It took me over 12 months to get nail extensions. I’d been enviously eyeing up the claws of babes like @pastachips & Bethany for ages but I just couldn’t get over my anxiety around the whole experience, & whenever I tried to look up what to expect all I found were horror stories about the damage done by nail technicians who were poorly trained or cut corners.
Six months on from my first appointment & I’m a total convert – I love my nails & look forward to the soothing routine of getting infills every few weeks. So today I wanted to talk you through the process of getting gel nail extensions & hopefully give some of you who might have been worrying about your first appointment the confidence to take the plunge.
Picking your nail salon
A good nail salon should be clean, have trained staff (look out for qualification certificates on display), & a transparent pricing structure. Personal recommendations from people you trust are always the safest way to pick a salon but failing that check out reviews on sites like Treatwell or on salon’s Facebook pages. Most salons will have the odd negative review but watch out for the way the salon responds to criticism (staff should take customer satisfaction seriously) & if there are repeated complaints about either the customer service or the quality of the work, avoid. For reference, I swear by Vegas Nails & have never found anywhere else that makes my nails look as consistently amazing.
I’d recommend making your first appointment in person so you can check out not only the cleanliness but also the overall vibe. A salon with a strong customer base should be busy, particularly on Fridays (when everyone is getting their nails done for the weekend) but look out for places that feel chaotic – appointments should be managed so that clients & technicians never feel rushed.
Picking your treatment
Overlays vs. Extensions: Most people will automatically opt for nail extensions (where a plastic tip is applied to extend the nail) but if your nails are already relatively long & healthy you could consider overlays instead, where the gel or acrylic is applied to your nail without any extension.
Acrylic vs. Gel: I opt for gel nail extensions because I love the glossy look gel gives & there is less risk of damage to your natural nails than with acrylic (although both can damage your nails if applied incorrectly or not properly maintained). That being said, gel nails are more expensive & less durable than acrylic, & fewer places offer gel overlays or extensions so if you need a last minute appointment you may struggle to find one.
Traditional Nail Polish vs. Shellac: Both gel & acrylic nails are naturally colourless & translucent, so most people will opt to cover the base with a polish. You can apply a traditional nail polish or opt for a gel polish like Shellac. Gel polishes are cured under UV light & give a glossy finish which is longer-lasting than a traditional nail varnish, so perfect if you want flawless nails for a couple of weeks.
What to expect at your first appointment
1 // Nail Prep: If you’ve opted for nail extensions & your natural nails are longer your technician will trim them down so they finish just at the tip of your finger (you could also do this beforehand if you’d prefer). In order to ensure the gel layer properly bonds with your natural nail, your technician will push back & trim your cuticles, & lightly buff the surface of your nail.
2 // Nail Tip: Your technician will now apply plastic tips to the ends of your nails using nail glue. Nail tips come in a variety of widths & your technician should take their time figuring out which is the right fit for you – if you feel like the tip is too wide or narrow, ask them to double check the sizing. Once the glue has dried, you’ll be asked how long you want your nails to be & your technician will trim the tip to that size (they should also compare each of your nails to ensure they’re all the same length). Be aware that long nails can take some time to get used to & your nails will grown between appointments, so if in doubt always go shorter. Your technician will now buff the base of the tip where it meets your nail to ensure a smooth transition between the two & shape it. The salon should have a chart to show you the different shape options but you can see them here (for reference, I always go for almond).
3 // Gel Application: Because gel won’t adhere to oily surfaces, your technician might apply a liquid sanitiser to clean & slightly dehydrate the surface of your nail. They’ll then apply a primer to your natural nail & allow it to dry. The most common gel nail application is a powder mixture which involves your technician placing their brush into a liquid & then into a small pot of powder to create the gel, which they’ll then apply to your nail. Your technician should apply thin, even layers & cure each layer under a UV lamp. While your technician will lightly file the gel down after they’ve finished applying, there’s only so much that can be done if the application is too thick or uneven, so don’t be afraid to challenge them if you feel like it’s not looking right.
4 // Polish: Once your technician has removed any tackiness from the gel using an alcohol cleanser & filed them to your satisfaction, they’ll then apply the polish of your choice. You can either tell them the colour you want or ask to see their shade selection (most salons will have a nail fan or wheel available for you to look at). If you opt for a traditional nail polish it’ll just be a case of the technician applying a couple of coats & you’re done. If you opt for gel colour then each layer will need to be cured under a UV lamp. Your technician should apply the polish carefully so it fully covers the gel base & act quickly to clean up any polish which gets onto your skin.
5 // Final Check: A good technician will have been checking in with you along the way & I’d really encourage you to be honest about any concerns you might have, but now is your final chance to flag up any issues. Maybe you’ve noticed one of your nails isn’t quite symmetrical or there’s a smudge in your polish… A good salon should be more than happy to correct any mistakes & it’s better you resolve it now than have it bothering you for the next couple of weeks. At this stage your technician might also apply a little cuticle oil at the base of your nail to rehydrate it.
A lot of people worry about maintaining nail extensions but it’s honestly not a huge deal, juts a couple of small changes can ensure your nails last & look great until your next appointment.
Gel nails are strong but not invincible: In theory, gel nails are stronger than your natural nail but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful – I’ve only broken one nail but it was pure agony & looked awful. If applied properly, your nails are unlikely to snap on their own but I’d still recommend avoiding heavy lifting or prising things open with your nails (I now use tweezers to open makeup compacts). Nail extensions will also likely render you unable to pick labels off things or pick up flat objects off flat surfaces – make your peace with that now.
Protect your nails from chemicals: Cleaning products can contain all kinds of strong chemicals so look after your nails (& hands) by wearing rubber gloves, whether you’re doing the washing up or scrubbing the bath.
If your nails start to lift, get them fixed: Sometimes your gel nails will begin to lift away from your natural nail at the base. If your nails were well-prepped this shouldn’t happen but if it does, get it sorted immediately. Lifted nails can damage your natural nail by creating a pressure point where your nail bends & can also trap water underneath which could lead to a fungal infection (ew). Most salons will be happy to make time to repair a lifted nail but ensure they take care to address the reason it lifted first otherwise you’ll keep having issues.
Stick to one salon: Unless there are major issues with the first salon you visit I’d advise sticking to one place. There are lots of different gel nail products & systems, & they don’t always mix well meaning your overlays are more likely to lift & break. This might mean that you need to book your appointments a bit further in advance & work around when your salon is closed but it’s worth it.
Nourish your nails: There’s a lot of debate around whether or not nail overlays & extension damage your nails in the long-term & I’m definitely not qualified to discuss that, but I do think it’s worth trying to minimise any possible harm. That’s why I use a cuticle oil regularly while I’ve got gel nails & make sure I keep my hands moisturised, particularly in Winter.
Hopefully I’ve answered any questions you might have but feel free to leave a comment below or tweet me if there’s anything more you’d like to know.