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Gel Nails Versus Acrylic Nails

Article Category: The Spa Experience

In Ancient China, noblewomen wore fake nails – made of beeswax, albumin, gelatine and gum Arabic – to indicate that they were ladies of leisure. Nowadays, long, manicured nails remain a status symbol. While many women prefer the look of fashion nails, many women, actually battle to grow their natural nails or maintain them at a longer length, either because their nails are weak and break, or because they nail-bite. In such cases, nail extensions can be applied to break the nail-biting habit, while the natural nails are encouraged to grow underneath.

These days, the two most popular types of nail enhancements are acrylic nails and gel nails. Before choosing, it's useful to be familiar with what the differences are between them. Read on to find out more…

What Are Acrylic Nails?

Acrylic nails were invented in the 1970s. They are created using a combination of a liquid monomer, methalcrylate, with a powder polymer, polyethylmethylmethacrylate. The liquid reacts with the powder to form fibres which dry to resemble a natural fingernail.

Acrylic nails – pros and cons:

  • They are the hardest and most durable artificial nails
  • They tend to be less expensive than other nail enhancements
  • Nail polish lasts longer on acrylic nails than it does on natural nails
  • BUT they can cause allergies and damage to natural nails with misuse or overuse.

How to Apply Acrylic Nails

Acrylic nails are applied through a process of cleansing, priming, mixing, sculpting and finishing. Cleaning the nail bed is important and is done with isopropyl alcohol. Priming the nails with methacrylic acid helps to anchor the acrylic nail into the nail bed. Your nail technician then mixes the liquid and the powder to form a resin. She must work quickly to finish the application before the nails harden. To sculpt the nail, a metallic foil or plastic nail form is placed over the fingertip to hold the resin in place. The resin is then sculpted and filed to the desired length and shape. Once the resin has dried, the nail form is removed. Sometimes, technicians apply only acrylic tips to the nail, rather than an entire nail form

Maintaining acrylic nails

Acrylic nails need to be filled every 2-3 weeks, depending on how rapidly your natural nails grow, to close the gap between the cuticle and the applied nail. While you can apply nail polish to acrylic nails, remember to use a non-acetone nail polish remover (labelled ‘for use on artificial nails’).

How to Remove Acrylic Nails

Acrylic nails are designed to stay put, so removing them is a fairly lengthy procedure. Your manicurist will soak your fingertips in acetone to loosen the acrylic nails, and then apply a nail treatment to rejuvenate and repair your natural nails.

Acrylic Nail Allergies

The chemicals from which acrylic nails are formed can cause allergies in some people. This will result in irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat. In severe cases, this may have to be treated with antihistamines.

Are acrylic nails healthy?

Make sure that your salon uses acrylic nails which are free from methyl methacrylate (MMA). This chemical is banned in the United States due to its harmful effects on health. The American Food and Drug Administration has linked this substance to skin allergies, nail infections, including permanent loss of the nail plate, and even organ damage.

Ethyl Methacrylate (EMA) is a safer alternative for acrylic nails. Even so, this acrylic preparation can cause headaches, so ensure that the salon is well-ventilated.

Dermatitis is another common complaint. A good nail technician should be skilled enough to prevent any of the acrylic preparation getting on the skin.

Can acrylic nails damage my natural nails?

Our natural nails fulfil an evolutionary purpose to protect our fingertips from harm. The application process can result in tears in the cuticle, where bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause infection. Some manicurists also use a grit file to remove the natural nails’ shine and to rough up their surfaces. This ultimately damages the natural nail, making the skin more susceptible to bacterial infection.

Poor application can result in the acrylic nails lifting, letting water into the space between the artificial and natural nail. This results in a condition known as acrylic nail fungus. To prevent this, hygiene is paramount during application.

Ensure that your manicurist applies a small amount of cuticle oil to your cuticles to help protect and strengthen them. Natural nails should be cut short; this will prevent them being taken with the acrylic nail should you break it.

How Much Do Acrylic Nails Cost?

A full set of acrylic nails will cost approximately R180.00, with a ‘filler’ costing R120 every two to three weeks (excluding the cost of soaking and manicure).

What Are Gel Nails?

Gel nails are considered the latest innovation in nail enhancements, and consist of pre-mixed polymers and monomers. Gel nails can be used as nail extenders, or as a ‘hard coating’ for your natural nails.

Gel nails – pros and cons

  • They look glossy and natural
  • They’re good for encouraging growth of your natural nails
  • They’re odourless during application
  • They provide longer lasting colour than nail polish on natural nails or acrylic nails
  • BUT they aren’t as durable as acrylic nails and you can’t paint nail polish on them if you tire of the colour.

How to Apply Gel Nails

The special UV gel is brushed onto the nail surface and then cured under a UV light. The gel should be applied in layers to set properly. Getting gel nails applied is a fairly lengthy process, so set aside a couple of hours. Gels come in a variety of colours, and don’t need to be painted.

Maintaining gel nails

Depending on how fast your nails grow, gel nails need to be filled every 2-3 weeks to close the gap which forms between the cuticle and the gel nail.

How to remove gel nails

Gel nails should never be picked or chipped off. Your manicurist will remove them by soaking them in acetone for approximately half an hour, and then gently prying the gel loose. Done properly, the process should not hurt or cause damage to the natural nails. A nail treatment should be done to rejuvenate your natural nails.

Gel Nail Allergies

If the gel nails are not properly cured, the gel can enter the nail bed and irritate the skin. Ensure that your nails are dried under the UV lamp – at the right temperature – for the correct amount of time.

Can gel nails damage my natural nails?

A skilled, qualified professional should be used to ensure that the gel nails are correctly applied. Poorly applied gel nails can lift and if water becomes trapped between the gel and the natural nails, mould and fungus can take root. When nails are placed under the UV lamp to cure, ensure that the temperature is not too hot – too a high a heat can both burn the skin and cause damage to the natural nail beds. Watch out for unhygienic or unsanitary salons – nail technicians who don’t adhere to hygiene procedures should be avoided at all costs.

What Do Gel Nails Cost?

A full set of gel nails will cost approximately R250, with a ‘filler’ costing approximately R140 every 2-5 weeks (excluding soak and manicure).


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