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What Is Acrylic Primer?

06 Sep 2023
What Is Acrylic Primer?

If you’re new to the world of acrylic nails, you might feel that you’re back in high school chemistry - unpronounceable chemical names, confusing multi-step processes, and not really knowing *why* you’re doing something.

Let’s take a step back and take a look at one of the most important products, acrylic primer.

Answering the question, “What is acrylic primer for nails,” and taking a closer look at what primers do can actually tell us a lot about both the science and art involved in a good manicure. So that’s what the experts at NotPolish are here to do today!

What Does Acrylic Primer Do?

What is acrylic primer used for? Well, it can clean, dry, smooth, and change the pH of your nails. Let’s just say it’s a non-negotiable step in the perfect acrylic manicure.


First off, acrylic primer cleans contaminants from the surface of the nail. Things like dirt, oil, and even residue from cigarette smoke can rest on the surface of the nail and inhibit the acrylic monomer from properly bonding with the keratin protein in the nail. That means acrylics that could lift and pop off.

Primers typically contain a fast-drying solvent (like ethyl acetate) that can absorb these adhesion inhibitors and evaporate quickly.


When those solvents evaporate, they take more than oil and grease - they also take the moisture from the surface of the nail. If you’ve done acrylics before, you know that moisture is the great enemy of a fast-drying and strong manicure.

A dry surface is an absolute must for applying acrylics. Modern primers typically keep the nail dry for about half an hour, more than enough time to finish your acrylics.

Improve pH

A good nail primer will also change the surface pH of your nails to make them a little more alkaline or basic. This is because the monomer used for acrylic nails is acidic. The positive ions in the monomer hook up with the negative ions in the primer, forming tight bonds that help keep your acrylics secure on top of your natural nails.


If you are using an acidic primer, the acid works to smooth out the nail. Think exfoliation, just for nails instead of the skin.

If you have an acid-free primer, it likely contains keratin, the same protein that’s in your nails. The keratin in your primer works to fill in any divots or gaps in your nails, creating a more even surface.

Is Primer Necessary for Acrylic Nails?

So, is primer strictly necessary for acrylic nails? No, but they won’t look as good without it.

Think about regular nail polish manicures you’ve had. Manicures where you took the time to use basecoat probably looked better and lasted longer, right? Well, the same is true for acrylic primer.

If you happen to be in a bind and need an acrylic mani, it’s all right to skip the primer. Sometimes, you just need to get the job done. But don’t make skipping primer a habit.

What Happens If You Don’t Use Nail Primer?

Nothing catastrophic is going to happen if you choose not to use acrylic nail primer. Your manicure just won’t look quite as good or last as long.

What Is Acrylic Primer for Nails? A Comparison with Other Products

Acrylic primer does a similar job to a primer you might apply before painting a wall in your home. When you paint, you want a smooth, dry surface with a consistent color. When you apply acrylic nails, you want a smooth, dry, and even surface to build on.

Nail primer helps to dry, remove any oil from, and chemically smooth the nail. That means that acrylics are applied to a dry, smooth surface that can hold onto them tightly.

Comparing primer to other nail products can help to show just how much it does - let’s take a look.

Primer and Base Coat

Unlike primer, base coats are intended to be the first step in applying nail polish, not acrylics. But they do much the same job, filling in small gaps on the nails and prepping them for further product.

A base coat also can serve as a barrier, preventing the polish from staining or discoloring the nail itself (we’ve all been there).

What’s in a base coat can vary quite a bit. Some contain vitamins, proteins, or other strengtheners. Some sink into the nail, while others look more like clear nail polish.

A basecoat won’t hold on to the acrylic monomer the way a primer specially designed for acrylics will; the two are not interchangeable.

Primer and Dehydrator

Dehydrator helps to remove moisture and oil from nails, though it doesn’t smooth the surface the way acrylic primer does. The primary ingredient in a dehydrator is something like ethyl acetate, which can also be used for removing nail polish.

Ethyl acetate is a fast-drying solvent, and as it evaporates from your nails, it pulls up any excess moisture. That leaves a dry surface, though not always a smooth one, for acrylics.

A dehydrator is still a good thing to keep around, and you may even want to use it for your acrylic manis (see below). But it’s not interchangeable with real acrylic primer.

Are Gel and Acrylic Primer the Same?

No. Gel and acrylic primer obviously have the same purpose, but gel polishes need a different kind of surface than acrylics.

Gel nails require a smooth, slick finish, unlike the rougher finish needed for good acrylic adhesion. A gel primer still dries and cleans the nail, but the surface isn’t right for long-lasting acrylic nails.

A Little About Methacrylic Acid

An ingredient in many acrylic nail primers is called methacrylic acid. As you might guess, it’s a close cousin of methyl methacrylate or MMA. MMA is a monomer substance that was largely removed from the market in the 1970s by the FDA.

MMA was considered way too risky by the FDA, especially as ethyl methacrylate (EMA), the current most popular acrylic monomer, had fewer risks.

Methacrylic acid isn’t as dangerous to the skin or lungs as MMA and is on the market in many acrylic primers. It’s a whole different chemical. But, it can still be corrosive to the skin, and the nail industry is shifting away from it along with other overly harsh chemicals.

Some primer products still use acids, but ones that are far less dangerous than methacrylic acid. You still may see these listed described as non-acid as a shorthand. The acids in these primers perform the same task as methacrylic acid - they help to smooth out the nail the same way you might apply an AHA to smooth out your facial skin.

Still, other primers are completely acid-free. These can be more expensive than non-acid products but are considered by many to be superior. These primers typically use something like keratin (the natural protein in your nails) to fill in any gaps or divots in the nail.

How to Use Acrylic Primer

Using an acrylic primer is pretty straightforward. If you’re feeling impatient, you may not want to go through the extra steps involved, especially if you’re just doing your own nails. But if you truly want a fantastic, long-lasting acrylic manicure, it’s a must.

Get the Natural Nails Prepared

The first step in any quality manicure is to prep the natural nail. Remove any polish still on the nail and gently push the cuticles back.

Clip and file your nails to the appropriate length and shape. You may want a longer natural nail to build impressive coffin talons. Or, perhaps you’re looking for something a bit simpler and want your natural nails short.

Buff out the tops of your nails to remove any shine - this will help your acrylic primer to adhere better to the nail.

Apply Dehydrator

You don’t have to use a dehydrator if you’re using primer, but it can be worthwhile. You want your nail surface to be as dry as possible before moving on to the next step, after all, and an extra coat of dehydrator can provide you with insurance.

You certainly don’t have to apply dehydrator, though - you can jump straight to primer if you don’t have it.

Apply Primer in a Thin Layer

Give the bottle a good shake before opening - this helps ensure that the ingredients are well-mixed and properly activated. Then, apply a thin layer on the nail - when it comes to building acrylics, less is almost always more.

Moving from one cuticle across to the other, make sure that the whole nail plate is coated in primer. This will prevent any patchy monomer application later. Make sure the primer doesn’t touch the cuticle or the skin - this is especially true if your primer isn’t completely acid-free and could cause skin irritation.

Drying Time

Acrylic nail primer dries pretty quickly - it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Resist the urge to blow on your nails, as that will just introduce moisture that will prevent your acrylics from adhering as they should.

If you do need to speed up your drying time, you can always use an air dryer or even your blow dryer. You can also pop your nails under a UV gel light.

Once your primer is dry, you’re ready to move on and start applying your acrylics.

What Can I Do If I Don’t Have Acrylic Primer?

If you are in a pinch, you can use nail polish remover or isopropyl alcohol to prep your nails. Both can work as solvents to dissolve dirt and oil as well as dehydrators to remove excess moisture - just apply with a cotton ball or brush.

Of course, the results won’t be as good as using a professional primer, but it’s certainly better than nothing!

What to Look for in an Acrylic Primer for Nails

There’s a lot of variation in acrylic nail primers and a lot of brands out there competing for your attention and your money. How do you ensure that you get the best primer for you?

Reputable Company

Look for a reputable company that you trust. Discount stores and fly-by-night online retailers often sell nail products that contain dangerous chemicals. What’s more, the labeling might not always describe the ingredients correctly, leaving you stuck if a product does cause a reaction for you or a customer.

Do a little research and check online reviews before going with a brand. This doesn’t guarantee the best product, but it can help you avoid the truly bad brands and keep you safe.

Ingredient List

Take a look at the ingredient list, too. What you’re mainly looking for is if the primer contains methacrylic acid. While many products on the market still contain this ingredient, it does carry risks of skin and lung irritation, especially if you’re a professional who uses it a lot.

It’s up to you whether you choose to use methacrylic acid, but many of the best products on the market don’t contain it. Better yet, go with a primer that’s completely acid-free to really reduce the risk of skin and lung irritation.

Not Harmful to Nails

Though acid doesn’t technically eat through the nail, many nail techs feel repeated use of acid-based primers can damage and thin the nail. If you wear acrylics a lot or have a customer who does the same, an acid-free primer can help keep the natural nails strong.

Complete System

Different nail brands build their own systems - primers, monomers, powders, and top coats are designed to work together to achieve the desired results. Swapping out one brand for another can give you inferior results - the products may be harder to work with, take longer to dry, or even lead to nails that lift.

If you like a brand, stick with their whole system instead of trying to build your own. You and your customers will appreciate the results.

Check out the Range of Primers at NotPolish Today!

So what is acrylic primer for nails? It’s the start of every great acrylic manicure.

 NotPolish’s acid-free Triple X Bond primer gives you top-of-the-line coverage that prevents lifting without damaging the nail bed. Take a look and see what our primer can do, or see our complete acrylic kits!

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