“They are not corny anymore,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said about press-on nails back in 2019. While on a train to Washington, D.C., the congresswoman showed her Instagram followers how she applied the nails in a matter of minutes. And she was right ― the nails are suddenly trendy.
First, a primer: While acrylics and gels can use tips or forms to extend the length of your nail, press-ons are applied to the entire surface of your natural nail. Many press-on kits cost less than $10, while a set of acrylics can start at $50, depending on where you live. Press-ons are also great for anyone who’s not ready to visit the salon due to COVID-19 ― they’re relatively easy to apply and can last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
HuffPost chatted with nail pros to get the rundown on how to properly apply press-ons, make them look as natural as possible and preserve the health of your natural nails.
Applying press-ons can be a pretty quick process, but before you truly get started, it’s important to do a bit of prep work on your natural nails.
“Prepping the nails is always key when applying any sort of application to make them last longer,” said LeChat Nails’ Syreeta Aaron of Montgomery, Alabama.
This should start with washing your hands and making sure nails are free of any oils or lotions. You can also lightly buff and wipe them with acetone or alcohol. These steps help the glue to adhere better.
In addition to prepping your natural nail, licensed manicurist Kelley Baker suggests doing a bit of prep for the press-on as well, particularly when it comes to finding the right fit.
“A lot of people skip this step, but fitting the [press-on nails] to your natural nails before gluing them on can really help ensure a durable, long-lasting set of press-ons,” Baker said. “If the press-ons don’t quite fit, it’s likely they will pop off or lift prematurely.”
A proper fit should cover your entire natural nail from side to side and the bottom of the nail should mimic your natural cuticle shape. If a nail is slightly too big, it can be gently filed down. If you’re ordering a set of custom nails and you have to pre-select sizes, then this step might not be as necessary, compared to buying a pack of press-ons that aren’t pre-measured to fit your digits.
Once your natural nails and the press-ons are ready to go, it’s time to start applying them.
Some kits come with adhesive tabs to secure the nails. These are much gentler on your natural nail but won’t last as long as glue. So the tabs are a great option for a temporary, one- or two-day style.
Most press-on nails come with a small tube of glue. Though you might be tempted to apply more to ensure a long-lasting application, that’s not necessary and can actually get a bit messy.
“With nail glue, a little bit goes a long way. Apply just a few drops to cover your entire nail plate, avoiding any contact with your skin,” Baker said.
Pressing down on the nail will naturally cause the glue to spread, so a few small drops is all you need. If the glue gets on your skin, you can quickly clean it up with a wooden cuticle stick, which comes with many kits. After holding the glued nail down for 10 to 15 seconds, you can move on to the next.
Aaron notes, “Make sure that the press-on is glued securely over the entire nail to prevent air bubbles which can trap [water].”
Having water or any moisture under your nail should certainly be avoided for optimal nail health.
“Any time water is trapped between your natural nail and an enhancement, whether it’s a press-on, acrylic or gel, there is a risk of infection,” Baker said.
For a super-natural look, Cheyenne Gartley, nail tech and owner of Liquid Chrome Nails, has a single tip: “Making sure [they] are on straight is a big factor in the natural look of the nail,” she said. Since the glue can dry in seconds, positioning the nail the right way is key.
As far as how long glued-on press-on nails can last? That depends on a few factors, including whether you work with your hands a lot ― such as typing every day or doing household activities where your hands are submerged in water. Baker says some applications can last up to two weeks.
Whether you’re rocking the nails for a few days or weeks, the removal process is where some press-on wearers might run into trouble if they’re not careful.
“Many nail techs will tell you that, whether it’s press-ons, gels or acrylics, it’s not the enhancement itself that can damage your natural nails; rather, it’s the removal process that makes your nails vulnerable to damage,” Baker said.
Gartley said one of the biggest mistakes people make is being too aggressive. “Trying to pull the nail off is the most common way to damage the natural nail. That’s a really bad thing to do,” she said.
Pulling and prying can damage your natural nails by stripping them of keratin layers. Baker said this is similar to the damage that can be done when gels or acrylics are removed improperly or impatiently.
The safest way to remove the press-ons involves soaking your hands in acetone, which loosens up the glue. This can take 15 to 20 minutes, and Gartley has a hack if you choose this method.
“Warming the acetone can speed up the process. The acetone should always be in a glass bowl and can be warmed by placing the bowl inside another with hot water,” she said.
If you want to avoid soaking your nails in acetone, which can be drying or even ruin the press-ons, there’s another removal option. This is especially great for sets you’ve worn for more than a week, as the glue will naturally loosen over time.
“Using the angled side of an orangewood stick, gently slide it under the press-on, alternating from one side of the nail to the other to loosen the bond on both sides. The press-on should pop off, but if it doesn’t, don’t force it,” Baker said.
Though it won’t be as quick as acetone, Aaron also says you can use water.
“If you’re trying to preserve the press-on for reuse, run your hands under hot water and slowly peel them off as they come up.” You can simply use nail polish remover to get rid of any excess glue from the press-on and use them for another application.
Press-On Brands To Try
As press-on nails become increasingly popular, they’re easy to find online or at your local drugstore or beauty supply store.
Amazon has pretty much every option imaginable, including press-ons that are sold in bulk and come polish- and design-free so you can customize them to your liking.
If you want a press-on brand that comes polished, in a variety of shapes (coffin, stiletto, square, etc.), then there’s one brand that’s pretty accessible.
“Kiss (the press-on line under the imPRESS brand) is one of my favorites and also one of the most popular brands,” Aaron said. The line has nails in varying lengths, colors and embellishments. There’s even a limited edition collection with Rebecca Minkoff. (Rebecca Minkoff x imPRESS Press-On Manicure, $8.99)
While brands like Kiss are readily available, Baker also encourages consumers to seek out independent nail techs who offer press-ons for sale.
“In San Francisco, I love Estasha’s press-ons — all of her designs are super creative,” Baker said. Besides supporting the techs, many of whom had to shut down their shops during the COVID-19 pandemic, these professionals also offer custom designs for a more unique look.
“My fellow nail artists have been creating, selling and distributing press-on nails to keep their businesses alive during this time, and it’s been so inspiring to see how these small-business owners have pivoted during such a difficult time,” Baker said.