Nail extensions and nail overlays

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Our hands do a lot for us; they allow us to touch, to feel, to grasp, to hold, to manipulate, and ultimately they help us to express ourselves. Even as we talk our hands assist us in conveying our message more clearly from the way we move them as we speak.

Whether on a conscious or subconscious level, hands are one of the first things we notice when we meet someone. From the ancient ritual of handshaking which we continue today (a gesture of peace to demonstrate the hand holds no weapon), through to greeting someone with a wave – our hands and the way we use and move them offer a window into who we are as people.

With this in mind, it is easy to understand why our nails too have always formed such an important part of the grooming ritual. From the ancient times when long nails signified status, through to today where a good manicure is an indication that you take pride in your appearance.

This fact-sheet contains information about nail extensions and nail overlays – both treatments that are carried out by professional nail technicians to add length and enhance the visual appearance of your nails:

Nail extensions – A lightweight plastic plate that follows the shape of the nail is glued to the tip of the natural nail in order to add length. Acrylic, gel, fibreglass or another mixture is then applied on top of the extension and is usually ‘cured’ in order to secure the extension and add strength and shine.

Nail overlays – Overlays skip the extension step, and instead of adding artificial length onto the nail, the strengthening mixture is simply applied directly onto the natural nail in order to add strength and durability.

A brief history of nail extensions

Whilst nail extensions may seem like a fairly modern development, women have been attempting to add artificial length to their talons since the Ancient Egyptian times.

During this period, long nails were considered to be a sign of wealth and status in both Egypt and various other cultures (notably Asian cultures), and extensions were crafted out of materials that were only available to the rich such as ivory, bone and gold.

Since then, artificial nails have evolved considerably – with nail extensions as we know them today first being invented bizarrely by a dentist.

In 1954, dentist Fred Slack broke a fingernail at work and in a bid to disguise it, he invented the very first artificial nail out of materials usually used to rebuild and strengthen teeth. After his makeshift discovery actually proved extremely successful, he and his brother Tom further developed the concept, patented a successful version and started the company Patti Nails.

Today, there are multiple nail extension and overlay techniques and services available for those who wish to enhance the appearance and strength of their natural nails – though all are still based upon Fred Slacks original concept. 

Types of nail extension

Women are spoilt for choice when it comes to getting their nails done, so when it comes to booking your appointment, how do you know what treatment to go for? Before you make your decision, continue reading to find out all you need to know about:

1. Acrylic nails

2. Gel nails

3. Fibreglass or silk nail wraps

1. Acrylic nails

Acrylics are the oldest form of nail extension in the modern beauty industry, and have long since been a staple due their staying power. The acrylic itself is a mixture of liquid monomer and a powder polymer, which when combined form a hard protective layer that is sculpted over the natural nail.

Acrylic nail extensions will only become hard when exposed to air, and when this happens and the process is complete the nails become a strong and glossy base that is a fantastic for colour application.

The procedure is a multi-step process that usually involves preparing the natural nail by cleaning, shaping, buffing and cuticle work, before then applying artificial tips to add length (if required) and the acrylic on top.

Pros of acrylic nails

- Acrylic nails are very strong and durable and can last a long time.

- You can soak off acrylic nails at home without the help of a professional.

- Generally cheaper than gel nail application.

- Can be fixed without the help of a nail technician.

- Great for adding length to short nails.

Cons of acrylic nails

- Can result in damage to the nail bed, as the natural nail is unable to breathe beneath the acrylic. When acrylics are removed the nail beneath is often very weak and brittle.

- Can sometimes look more artificial than gel nails.

- The application of acrylic nails does involve chemicals and fumes so pregnant women are advised to avoid this treatment.

Upkeep and longevity

The life of acrylic nail extensions varies greatly from person to person and is dependent upon numerous factors. For example, an individual who carries out manual labour or is required to use their hands constantly in their job will probably find that their nails do not last as long as someone who has an office based typing role which does not subject the nails to much stress or trauma.

However, generally speaking most salons recommend that you have your acrylics either touched up with infills or removed every three to four weeks.

More information about the infill process can be found below.

Removing acrylic nails

Whilst it is recommended that you have your acrylics removed by the nail technician who applied them – if you take your time and purchase the right materials it is possible to remove them yourself at home.

How to remove acrylic nails 

Many nail technicians will either remove your acrylics free of charge, or will have special offers available which include a soak off in the overall price. Incorrectly removed acrylics may result in nail trauma and could leave the nail beds in very poor and weak condition, so where possible we would always advise you to visit a professional who will carry out the final treatment.

However, if you really cannot make it to the salon to have your nails removed, you can remove them yourself at home by following the steps below.


  • an old towel
  • a flannel or cloth
  • a glass bowl
  • petroleum jelly
  • a bottle of nail polish remover which contains acetone
  • nail file and buffer
  • cuticle oil.

Step one

Protect the surface you will be working from with the old towel.

Step two

Pour the bottle of nail polish remover into the glass bowl.

Step three

Coat the skin on your fingertips and your cuticles with a liberal helping of petroleum jelly – this is to protect the skin and cuticles from drying out as acetone is extremely dehydrating on the skin.

Step four

Soak your fingers in the acetone for approximately 15-30 minutes. You will know when the acetone is beginning to work because the acrylic on your nails will start to turn ‘gummy’. When this happens take a cloth or flannel dipped in acetone to remove the sticky top layer and pop the hands back into the acetone again to soften the next layer. Repeat this process until all of the acrylic has dissolved and you are left with only your natural nails. 

Step five

Once the acrylic has dissolved, remove your hands from the acetone and wash them thoroughly with a moisturising hand wash. Once you have done this trim your nails to the desired length and buff them gently until you have achieved the shape you want. At this stage you can also then softly buff any remaining glue from the surface of the natural nail. Finish with some cuticle oil.

If soaking your nails off at home do not become impatient and pull the last bits of product off – this will result in nail trauma and will weaken the nail bed. Simply keep repeating step four until all acrylic has dissolved. Also be careful not to over buff the nail, as again this will weaken the nail bed.

2. Gel nails

What are gel nails? 

Gel is a special mixture that is applied either on top of an artificial nail extension, or directly onto the natural nail bed to strengthen the nail and promote natural growth. The gel is usually applied in very fine layers, with the nail technician ‘curing’ or ‘sealing’ the gel with a UV light between each layer so that the finished result is hard but still flexible with a natural looking glossy finish which is both instantly dry and chip resistant.

Whilst gel can be applied on top of an artificial extension to add length, they are particularly good for individuals who have very short, weak or bitten nails because they allow the nail to strengthen and grow below the layer of gel.

Pros of gel nails

Gel does not cause damage to the natural nail and can be used to strengthen, protect and promote growth in the natural nail.

Gel is odourless unlike some acrylic or liquid powder nail systems. Gel is also more flexible.

- Gel is considered to be a safer and more environmentally friendly option to acrylics.

Cons of gel nails

- Some individuals may find that their gel nails are less durable than acrylics and therefore do not last as long.

- Most gel nail variations must be cured using a UV light meaning that they are difficult to fix at home.

- Some gel nails will need to be filed off as opposed to being soaked off, which can be time consuming.

Gel nails removal

Gel nails should always be removed by a nail technician (preferably who applied your gels in the first place), and under no circumstances should you attempt to remove your gels at home. There are various different gel systems in use today, some of which need to be buffed off and others that must be soaked off.

As a client, you can’t be sure what gel removal system is appropriate for your nails and what will leave them in good condition – which is why this step should be left to the professional.

3. Fibreglass or silk nail wraps

Another alternative to having acrylics or gels is to have fibreglass or silk wraps applied. This process involves cutting pieces of fibreglass or silk to fit the nail bed or tip, before sealing them into position using resin or glue. Both options are no longer as popular as they used to be now that there are a variety of other cheaper and more convenient extension and overlay systems on offer, however they are a great alternative for clients who are allergic to the chemicals used in the acrylic or gel process.


After around 2-3 weeks you may need to return to your technician or salon for a ‘maintenance’ appointment or ‘infills’.

The infill process will generally involve your technician filing out the re-growth area flush to the nail so that product (the relevant gel or acrylic system) can be reapplied, filed, buffed, coated and oiled so that the nails look as good as new once again.

Please note, if you have had gel nails applied, bear in mind that some systems are not suitable for infills and will have to be removed completely and reapplied.

Nail overlays

What is the difference between nail overlays and nail extensions?

Whilst nail extensions involve applying an artificial tip to the end of the nail to add length, nail overlays involve the application of the acrylic, gel or the desired system directly to the natural nail.

Overlays can also be applied to toenails.

What are the benefits of nail overlays?

Overlays will provide an extra layer of protection that may make the nails less prone to breakages and splits. Overlays are particularly good for either individuals who have trouble growing out their natural nails, or for nail biters who have short and brittle nails as a result of their habit.

Types of nail overlays

Nail overlays are available in all of the same systems as extensions. Gel, acrylic, fibreglass or silk etc. The only difference is the artificial tip to add length will not be applied.

Many nail technicians also offer branded nail extension and overlay treatments, meaning that the system they are using has been developed by a particular company and only those who have undertaken specific training are able to carry out the treatment. Branded extension and overlay systems include the following:

  • Bio Sculpture
  • Shellac™
  • Gelish®.
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