Here’s everything you need to know about artificial nails and how to choose the right ones for you

For as long as I can remember, my nails have been my superpower. At age 7, I began painting them in colors pre-approved by my mother. At age 13, I was allowed to get them done at the nail salon. And by age 14, I was an acrylic aficionado. In the years since, artificial nails have come a long way, and with all the options now available, it can be difficult to figure out which one is the best choice for you.

My go-to nail enhancements (when I’m not rocking my press-ons) are acrylics. I like them because they’re relatively inexpensive and long-lasting. They’re also hard af, which means my naturally brittle nails get a break. Plus, I like exaggeratedly long nails—the longer the nails, the closer to God. But there are also unique advantages to gels and dips.

Here’s how each of the three categories work, according to board certified dermatologist and nail specialist Dr. Chris G. Adigun:

Acrylics are made up of liquid and powder components that are combined and applied to the nail surface.

Gels are applied to the nail surface and cured to the nail plate with exposure to a UV lamp.

Dips are first painted with a glue-like product, followed by powder, then an activator that causes a chemical reaction to create a hard, smooth surface. Dips are usually less hard than gels and acrylics, and they come closest to mimicking the texture of actual nails.

It’s important to know that not all gels are the same, though they are all cured by UV light. The two types you may come across at the salon are hard and soft gels. According to celebrity nail artist Mazz Hanna, the difference comes down to density:

“Hard gels have a tight molecular structure while soft gels have a more elongated molecular structure. The tightly packed molecules of hard gel make it extremely difficult for solvents like acetone to penetrate and break down the material for removal. That’s why hard gel is almost always refilled or filed off when the time comes for removal. On the other hand (pun intended), the soft gel has space between each molecule, making it easy for solvents like acetone to penetrate and break it down, which is why this type of gel can be easily soaked and scraped off.”

Nail polishes marketed as “gel-like” are easy to remove with regular nail polish remover.

So which nail enhancement is right for you?

As you consider your options, it’s important to think about both your budget and your lifestyle. Mazz Hanna shared some advice on choosing nail enhancements based on your occupation and preferences:

“Because choosing the best product for your nail is subjective, it’s best to experiment with each one and see what feels the best for you. A lot of different lifestyle factors can affect this too. For example, most hair stylists I know don’t have the best luck with soft gel since their hands are constantly in water. Because of this, they usually prefer a hard gel or dip powder for longevity.

“For me personally, I prefer a hard/soft gel hybrid, like Orly’s Builder in a Bottle, because it has the longevity of a hard gel, but applies easily like a soft gel since it comes in a bottle, while almost all hard gels come in a pot and have to be applied with a separate brush. I think regular gel nails work best for people who don’t work with their hands daily. I choose not to work with acrylics or powder gels.”

As far as longterm natural nail health goes, these are the things you should consider on your next salon visit, according to Dr. Chris G. Adigun:

“In general, gels are the least porous and the least likely to stain. They are also difficult to remove. Acrylics are more widely available and tend to be less expensive. However, if not put on correctly, they can be too thick and look and feel unnatural.

“Dips are softer and more flexible, which some people may prefer. All can damage nails as they expose nails to desiccants (drying agents) such as acetone. Gels require UV exposure, which can potentially damage the skin on the hands or around the nails if not covered.”

No matter which type of nail enhancement you decide to go with, your nail health comes first.

Choosing the right nail technician and salon may save you some stress in the long run, even if it means paying a bit more. As Mazz put it, no one is going to care about your nail health more than you. However, she reassures us that there are steps you can take to find a skilled nail tech:

“If you’re ever in a situation at the nail salon where you question their sanitary practices or if your nail tech is hurting you, don’t be afraid to speak up. This is one of the many reasons why I typically avoid traditional ‘chop shop’ nail salons altogether. Their priority is always speed. While it is important for nail services to be completed in a timely manner, it’s more important to work with a tech that puts the time and attention into giving you a manicure that not only looks beautiful but also doesn’t damage your nails in the process.

“I think Instagram is one of the best ways to find a nail tech in your area, especially one who works independently in a private studio. Another great, albeit obvious way, is by asking people who have amazing nails where they go. There are also a bunch of higher-end nail chains popping up, like Mini Luxe, Tenoverten, and Color Camp. They are a great place to start if you’re at a loss.”

Before you hop on the ‘gram to find a nail tech, make sure your nails are equipped to handle any artificial nail enhancement. If artificial nails have damaged your nails in the past, you can use a nail repair kit like this one from Dermlect to nurse your nails back to health. Additionally, opt to have a professional both apply AND remove your artificial nails.

Time to get your nails did and take a cute “nailfie” for Instagram.

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