When I was a junior in high school, I got my first set of acrylic nails. A friend of mine got hers done religiously, and I went along with her to try them out for myself. She brought me to a tiny nail salon in a strip mall. We each picked out a bright color for a garish french manicure (this was the early 2000’s so don’t judge) and sat down with our technicians. My nail tech pulled out a small rotary drill and ran it over my natural nail before applying the acrylic and using the drill again to shape and smooth the hardened material.
After we were finished, my nails were long and square and freshly adorned with rhinestones (I told you, the early 2000’s) and They. Were. SORE. Every one of my nails felt like they had gotten caught in a door. Seriously.
This soreness wasn’t from the acrylic, but from the technician using a drill on my natural nail. While a common practice in cheaper nail salons, using a drill on the nail bed is completely unnecessary and does far more harm than good — and it doesn’t even save much time.
The purpose of filing the nail bed is to remove oil and rough the surface up so that the acrylic is able to properly adhere to the natural nail. But you don’t need to use a drill to do that; you can get the same results — minus the damage and soreness — by gently using a hand file.
Here’s the problem with the filing drill: When your nail technician uses a drill, there is nothing guiding them on the correct amount of pressure to apply or any indication that they are drilling too far into your nail bed. The first clue that they are doing too much is you pulling your hand back in pain — and by then it’s too late.
If your technician is working in a clean environment and following correct sanitation procedures, the only damage caused is from that drill. It’s destroying your nails and then applying a protective armor over them. If you bump your nail into something that causes it to rip off or you happen to be a chronic picker and are pulling up on your acrylic, even more damage will result.
I was a nail technician at a high-end spa for three years. Not once during that time did I or one of my colleagues use a drill on a client — or on our own nails. Not on the natural nail or the acrylic. Everything was hand-filed in order to keep our nails healthy, strong, and pain-free.
Acrylic itself, barring an allergy and assuming the correct kind of acrylic is being used and sanitation procedures are being followed, is not damaging to nails. When done correctly, acrylic can be used to achieve longer length, keep polish from chipping, and even add artistic flair to the nails. If it suits your needs, there’s no reason to forgo acrylic as long as you have a qualified technician using the proper tools.
Improper care that results in nails being removed without soaking off can severely damage nails by pulling up layers of the nail bed along with the acrylic product. But usually, the drill is the primary culprit for pain and damage. When your natural nails are drilled down, several layers of the nail bed are being filed through and there is no way to heal that kind of damage. Nails are left thin and weak, and that kind of damage can only be fixed by waiting for the entire nail to grow out and become replaced by new, healthy nail growth.
If you’re sitting down for your nail appointment and your technician pulls out a drill, go ahead and tell them that you don’t want it used on your natural nail. Hand filing the nail bed to prep it for acrylic takes hardly any time and asking your technician to abstain from using a drill is completely reasonable. It’s not worth the pain or the risk of infection.
And if your technician refuses? There are plenty of other options. First, walk right out the door and find a new nail salon. But there are also other nail services if you’d like to skip the acrylics altogether. For example, gel manicures are seeing a big surge in popularity. This service is almost identical to a standard manicure except gel polish is used in place of regular nail enamel. The gel polish is cured between coats with a UV or LED lamp and provide a stronger bond between the polish and the nail, allowing for longer wear. You can also go simple and opt for a traditional manicure.
Whatever you choose, keep your eyes peeled to make sure your technician is using sanitized and sterilized equipment. Speak up if something makes you feel uncomfortable or is causing you pain. Nail services shouldn’t hurt, and they should never leave your natural nails in a worse state than when you arrived for your appointment.