What Is Nail Primer


What Is Nail Primer And How To Use It?



8 MIN READ | January 24, 2024

Nail primer is a liquid manicure product that’s prepared with special formulations to make nail paints and other enhancements adhere strongly to the natural nail. It goes very first to the bare surface and forms a sticky film that makes the manicures bond well with the primed surface so it lasts for weeks.

The process only involves stroking the brush with little primer from the middle while avoiding contact with skin and cuticle, waiting for a few seconds or minutes to let it dry and then layering with a base coat or nail polishes.

Although nail primer carries a number of advantages, it has some drawbacks that can be alarming. But if one gets to know both the sides, they can make the most of it while being on the safe side. So let’s dive into the topic what is nail primer for and when do you use nail primer?

What Does Nail Primer Do or What Is Nail Primer Use For?

What Is Nail Primer Use For

Nail primers refer to liquid adhesion promoters that create a thin, sticky-like layer to increase interfacial bond between nail plate and nail polish or enhancement. They act as double-sided tape in which the lower part sticks to the bare nail and the upper part sticks to enamel products.

It’s the use of main ingredients that divides them into two categories. While acid-based primer uses chemicals like Methacrylic Acid, acid-free primer contains compounds like Ethyl Acetate. Moreover, the liquid may contain isopropyl alcohol, isobutyl acetate and other similar contents.

Usually, nail primers work by removing oils and moisture from the nail surface and adding an adhesive film to it. As per the researchers Paulina and Monika, it creates temporary hydrogen bonds between proteinaceous substrates i.e. natural nail and enamels as well as forms stable covalent bonds between primer and enamel molecules.

However, a slight difference is that acid-free primer causes a temporary pH level change in natural nail which makes it more alkaline which helps lacquers adhere more effectively than the other.

Benefits of Nail Primers

1. Lasts manicures more than 2 weeks. It makes sure the nail polishes or enhancements stick better to the nail plate so that they can last up to 2 weeks or more without peeling, lifting or chipping.

2. Maintains consistency. Because the polishes stay on the nails without chipping for longer period, the primer helps keep the nails looking consistent.

3. Compatible with multiple nail products. Primers can be used with different nail products be it acrylic, gel polish, gel extension, regular polish or any other enhancement.

4. May minimize yellowing. The right products that are formulated with safer chemicals can help minimize yellowing of nails by creating a smooth layer and preventing the direct contact of lacquers with the nail.

Drawbacks of Using Primer for Nails

1. Difficult removing process. The strong adhesion of primers can make the process of removing nail polishes very hard. In that case, you may have to try acetone which can help with the process. 

2. Damages nail. Some primers have risky chemicals like Methacrylic acid that cause damage to the nails. Hence, many prefer safer alternatives like acid-free primers.

3. Improper application shortens bond strength. Overpriming can affect adhesion strength which can lead to manicures coming off.

How to Use Nail Primer?

How to Use Nail Primer

The primer is always the first thing that goes to the nail, followed by base coat, nail lacquers or enhancements and top coat.

  • In case you wish to prep the nails by filing, buffing or shaping them, it’s advisable to do it before applying primer.
  • Make sure the nails are clean and dry.
  • Start by taking the brush out of the nail primer and wiping off the excess to avoid overpriming since it can cause burning sensation.
  • Then, swipe it down the middle of the bare nail while making sure it doesn’t contact with the skin or cuticle.
  • Allow it sometime from 30 seconds to 2 minutes to dry and then use base coat and nail polish.

Note that since acid-free primers don’t evaporate, they are stickier than their acidic counterparts. However, the adhesion works even if they are slightly wet.

Side effects

Most acid-based primers for nail are made of methacrylic acid which is considered an extremely corrosive agent. So, if used improperly, it can weaken and damage your nail plate and surrounding tissues. Some other adverse effects include yellowing, burning to the skin, redness, swelling, pain in the nail bed and allergic contact dermatitis.

Higher concentrations of the acid can generate volatile organic compounds (VOC) which can lead to headaches, nausea/vomiting, eye, nose and throat irritation, dizziness, difficulty in breathing and worsening of asthma conditions.

Methacrylic acid may have concentrations ranging between 30% and 100%. In that case, it’s safer to pick a product in which the quantity of agent is low. Moreover, certain precautions should be taken when handling the acidic product such as- putting on gloves, wearing eye goggles and keeping the room well-ventilated. Since they can be pretty dangerous, it’s recommended that the experts or nail technicians work with them.

Good news is that acidic nail primers have become less popular now because of their corrosive properties and there are safer alternatives that have taken over. One of them is acid-free primers that have the same purpose but work more gently with the use of safer agents like Ethyl Acetate.

Are Nail Primers Necessary?

Nail primers are necessary only if you want your manicures or lacquers to last for a few weeks. By dehydrating the nails and creating a strong adhesive layer, they reduce the chance of air pockets to prevent premature chipping. That said, they aren’t necessary if the manicures last longer themselves or if you like to change nail enhancements quickly.

However, it’s important to get the right kind of primers so that they work effectively without ruining the health of the nails. Many acid-free primers are made with gentle formula that shouldn’t cause any skin reactions or allergies.

It comes with an effective technique involving the formation of hydrogen and covalent bonds and change in pH level of nails so that the adhesion between all the layers works better.

Who Needs To Use A Primer?

Fairly Weak Nails

Sometimes hormonal problems, age and certain medications can cause nail weakening. So, primer is for the people who have moderately brittle nails as it strengthens bond between nail plate and polishes, which eventually helps make the nails robust. So, anyone who struggles with nail chipping, peeling and lifting issues should use a nail primer.

Oily Nails

Causes like nail removers, harsh soaps and medical conditions can make the pH level of nail too alkaline. This results in nail beds producing more sebum which affects the strength of manicures. Thus, people with extremely oily nails should apply primer as well since it degreases the nail plate and creates a matte surface so that the polishes adhere effectively.

Dented Nails

Those who have dents or other deformation on the nails can consider applying primer as well. The liquid will smoothen the surface and make it even for the manicures to sit properly.

When Should I Apply Nail Primer?

Nail primers are mostly used when you intend to apply products like gel, polygel, builder in a bottle nails, dip powder, acrylic and rubber base nails. They can also be used with regular polishes or press on nails but such pairings are not that common.

How Does Nail Primer Differ From Nail Prep Dehydrator And Base Coat?

The main difference is that a primer creates a strong adhesive layer between nail plates and polishes while removing the oiliness of nail plate whereas the function of dehydrator is just to prep the surface by de-moisturizing it and base coat is to protect the bed and smoothen it out.


Here, the main purpose of a primer is to help polishes stick better to the primed surface to make it last longer with degreasing the surface working as secondary function. It’s formulated with chemicals like Methacrylic Acid or Ethyl Acetate that does the job of bonding. A dehydrator can only remove sebum or moisture from the natural nail by using alcohol-based ingredients like isopropyl alcohol and there’s no adhesion factor in the formula. Base coat works to create a protective layer by using compounds like nitrocellulose or acrylic polymers so it helps prevent pigments of polishes from getting into the natural nail and cause staining.

Layering Order

If the manicure session involves both dehydrator and primer, a dehydrator has to be used at first, then a primer and finally a base coat. However, you can also skip nail prep and start with a primer. As for the base coat, it’s mainly applied after the dehydrator and/or primer as long as the latter two are used. Base coats can be used at the start if they are layered with regular enamels.


Although all three of them can be used with any acrylic, gel or enhancement, the layering of regular polishes and base coat is more common than the layering of regular polishes and dehydrator or primer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Do Gel Nails Without Primer?

It depends on the type. There are basic gel nails that require a primer application while some have priming properties like one-step gels that eliminate the need for a primer.

In case your gel lasts a long time and doesn’t chip easily, you can skip the priming step. But if it does lift, then give the primer a go. Make sure to use gel-based primer as it’s formulated especially for gel nails.

Can You Use Nail Primer With Regular Nail Polish?

Yes, a nail primer can be used with regular polishes as it helps the lacquer stick to the nail plate for a longer period. Usually, primers are recommended to be layered with regulars when the nails are too oily or slick to let the polish sit. It’s better to opt for acid-free primers as they are efficient as well as safe.

Is Nail Primer Sticky When Dry?

Acid-based primers typically leave a white matte layer when they dry unlike acid-free primers that don’t evaporate completely causing them to create a soft sticky film.

How Long Does A Nail Primer Last?

Most nail primers have indefinite shelf life which means anyone can enjoy using it for good as long as it’s stored properly. The products may go bad if it’s exposed to air for a longer period and the first sign would be its cloudy appearance. So, make sure to close the cap properly.

Final Words

Nail primers are quite versatile since they can be layered with any lacquers or enhancements and it’d still work. The liquid has been designed in such a way so that anyone can flaunt their manicures for weeks. Not only do they degrease nail plate and form a coarse surface on the surface but also prevent creation of air bubbles to allow for a stronger bond between natural nail and the polishes. And as there are acid-free products available, people can prime the nail without causing severe damage to it.

Moreover, the liquid can also help in making the nails robust through the layers so that they don’t break easily. This is the reason why primers are highly recommended especially for those with somewhat soft and flaky nails.

However, just because they bring benefits doesn’t mean using them is a must. Primers are important only if someone wants to extend the life of manicures. But if your nails are very weak, they should be avoided since chemicals in them can make the situation worse no matter how safe they are advertised. In that case, it’s better to use a gentle base coat and do proper nail care.


Dylan Mustapich is a NYC-based lead esthetician who has been featured in New Beauty, Teen Vogue, Wired, and The Huffington Post. With a lifelong love of all things skin, he is incredibly knowledgeable about skincare ingredients, routine refinement, and personalized skincare, and follows emerging technology closely.

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