December 10, 2023/Skin Care & Beauty

Understanding the Pros and Cons of Dip Powder, Gel and Acrylic Nails

These manicure techniques vary in terms of longevity, hygiene and overall nail health

Close up of a woman's hands receiving acrylic powder to nails during manicure

While a manicure can make your nails look colorful and stylish, choosing the right type is more than a cosmetic decision. From prepping the nail bed to applying different mixtures, it’s important to understand what’s really getting done when you get your nails done.

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“Each type requires a different process, with different effects on your natural nails — and potentially your overall health,” says dermatologist Amy Kassouf, MD.

You’ve probably heard of gel and acrylic, but it seems like new nail trends are popping up in the blink of an eye. You may have had a friend tell you dip powder nails are a faster and less harmful option for giving your nails a glow-up. But are they any safer than gel or acrylics?

The answer is: Yes and no.

Dr. Kassouf explains some of the pros and cons of dip powder manicures and how they compare to gel and acrylic.

What are dip powder nails?

While it sounds like it’s some kind of mystical pixie dust, dip powder nails are a long-lasting manicure option that has recently grown in popularity. Through this technique, the color comes not from polish but from pigmented dust (or powder) that is then dried and secured by a clear, liquid formula on top of your nail. Because of this sturdy combo, this type of manicure is known to be extra durable, lasting up to four weeks.

How they’re applied: You or your nail tech will brush your natural (or fake) nails with glue, then dip them into (or sprinkle on) a colored acrylic powder. The excess powder is then shaken off and an activating topcoat is added to harden the powder. This process is usually repeated a couple of times to make sure each nail is fully covered in the desired color.

Pros and cons of dip powder manicures

The hype certainly sounds real, but is it a healthier alternative than gel and acrylic nails? Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Benefits of using dip powder

Pro: Fast-drying without UV lights

Let’s face it, one of the main reasons we love getting professional manicures is that we know we’ll leave the salon with a dry set of nails that aren’t getting ruined anytime soon. If you want a manicure that gets you in and out fast, the dip powder treatment has that going for it. Plus, it doesn’t use UV (ultraviolet) light to dry it — which is another health benefit (more on that in a moment).

Pro: More bendable and durable nail

Contrary to what some may think, breaking a nail can be annoying and even painful — especially if you just paid a hefty price for a high-end manicure. Dip powder manicures tend to be sturdier and more durable than other types, so they can be a good option, especially if you’re someone who works with your hands a lot. But at the same time, your nails will feel less heavy and stiff, as this technique doesn’t put as much mixture on your nails as with a gel or acrylic technique.

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Side effects of dip powder

Con: May be unsanitary

Dipping your fingertips into the same jar of powder as everyone else is a hygiene concern. Dermatologists recommend not “double dipping” (yes, just like chips and salsa at a party) when it comes to this manicure. Be sure to ask technicians to sprinkle the powder on your nails instead.

Con: May weaken your nail base

Yes, the dip powder process is tough-as-nails. But it may come with a price. This drawback is similar to what happens when you get an acrylic manicure (more on that later). As your nail is getting buffed and filed quite extensively to make sure the adhesive sticks, this may weaken your nails over time and make them more prone to breakage.

Con: May include irritants

Dips tend to include harmful ingredients such as:

  • Methyl methacrylate. Banned in many states, this ingredient can aggravate asthma and irritate airways.
  • Ethyl methacrylate and toluene. These ingredients are potentially harmful to fetal development.

How dip powder compares to other manicures

While dip powder manicures seem to be the trendy choice, there are still other ways to get a sturdy set of nails. Gel and acrylic are the other two common selections when getting a fresh set of nails.

Here’s what goes into gel and acrylic nails and how they compare to dip:

Gel manicures

This is one you’ve probably heard of. Beyond your local nail salon, most drug stores sell tons of varieties of gel nail polish. The most attractive thing about this type is that it looks like regular nail polish and goes on like regular nail polish, but it’s not regular nail polish.

How they’re applied: Brush natural or fake nails with gel nail polish. Cure under a UV or LED light. Takes two or three coats.

Pros:

  • Quicker process than acrylic or dip nails.
  • Odorless and nontoxic, unlike acrylic nails.

Cons:

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  • UV lights are like tanning beds. Remember how we said gel nails have a quicker drying time? Well, that unfortunately comes with a price. Especially if your nail technician uses UV lights, this can be harmful to your health. They raise your risk of skin cancer and other types of skin damage, like age spots.
  • The removal process can be harsh. While gel manicures provide a strong finish that lasts a while, the removal process (which needs to be done by a technician as well) can be equally tough on your nail bed and even make your nails brittle. This can do even more damage to your nail base if you remove the nails yourself at home — so it’s always best to see a professional for proper removal.

Acrylic manicures

The third common manicure option is acrylics, which use a mix of (you guessed it) acrylic powder and liquid monomer to create a thick, blob-like substance that covers your nail.

How they’re applied: The mixture is brushed over the natural nail (or on a longer, glued-on fake nail). The substance will almost instantly cure (or harden) into a mold when it comes into contact with the air. In other words, no LED or UV light is required. Afterward, the mold can then be shaped and refined into the desired shape.

Pros:

  • Very strong and long-lasting.
  • Can be repaired at home by filing.
  • Generally less expensive than gel nails.
  • Doesn’t require LED or UV light.

Cons:

  • Possible risk for allergic reaction. If you’re allergic to acrylic monomers, you may get a red, itchy rash anywhere your nail rubs or comes into contact with your skin — often first on your eyelids.
  • May weaken your nail bed. Similar to the prep that your nails go through before a gel manicure, the same goes for acrylic — but even harsher. Your nails get an intense buffing and filling that makes their surface rough. This is to make sure the mixture sticks on (and stays on). Over time, this can make your nails brittle.
  • Often include harmful ingredients like methyl methacrylate, ethyl methacrylate and toluene. (Similar to dip.)

So, which is best?

Sometimes, the clear answer is the simplest. Generally, your nails will experience the least amount of side effects or harm if you go with good ol’ fashioned nail polish. This way, you’re avoiding any harsh buffing that could hurt your nail bed or cuticles, as well as UV rays that could create problems for your skin. Choosing the best manicure may also depend on what allergies you may have or what can irritate your nails and skin.

Manicure and pedicure safety

If you’re committed to continuing your manicure and pedicure routine, you can take steps to ensure your nails aren’t getting such a hit with each session.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends taking precautions like:

  • Don’t mess with your cuticles. That dead skin where your nail begins shouldn’t be ripped, pushed back or picked apart. Especially if this is overdone, it can lead to infection.
  • Pick a technician and/or salon you trust. Just like choosing a dermatologist, your nail care technician should be certified, trusted and follow hygienic processes. Don’t feel shy to ask questions about how often they clean their tools or what their manicure process is.
  • Wash your hands before any manicure. Whether you’re applying a fresh coat at home or are with a professional, always wash your hands before getting any type of manicure.
  • Use sunscreen before a gel manicure. If you choose to do a gel manicure and your technician is only able to use UV lights, you should apply sunscreen to your hands to provide some protection. Also, always ask your technician if they can use LED lights instead, as they’re less dangerous.

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