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The Complex Chemistry Behind Artificial Nails

BY: Editors | Jul 6, 2015
The Complex Chemistry Behind Artificial Nails

Artificial nails can toughen up or lengthen your existing nails—and many Detroit nail salons specialize in the service. Even if you don’t go in for rhinestones, elaborate nail-polish paintings, or glitter tips, there’s some complex chemistry behind artificial nails. Here are a few different types of artificial nails, the science behind them, and where to get them at various nail spas in Detroit.


With acrylics—the most popular type of artificial nail—the science starts as soon as the technician combines an acrylic powder (a polymer) and a special liquid (a monomer) and brushes it carefully onto the nail. The combination of these two substances, along with exposure to the air, sets off a chain reaction in which the monomers link up to form an expanding network of polymer chains, resulting in a solid, semiflexible shield over the natural nail.

Acrylic Tips

If the goal is to strengthen and lengthen your nails, one option is to add acrylic tips. During this process, a technician applies a plastic nail-shaped add-on before covering the entire surface with enough acrylic to make the border between real nail and tip invisible. 

Another option is to work with removable forms: flexible sheets of aluminum or coated paper that are curved under the tip of the natural nail. The nail tech then “sculpts” an extension by brushing the acrylic compound out past the natural nail and onto the form. Once the acrylic has dried, the form is removed while the longer, smoother tip remains, creating a surface that can be buffed or shaped just like a natural nail.

Gel Nails

Gel nails follow a process of polymerization similar to that of acrylics, but this chemical reaction is most often triggered by light instead of air. Instead of mixing two substances together, technicians simply brush the gel solution onto nail, much as they would with acrylics. Once they've achieved the desired length, shape, and cougar-like sharpness, clients stick their hands into a low-watt UV lamp that triggers the polymer reaction and causes the gel to harden.

Silk Wraps

Silk wraps, too, harden via polymerization, thanks to a Krazy Glue–like substance that reacts instantly with any moisture in the air or on the nail bed to form a fast-drying bond, though one that’s not quite as strong or durable as its gel and acrylic cousins.

Witness the scientific process on your own nails at one of these salons in the Detroit area: