Richtmyer–Meshkov instability of the SF6 gas layer surrounded by air is experimentally investigated. Using the soap film technique, five kinds of gas layer with two sharp interfaces are generated such that the development of each individual interface is highlighted. The flow patterns are determined by the amplitudes and phases of two corrugated interfaces. For a layer with both interfaces planar, the interface velocity shows that the reflected rarefaction waves from the second interface accelerate the first interface motion. For a layer with the second interface corrugated but the first interface planar, the reflected rarefaction waves make the first interface develop with the same phase as the second interface. For a layer with the first interface corrugated but the second interface planar, the rippled shock seeded from the first interface makes the second interface develop with the same phase as the first interface and the layer evolves into an ‘upstream mushroom’ shape. For two interfaces corrugated with opposite (the same) phase but a larger amplitude for the first interface, the layer evolves into ‘sinuous’ shape (‘bow and arrow’ shape, which has never been observed previously). For the interface amplitude growth in the linear stage, the waves’ effects are considered in the model to give a better prediction. In the nonlinear stage, the effect of the rarefaction waves on the first interface evolution is quantitatively evaluated, and the nonlinear growth is well predicted. It is the first time in experiments to quantify the interfacial instability induced by the rarefaction waves inside the heavy gas layer.