrylics tester discovered).

  • Be diligent about maintenance. You will need to fill in the space between your cuticles and the artificial nails every ten to 14 days. "Don't wait too long, or moisture could get trapped underneath the nail and it will start to mildew and turn green," says Lippmann. "You'll have to wait for the nail to grow out to get rid of it." Other types of fungi, like yeast, can also breed under there. At the first sign of any discoloration in your natural nail, remove the fakes and get to a dermatologist, who can diagnose the specific problem. Many kinds of nail infections are most effectively treated with an oral antifungal medication.

  • Resist the urge to pick or bite off your artificial nails. You could tear, break, or otherwise damage the nail underneath. Ideally, you should return to the salon to have them soaked off in an acetone solution.

One national nail salon chain claims it has a faster, cheaper way to get a tippety-top perfect ten. Dashing Diva's Virtual Nails system simply glues clear, full-cover plastic nails over your natural ones. The plastic nails are amazingly thin and come in 160 sizes, so you can get a perfect fit for your nail bed. Best of all, the process doesn't involve filing the surface of your own nails. We sent a staffer to try them out, and she was thrilled with the results. A full set runs only $26, and the nails look incredibly natural. Too good to be true? Kind of. The salon says the nails should last two weeks, but they began popping off after five days. ("And I'm the opposite of active," says our tester.) The bottom line: Consider them an option if you want to enjoy a few days of gorgeous nails.


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