differences between acrylic tips, overlays and sculpture

The differences between acrylic tips, overlay, and sculpture

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When getting your nails done you can choose between a variety of different options. The acrylic application generally comes in three forms: overlay on the natural nails, using tips, or sculpting the extensions. All three have similarities but it is the differences that are the key to deciding what will work best for you.

These three methods of applying acrylic differ in ways like strength, durability, potential damage to your natural nails, etc.


Acrylic tips:

Natural acrylic overlay:

Acrylic sculpture:

Ease of application

Plastic tips need to be applied using a type of nail glue. It needs to be filed to remove the shine which and has to be filed to achieve the correct shape and length after cutting it shorter.

Acrylic is applied over the natural nail after it has been prepped and the correct shape has been achieved. Caution should be taken when filing as natural nails tend to be thinner than tips and can more easily chip and break.

form is placed underneath the natural nail and acrylic is applied in the desired shape and length. Acrylic has to be applied to a fully prepped nail.

Use on challenging nail types

It is not advised to use tips on bitten nails or severely damaged nails as filing of the tip can cause even more damage to the natural nail. Bitten nails tend to have smaller nail beds, and applying a tip to it will cause the nail to be weak and cause even more damage when the tip breaks. It can also be challenging to find the correct tip sizes for people who have odd nail sizes like very large or very small.

It is better to apply acrylic directly to a damaged nail and let it grow out. Extensions are not always the best idea. If the nail is severely damaged and only part of the nail bed remains, a nail bed has to be created by making use of a nail form.

Nail forms are perfect for when working with broken or damaged nails. If you are a nail biter you can use the round sticker of the form and cut it to create a stencil where you’ll create the new nail bed. Nail forms can also be cut to fit on any type and size of the nail.


Tips only provide the nails with length and not strength. The strength of the nails depends on the product applied over the nail and the correct placement of the apex.

Most nails become weaker as they grow and dehydrate. To protect the natural nail from chipping or breaking the product will have to be applied correctly and the apex becomes a very important part as the nails reach longer lengths.

Unlike its’ counterparts, sculpting provide the nails with strength and length. As the extensions are built with acrylic, they are quite durable.

Potential damage to natural nails

If for instance, you were to bump your nail hard enough when wearing tips, the product is more likely to lift from the back and rip the top layer of the nail with it, than it is to break. You also run the risk of your nail ripping off with the product. This has happened to me before.

If you were to hit your nail hard enough you run the risk of breaking your nail which can be quite painful, especially if it rips into the tissue.

In my experience with sculpting it protects the natural nail a lot more than most people realize. If the nail is hit hard enough the extension will crack and break instead of bending and lifting the product off of the nail. This is great as it minimizes the damage to the natural nail extensively.

Length and shape availabilities

Tips come in a variety of lengths and shapes. Some of the shapes available minimize the amount of time you have to spend filing the nail into the correct shape. 

The length depends on how long the person has been growing out their nails. To achieve a good length it will take months. This does depend on person to person as some peoples’ nails tend to grow at a slower pace than others. The shape you can achieve depends on the length of the natural nail. And if you want to change a shape from say stiletto to square, you’ll have to take off some length to achieve it.

The length depends on the size of the form that you have available. Different sized forms exist. The shape is up to you as you can build it to perfection and minimum filing would be necessary.

How natural does it look

For tips to look as natural as possible, you can bend them to create a c-curve, as no nails are naturally flat and it will look artificial.

As an overlay is done on the natural nail a c-curve will already be present. Make use of a pinching tool so that the acrylic will set in a rounded shape.

By using forms you can create the c-curve of your choosing. Use a pinching tool to press the acrylic into the same c shape.

acrylic tips

Acrylic tips:

What are nail tips

Tips are usually created out of a thin plastic material that is adhered to the natural nail using an adhesive; usually, nail glue. For the tip to adhere properly the nail has to be filed to remove any shine as the glue will not stick properly to a shiny surfaceTips only serve as nail extensions and do not provide the nail with extra strength the acrylic over the nail will provide extra strength. 

If you have nail extensions you should also take care of them. I wrote an article on how to take care of your nail extensions that you can go and read now.

When to use nail tips

Nail tips are a very common form of extension and can be used in most situations. The problem comes in when people have abnormal nail beds when trauma like continuous biting occurred. You can not adhere a tip to a nail bed that is only half its size. When nails are severely damaged adhering to a tip will potentially cause more damage as the tip can easily break and damage the natural nails further.

When someone has very thin and brittle nails it might also not be the best option. When you accidentally bump your nails when wearing tips, the nail will rarely break. Instead, the product will lift at the cuticle area ripping your nail and causing severe damage. Something else that can occur under immense force is if you hit your nail hard enough, the extension might rip your entire nail with it. This happened to me before and believe me, I wished my tip rather broke off.

How to make nail tip look natural

Tips also have to be filed to remove the shine and can be blended in with the natural nail. During this process, it is normal to find yourself filing over the natural nail as you’re removing the shine from the tip. This is fine but if nails are thin from previous damage this can cause pain and will thin out the already damaged nails even more.

Tips are usually quite flat. So for a more natural look and more convenient application you can bend the tip to create a bit of a c-curve. This is better seeing that nails are usually naturally rounded and nails with a c-curve present are stronger than flat nails.

No one person is the same. Most tips can be purchased in ten different sizes. I have had multiple clients whose nails are not included in these tip sizes. If you have larger nails or, in my case, smaller nails, you will have to find a solution. Some larger sized tips can be purchased but it’s not common. With smaller nails, the tip can be cut and bent to try and fit onto the nail. This can be quite an inconvenience. Especially if this is your first time.

Different shapes of nail tips

Tips can be purchased in different lengths and shapes. You can find tips that have already been shaped in a stiletto or coffin shape. This can drastically improve your time when doing nails. Tips however do not come in extreme lengths as some forms do and therefore you will have to find another solution like sticking two tips together when creating an extreme length set of nails.

To achieve a certain shape when using square tips you will have to cut the edges using a nail clipper and file the nails as you want them. There is a lot of filing involved when using tips. Determining if all of the nails are the same length you will have to turn your hands around and look from the bottom. Some nails have different sized nail beds, therefore, it might seem like one nail is longer than the other when measuring the nails next to each other from the cuticle area to the tip of the free edge, but when turning the nails around and measuring the tips from the hyponychium (the living tissue your can see under your nail when viewing your nail from underneath) you can see if they are the same length or not.

Dealing with tips on irregular nails

I have come across an issue when dealing with clients that have overly dry natural nails. What occurs when making use of tips is that as the nails get longer they dry out. As the nails dry they curl inward and pull away from the tip. This will not occur when lengthening the nails using acrylic as it is strong and will “force” the nails to straighten out. 

Tips are not the best extension to use when dealing with a problem like naturally down-curved nails or nails that turn upward when growing. It will not resolve the issue. You will have to make use of acrylic sculpture to “train” the nails to grow straight again.

overlay nails

Acrylic overlay:

What is an acrylic overlay

The acrylic overlay is done on natural nails. No extension is used so whether you do it on long or short nails depend on you. Some people believe that using tips for length also provides strength and that it’s better to trim down your natural nails and apply a tip for length. This is so far from the truth. It can sometimes be better to grow out your natural nails as this will not only protect your natural nails from damage, but you will also gradually get used to longer nails as your nails grow. 

When to get a overlay

People struggling with dry nails will also be better off with natural overlays as the nails will have a harder time separating from acrylic than from the tips. The type of design and shape you desire will depend on the length of the nails, as creating short stiletto nails do not always look great. 

Doing a natural overlay when your nails are brittle and damaged might be better, as the only way your nails will recover from damage is by having said damage grow out. Nails can not repair damage like broken or chipped pieces and you will have to wait to get rid of it. After a couple of months, you can be rid of all previous damage if care is taken, as an entirely new nail would have grown out.

As the nails grow out they can naturally create a c-curve. When applying acrylic you can use a pinching tool to further this curve and create more strength. One negative of having natural overlays is that if you experience trauma on the nails and it breaks or chips, it will be your nails. This can be quite disheartening as achieving a good length can take months, depending on how fast your nails grow it can take even longer. Chipped nails can be repaired using silk or fiberglass.

Does acrylic overlays strengthen your nails

Just like with tips, your natural nails will not determine the strength of the set. The acrylic placed over your nails will provide all of the strength. My nails are not as strong as I would like them to be. And seeing as I work with clients daily my nails regularly get caught in the crossfire when filing. That is why the only way I can have long natural nails is by having an acrylic overlay.

Caution should be taken when filing natural nails as most peoples’ nails are thinner than an artificial tip. You should therefore always use a softer grit file when shaping natural nails and when filing longer nails, always support the nails by putting one finger underneath the nail while filing. This will prevent the nail from bending, which will cause extreme discomfort for you.

Natural Nail

How natural nails look will be determined by many factors. No matter how strong the nails are, after months of filing and removal through acetone the nails will become thinner and dry. This is why you should always encourage yourself to use cuticle oil on your natural nails to replenish any oils that might have been lost. When you are done with a set you should always apply cuticle oil underneath the extension as well. Not only does it hydrates the hyponychium, but it also hydrates the nail underneath the product.

You should also consider to take breaks in between getting full sets of nails done because this will help in the recovery of your natural nails and keep them looking and feeling good. I wrote an article on how to grow and strengthen your natural nails which you can read.

sculpted nails

Acrylic sculpture:

What is acrylic sculpture

The acrylic sculpture is a great way to combine length and strength for your nails. You can buy different types of nail forms that vary in length. Nail forms are a piece of thick paper that is placed underneath the natural nail and secured using its’ sticky back. The length is then built up using acrylic or gel. 

When to use acrylic sculpture

Nail forms are great when working with damaged nails. If you are faced when bitten nails that only have a small piece of the nail bed left, you can use the round sticker that comes with the nail form, cut it to size to act as a nail bed and place it behind the form. This way you will build a new nail bed and the nails will be strong enough to give is a chance to grow out.

When you struggles with soft, brittle nails that break easily I would suggest sculpting the extension instead of using tips. This is because of many reasons namely, using tips you will have to file a lot which can be painful for you. Tips only provide length while sculpting an extension provides strength as well. If you bump your nail hard enough so that the extension will be damaged, instead of bending and lifting at the back, which will damage your natural nail, or even worse, ripping your nail off with the extension, the sculpted tip is more likely to crack and break off. This is much better as your natural nail will be protected from damage when this happens.

What shape and size can nail sculptures be

You can achieve any length and shape as you will be building it yourself. The amount of filing that you’ll have to do to achieve a certain shape is also minimized as you can build it to perfection. Using forms allows you to achieve the perfect c-curve. Depending on the shape and the length of the nails you can bend the forms so that when you build the acrylic the nails will create a natural c-curve. You can then use a pinching tool to make sure that the curve is not just present underneath the nail but across all of the product. This looks very natural and visually appealing.

No matter what shape or size your nails are they can easily be accommodated by forms. If you have smaller nails you can simply cut the forms for an easier fit. When you have issues like down-curved nails or nails that grow upward you can easily correct them over time, by trimming the nails and sculpting the extension in the way the nails should grow. After some time the weight and density of the product will force the nails to grow correctly.

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