Acrylic Nails

A Primer on Primer

By using the right application technique and following safety guidelines, you can make primer burn a thing of the past.


True or false?

  • You can wait until you finish what you’re doing if you get primer on your hand because it takes a few minutes for it to start burning your skin.
  • There’s no need to wash your hands if the primer doesn’t burn on contact.
  • If a client’s nail beds burn when you .apply primer, you just need to wait for the burning sensation to stop before you continue with the service.
  • Underpriming the nails is always the culprit when lifting occurs.
  • Use more primer to get better adhesion and eliminate lifting.

If you answered yes to any of these statements about nail primers, you need a refresher course. Every one of these statements is false. By learning how primers work and what safety guidelines should be followed, lifting and primer burn can become just a bad memory in your salon.

How Primers Work

Most acrylic products will not naturally stick to a bare nail without preparing the nail surface. Strong product adhesion results from interaction between the natural nail’s chemical composition, its condition, and the product’s chemical composition. Primer works like double-sided tape. It sticks to the nail and to the acrylic, providing the needed adhesion for both surfaces.

Primer prepares the nail surface for product application by enhancing the attraction of acrylic polymers to the natural nail’s surface. Used properly, says Eric Montgomery, OPI Products’ chemist, primers create chemical links that bond with the natural nail and the acrylic surface. Both methacrylic acid and non-methacrylic acid primers contain an acid called an “adhesion promoter.” Methacrylic acid is one kind of adhesion promoter; there are various adhesion promoters used in non-methacrylic acid primers.

The primer works like the chain between an anchor and boat: At one end of the adhesion promoter molecule (the chain) is the anchor that fastens to the nail (the ground), and at the other end is the hook that holds the acrylic product (the boat).

Doug Schoon, chemist and owner of Chemical Awareness Training Services, says that methacrylic acid primers promote adhesion because they etch the nail surface, which allows acrylic to anchor to the nail surface. Etching, says Schoon, is like using microscopic sandpaper on the nail surface. Etching primers carve pits in the natural nail that allow acrylic to anchor to the nail surface.

“If you just touched the brush to the nail and let the primer spread out, then the major function is the chemical link,” Schoon explains. “If you paint it on, the major function is etching. Most manufacturers use it as an etching primer. [They] tell technicians to do at least two coats.”

A lot of people think that it’s primer etching that causes nails with acrylics to thin. But primer etching causes minimal thinning. The nail naturally thins when covered with a protective product such as acrylics, wraps, or gels. And buffing the nail beforehand to prepare the nail for artificial product also causes some thinning of the nail plate. According to Montgomery, primers can thin the nail when too much primer is applied.

Acid and Non-Acid Primers

Methacrylic acid primer was the only primer available until non-methacrylic acid primer was introduced in 1988 as an alternative. Both primers effectively prepare the nail surface, but non-methacrylic acid primers are less likely to burn the nail bed or the skin. Some technicians call non-methacrylic acid primers are less likely to burn the nail bed of the skin. Some technicians call non-methacrylic acid primers “no acid” or “no burn” primers. Both nick names are misnomers.

Non-methacrylic acid primers do contain acid, just not methacrylic acid. Non-methacrylic acid primers are 10% to 30% adhesion promoters in a solvent base. They cause less etching of the nail surface and may not corrode the skin as quickly as methacrylic acid primers, which are 70% to 100% methacrylic acid. But, warns Montgomery. “Always err on the side of caution and work quickly to clean up the mess and wash the skin,” if you get primer anywhere but on the nail.

Methacrylic acid primers do not damage the nail nearly as must as many technicians believe when it is used properly. While methacrylic acid primers do have a high concentration of acid, the effect of using primer to help acrylic adhere can be less damaging when compared with buffing the nail with a file. Says Larry Gaertner, owner of No Lift Nails. “the grooves caused by filing are like the Grand Canyon compared to primer etching which is like a scratch in the sand.” However, cautions Schoon, applying three coats of primer can significantly thin the nail.

Use With Caution

Like all salon chemicals, primer is a safe product when used cautiously and properly. Just as driving is hazardous if you ignore speed limits, roll through stop signs, and don’t check your mirrors before changing lanes, primer is hazardous if you flood the cuticles, neglect to wash up spills immediately, or ignore a client complaining of burning.

One manufacturer may claim that its primer is safer than another manufacturer’s, but the same safely precautions apply to both methacrylic acid and non-methacrylic acid primers. Even though non methacrylic acid primers may not burn skin as quickly as methacrylic primers, they will eventually cause a burn.

All primers can cause third degree burns. To prevent burns, follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely and immediately rinse with water any area the client says is burning.

No matter how carefully you work, there will always be the occasional client who complains of a burning sensation in her nail beds when you apply primer. The discomfort might be momentary, but it demands attention.

Primer can permeate the plate and soak the nail bed if a client’s nail plates are too thin. If a client complains of burning, discontinue the service and have her wash her hands and flush the nails with wafer for several minutes. To treat those sensitive clients, you have several options: Try a primer that has a lower concentration of acid, apply primer as sparingly as possible, wait for a new, thicker nail to grow, or switch her to a primerless acrylic, wrap, or gel system.

If you accidentally touch the skin or cuticles with primer, treat the area just like a burning nail bed because the acid in primer will continue burning until it’s neutralized. Keep a glass of water at your station at all times in case you get primer on yourself or your client. If you get primer on the cuticle area, dip the client’s finger right into the glass and escort her to the sink to wash her hands with soap and water. Soap or baking soda, when used with water, are excellent neutralizes.

Says Schoon, “Wear safety glasses and don’t take them off until the primer bottle is closed. Put the bottle where you aren’t likely to knock it over.”

If someone gets primer in the eyes, flush the eye with water for at least 15 minutes while someone else calls poison control, your local hospital, or a physician. Don’t stop rinsing after five minutes just because the burning sensation stops — flush for a full 15 minutes to make sure all trace amounts of the chemical have been rinsed out.

If you spill primer on your table, get yourself and your client out of the primer’s path. Put gloves on before you grab a towel to mop up the spill, and put the towel in a plastic bag marked “soiled” until it can be washed. After you wipe up the spill, wash your hands thoroughly.

If primer spills on clothing, remove the piece of clothing immediately, flush the skin beneath with running water, soap up the skin, and flush again with water for at least 10 minutes, advises Schoon. Don’t put the clothing back on or you will re-expose your skin to the primer and risk being burned.

Follow the same safety guidelines for both methacrylic and non-methacrylic acid primers. Says Schoon, “Just because non-burning primer doesn’t burn your skin when you put it on doesn’t mean it won’t harm you.”

Less Is More

Some nail technicians routinely apply two, three, even four coats of primer to the nails. While some clients may require a second coat because they have unusually oily nail beds, most only need one coat to prime the nail adequately.

Montgomery says one coat of non-methacrylic primer should be all that’s required. “Overprinting, especially with non-methacrylic acid primers, can actually create adhesion problems.”

Likewise, Schoon advises technicians to strive to underprime with methacrylic acid primers. “You never need to use four coats of primer. If you do, look at your products or your technique. I recommend one coat. Dab it in the center of the nail and let it spread by itself.” Technicians who have problem clients can apply two coats of methacrylic acid primer, adds Schoon. More than two coats will just thin the nail without enhancing adhesion. If more than a few clients have lifting problems, Schoon recommends reviewing your technique and seeking an educational class.

Brush Up on Technique

Both the primer and the acrylic product are most often blamed for lifting. But, say experienced educators, the problems are more often related to the technician’s technique than to product. “Most lifting occurs because of improper preparation of the nail,” says Nadine Galli, OPI Products’ western educational director. “Make sure the cuticles are pushed back, the pterygium is removed, and the surface is buffed to remove shine.”

Michelle Buhr, educator for Alpha 9, says applying acrylic too thin at the cuticle or too thick at the free edge can also cause lifting “If the acrylic isn’t balanced on the nail, that can cause it to pop up at the cuticle,” she says.

Primer can also become contaminated. Says Diana Ulch, educator for Creative Nail Design, “You can pick up dust and debris on your brush and then put it back in the bottle.” If you see debris floating in your primer bottle or if the liquid is hazy, your primer is contaminated and should be replaced with a fresh bottle.

Use a Light Touch

The natural tendency is to over-prime the nail beds to ensure the best possible adhesion. But a drained brush and a light touch should give you excellent adhesion without burns, say educators.

To prime the nails, dip the brush in the primer, drain it on the bottle’s lip, and dab on a clean paper towel before touching the nail. This method gives you enough primer to do several nails, says Pain Hud-nall, an educator for Tammy Taylor Nails. “Just prime about two-thirds of the nail toward the cuticle, and the [methacrylic acid] primer will flow over the rest.”

Corie Lefkowitz, account executive for Star Nail Products, prefers primer in a felt tip pen because it gives her greater control of the product. “This way the bottle won’t get knocked over and you won’t get too much on the brush,” she says.

Galli says, “It’s real important to get complete coverage on the nail plate. Apply [non-methacrylic acid] primer like nail polish: Brush it around the cuticle area and then do three strokes down the nail.” While non-methacrylic acid primers dry chalky white, non-methacrylic acid primers dry shiny.

True or False?

As with any chemical used in the salon, proper handling can minimize risks Likewise, knowing what to do in case of an accident can reduce your worries about working with thus hazardous product.

The truth is, you can work safely with methacrylic acid or non-methacrylic acid primers.

Facebook Comments ()

Leave a Comment


Comments (4)


Containing pores or openings that will cause lower strength; polymers used in the nail industry are all classified as non-porous.
Learn More

Featured Products & Promotions   |   Advertisement

Market Research

Market Research How big is the U.S. nail business? $7.3 billion. What's the average service price for a manicure? Dig into our decades' deep research archives.

Industry Statistics for

View All


FREE Subscription

VietSalon is a Vietnamese-language magazine and the sister publication to NAILS. Click the link below to sign up for a FREE one-year subscription.

Get a free preview issue and a Free Gift
Subscribe Today!

Please sign in or register to .    Close
Subscribe Today
Subscribe Today