Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Nail Polish: History, Chemistry and Controversy

My name is Jessica and I am a nail polish addict.  I have at least 250 personal bottles of polish, not counting my gel polish or stamping polish and this is AFTER I cleaned out my stash several years ago.  I know I am not the only one, and I believe many nail techs start their career with a polish addiction!  (but that's just my informal observation)

Nail Polish seems to have been pushed to the background in the last few years. Gel polish has become the buzz word in manicures - to the extent that consumers no longer realize that "gel nails" and "gel polish" are different things.  But I digress.  Nail polish just isn't getting the press that it used to and there are people who think that nail polish (lacquer, varnish, etc. - all names for the same thing) is on its way out.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

For one thing, as nail techs know, not every person gets their nails done in a salon and no matter how "easy" the at-home gel polish kits say they are, there is a vast majority of consumers who do not want to put in the time and effort to learn to apply gel polish at home.  There are consumers who have strong natural nails and get the same wear form nail polish vs. gel polish. There are consumers who like to change their polish frequently and do not want to be "stuck" with one color.  there are consumers who have had bad experiences with gel polish and refuse to acknowledge that the fault is not with the product but with the technician. And there are consumers who just love nail polish.


According to historians and archeologists, nail polish was invented 5000 years ago in China from a mixture that included beeswax, egg whites, gelatin, vegetable dyes, and gum Arabic.  It was used by ruling class to distinguish themselves from the general population. Favorite colors were silver and gold because they symbolized power and wealth. Eventually, metallic gave way to red and black colors as royal favorites. At one point, nail polish was not allowed to be used by general population an evidence has been found that common people were publicly executed if found with colored nails.

From China, nail polish spread across India, Middle East and northern Africa, where it was extensively used in Egypt.  There, the lower classes wore pale colors, whereas high society used henna to color their nails a reddish brown. It was also known that mummified pharaohs would have their nails colored with henna.

After the fall of Roman Empire, nail polish disappeared from the European fashion . It was only after
the arrival of renaissance and the new trade connection with the Middle East and India that European aristocracy gain access to the nail polish. As time went on, nail polish and manicures became more and more common. In Victorian era culture it was generally considered improper for women to adorn themselves with either makeup or nail coloring, with natural appearances being considered more chaste and pure, so fashionable women of the day would manicure their nails by applying tinted powders and creams to the nail plate, then buffing them until shiny.

Interestingly, it was the invention of the car that spurred the creation of the first modern-day nail polish. The very first nail lacquer was a cousin of automobile paint - it was completely colorless and was introduced in 1916 (some say 1917) by Cutex.  Revlon became the first established nail polish brand in 1932 when they released a cream color and began using pigments rather than dyes in their new nail lacquer. In 1976, Jeff Pink (Orly) invented the French Manicure to mimic the look of the white pencil that French models would wear under their nails to give them a clean look.  Nail polish trends continue to evolve with nail art being a huge trend right now.

Here is a fun info graphic from mentalfloss.com on the history of polish


All nail polish is very similar in terms of the broad formulations. 

Nail Polish Ingredients:
  • Solvents- Solvents are liquids used to mix the other ingredients and help them flow smoothly. Once you apply the polish, solvents evaporate away (ethyl acetate, butyl acetate,  isopropyl alcohol, toluene, xylene)
  • Film Formers- chemicals that form the smooth surface on a coat of nail polish (nitrocellulose or cellulose acetate butyrate). 
  • Resins - modifies the nitrocellulose to form a tough and shiny film - the film adhere to the nail plate and adds depth, gloss and hardness to the film of a nail polish (tosylamide-formaldehyde resin or tosylamide/epoxy resin )
  • Plasticizers- keep polish flexible and counteract the brittleness of the resins and film formers (Camphor and  Dibutylphthalate)
  • Pigments - This is what gives nail polish it's color.  Iron oxides, micas, FD&C colorants and other things (such as carmine) may be used for color
  • Other Additives - including UV blockers (benzophenone-1), glitter and thickening agents  that help keep pigments suspended (stearalkonium hectorite or bentonite).
Once nail polish is painted on the nail, the solvent gradually evaporates away entirely and the nitrocellulose, resins, plasticizers and color is left behind, drying into a solid film on your nail.

Because nail polish cures by evaporation, if you use a quick dry top coat that doesn't penetrate through the layers of polish (essentially drying itself but not the polish under it) then you can end up with bubbles from the solvent trying to escape through the dried top coat.  This is the same problem you have with quick dry sprays or putting your hands in ice water - its not drying the polish, jus the very top layer which can cause more issues.  Just wait for your polish to dry naturally (or use a really good quick dry top coat!), okay?


Nail polish products have been used safely for many decades by millions of people. Fingernails and toenails are made of keratin, which is hard and largely impenetrable. Once nail polishes, treatments, and hardeners dry, the ingredients in the products become embedded in the hardened film coating on the surface of the nail, and are not able to be absorbed by the body or released into the air. The US Food and Drug Administration states on its website that such as toluene, formaldehyde, and dibutyl phthalate are safe under current conditions of use in nail products, though formaldehyde resins may cause an irritation or allergic reaction to those individuals sensitized to this compound. In Europe, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) reviewed formaldehyde use in nail hardeners in 2014 and concluded that formaldehyde can be safely used up to 2.2% to harden or strengthen nails. I have listed a number of articles and myth busters in the references section below because frankly, I could go on for days on the scare-mongering that is out there about nail polish!  Suffice to say that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is the leading advocacy group that consistently distorts various studies for the purposes of exaggerating the risks so they can intentionally create unwarranted fear. The more people they scare, the more people donate to them.  I highly suggest reading Doug Schoon's article regarding formaldehyde in nail polish and his take on the EWG's "report" on TPHP in nail polish. A couple of interesting points: the Duke Study recognizes that the nail plate is known to have “low permeability to most molecules” and people who don't wear nail polish were found with TPHP in their urine due to environmental factors - yet the EWG leaves these points out completely. 

I want to encourage you to not blindly follow anyone (even me!) without doing the research and finding out things for yourself.

Tell me: do you still love nail polish?


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Enhancement Troubleshooting: Lifting nails

You apply a beautiful let of nail enhancements and when your client comes back in 2 weeks you see lifting!  What went wrong?
from http://www.nailsmag.com

Assessing the Nail

First, lets assess the nail - where is the lifting occurring?  Is it at the cuticle?  Is it at the point where the tip meets the natural nail?  Is it along the sidewalls?  Is there a lot of lifting or just a little bit? Is it on all fingers or just one or two? 
By assessing the issues, we can narrow down the cause.  For instance, if the nail is lifting at the cuticle, the issue is not with the tip application.  If the lifting is at the sidewalls, but the cuticle is not lifted, I would take a look at my preparation of the sidewall area and confirm that my product is not flooding the area.  If every single nail is lifted half way from the cuticle up the nail plate, then I know it is a bigger issue than just accidentally bad prep on one nail. Its possible the extension is too long for the natural nail but it could be a systemic issue with the client or my mix ratio or a number of other things.  If only one client has issues and no one else does, then I know its something to do with her (body chemistry, picking, medications, allergy to the product) and most likely not my fault.


There are a number of reasons nails delaminate (the scientific for lifting), though there are just a few "main" causes.  The three factors that are the most likely cause of lifting are:
  • Improper Prep
  • Product touching skin
  • Improper mix ratio (for acrylics) or improper curing (for gel nails)

Lets first take a look at these three possible causes:

Improper Prep

Prepping the natural nail is the first and arguably one of the most important steps in applying enhancements.  This is because it creates the foundation for what you do on top of it. Incompletely removing oils or non-living tissues on the entire nail plate will cause lifting. Etching the nail with a  coarse file can cause lifting by thinning out the nail and creating a weak base for the enhancement which then flexes away from the product with any pressure.

Product Touching Skin

If the product touches the skin at any time (even if you quickly wipe it away), it will wick the skin's oils and moisture into the product which can cause or exacerbate lifting.  I see many people on Instagram who tout themselves as educators who get product on the skin then use their brush to "clean up" around the nail.  Not only is this a major cause of lifting, but can cause dermatitis in the client!  It's better to get your application under control than to try and fix the mess afterwards.

Mix Ratio/Improper Curing

I have talked extensively about the reasons for proper mix ratio and the chemistry behind it in this post.  Basically, acrylic mix ratio is important for many reasons, one of which is that it can cause lifting if it is incorrect.  If the mix is too dry, it does not have time to adhere to the nail fully before hardening. When it is too wet, it can cause pocket lifting and is generally weaker than a properly made acrylic bead.  Not to mention, the chance of overexposure for the client!

With gel nails, you do not have to mix anything so mix ratio is not a factor.  however, it is extremely important that the correct UV/LED lamp with clean bulbs and appropriate cure time is being used  to cure the gel. gel feels hard within seconds but is NOT fully cured until the full cure time has been acheived.  Uncured gel can cause overexposure and dermatitis in clients and lead to a weak nail that does not fully adhere to the natural nail plate.

Other Causes

If you have lifting, checking the above three items should be first on your list.  If you find that they are not the issue, there is a wide variety of other factors that could cause or contribute to the problem, including:
  • Clients who pick at their nails or are extremely hard on their nails
  • Extension is too long for the client's natural nail and lifestyle
  • Too much primer was used
  • The product was applied too thick - thicker is not better and a thick enhancement can be too rigid while the natural nail will flex away from it with any kind of pressure.
  • The tip doesn't fit the natural nail
  • Tip adhesive breakdown
  • Contaminated products
    • Fresh monomer wasn't used with every client
    • Mixing different manufacturers' products
  • Smoking, eating, touching hair, etc. during application (playing with phones always leads to someone touching their nail!)
  • Excessive filing of the enhancement - pressing too hard while filing can flex the softer natural nail away from the hard enhancement
  • Mixing products between systems or brands 
Most of these are self explanatory, but lets talk about tips for a second.  Tips can loosen for several reasons, one reason is improper nail plate preparation prior to tip nail application. Another cause is improper fitting of the tip. Always measure the tip based on the width of the side walls, not the width of the natural free edge. The tip should not be able to be rocked side to side, the nail plate is the same width as the free edge, and the sides of the tip are coming out straight from the side groove.

A third (and most common) cause of tips loosening is the adhesive.  We have talked about adhesives in this blog before and the fact is that all nail adhesives are water soluble.  The thicker the adhesive, the slower they break down but they WILL break down eventually!  If you are lucky your client's nails grow fast and the tip will be gone (filed off during fills) before the issue shows itself.  If you arenot lucky you will start to see lifting at the point where the tip was adhered to the natural nail.

If you prefer to use tips over sculpting, make sure to pretailor the tip so that the minimal amount of adhesive is on the nail plate to create the strongest tip possible. Or you can use acrylic to apply tips for an even stronger nail.

Medications - Not a lifting Culprit!

Its been said for years that lifting might be casue by medicfatgions that the client is taking, however Doug Schoon has said that there is no evidence of this being true:  "This is not likely to be a problems and here’s why. Doctors often state that the health of the natural nail is often a window into the health of the individual. However, taking medication for a month or two isn’t going to affect adhesion of artificial nails or coatings to the nail plates. Same is true for birth control or other over-the-counter (OTC) medications. There are certain medications that when taken for long periods can affect the way the body functions and may affect nail growth. However, this is would be uncommon for medications in general. An example of medications that do affect nail plate growth are chemotherapy drugs. They can adversely affect the growth, but won’t change the way pre-existing natural nails adhere to the nail coating. In other words, they can’t affect the chemical structure of the nail plate once it has already grown from the nail matrix ... Also, if a person is taking a lot of medications and their nails are in poor condition, it is more likely that the condition of the nail plate is due to poor health of the body, and not the medications. For instance, those taking heart medication may also have blood pressure and circulation problems and these health issues are far more likely to adversely affect the condition of new nail growth, than would the medications themselves."


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Soft (Soak-off) Gel vs Hard Gel

We have discussed the chemistry of hard gel nails and how gel nails interact with UV/LED lamps. In this post I am going to compare soak off gels (SOG) - aka soft gels or gel polish - with what we know about gel nail enhancements - aka hard gels.
Image courtesy of nsinails.com

In very basic terms, "hard gels" are the original gel nail enhancements - they are clear, hard, non-porous, flexible and must be removed by soaking off.  They are highly non-porous and solvent resistant, which is why they must be filed off, but that also means that it is almost unheard of for them to yellow due to staining or with exposure to chemicals or sun.

Soft gel/ soak off gel/ hybrid gel polish is very flexible, thin, generally require only minimal nail preparation before application, and most times are not build-able (though there are brands now making soak off gel builders and Biosculpture has made build-able soak off colored gels for over 25 years).   

Hard gels and soak off gels have a very similar base - however soak-off gels are a specifically designed and formulated acrylate base with a higher molecular weight which results in an elongated molecular structure. This creates space between the cross-linking agents and the oligomers allowing penetration of solvents which break down the gel.

UV/LED lamps work the same with soak off gels as they do with hard gels.  And as with hard gels, using one lamp for all products is risky because you run the risk of under- or over-curing. You may not even realize the gel is under-cured (it will look hard on top well before it’s actually done fully curing), so you could unknowingly be exposing the client to uncured product, which can cause adverse skin reactions.  I cannot stress this enough.  Please read my posts on lamps (part 2 here)

One very interesting quality about soak off gels is that they actually get harder to remove the longer they are on the natural nail (per Doug Schoon, president of Schoon Scientific and renowned nail industry chemist).  Just like any nail enhancement, they should be maintained every 2-3 weeks. And remember, that not all enhancements work for all people. so if a client can't get more than a few days of of wear out of a soak off gel, they might want to consider as stronger enhancement. I know this from personal experience - I can usually get 1-2 days of wear out or regular nail polish on my natural nails and gel polish gives me 3-4 days, if I'm lucky,

As with any nail enhancement (and they ARE enhancements, even if they are not mean to be worn as long as a hard gel), improper preparation and improper removal can still damage the natural nail, as many clients have unfortunately found out. “Gel-polish should come off easily with no heavy-handed or forceful scraping,” says Doug Schoon. “If you have to force the product off at all, you are doing something wrong.”
Courtesy of Doug Schoon


Sunday, January 10, 2016

Enhancement Troubleshooting: Free Edge Separation

One of the most common problems a nail tech sees during a fill service is separation of the natural nail from the enhancement at the nail tip.  It can be very frustrating to have zero lifting or issues anywhere else but the tip is peeling away!

There are a number of reasons for free edge separation:
  • Nail tip adhesive break down
  • Improper mix ratio in acrylic - especially too wet of a ratio which may not lift at the cuticle but often pulls away at the tip.
  • Using old bulbs with gel
  • Clients using their nails as tools
  • Old product - this is less likely with today's advanced  products but there are some acrylic on the market that still use old technology. 
  • The natural nail. 
Yes, the natural nail itself is often a cause of enhancement separation at the free edge.  If you take a good look at your natural nail you will notice that as it grows, it does not grow out perfectly straight, it naturally has a lower arch and C-curve and as the nail gets longer, these become more prominent. When this happens, the nail slowly begins to pull away from the enhancement -  usually at the free edge and especially at the corners of the free edge.
The second thing that happens with natural nails that can cause separation is that the nail becomes dry.  When the nail plate is on top of the nail bed it is getting moisture from the body through the bed.  However, once it leaves the bed and becomes free edge, it is susceptible to the elements and is no longer getting any moisture or natural protection. Much like conditioning your hair, you need to condition your nails EVEN when wearing enhancements!   If the natural nails are not conditioned with oil daily, they WILL dry up, and curl away from the enhancement.  The hardest part here is convincing clients that this is essential. 
Gluing down the separation does not work and may trap contaminants.  Cutting off the natural nail is generally undesirable from the clients perspective and often causes further lifting.  There really is only one true fix for free edge separation - you need to remove the product  that is separated and replace with fresh product.  

Now, you don't need to soak off the entire nail but you do need to file off the whole separated area - similar to doing a backfill.  Then re-cleanse, prime and apply product per your manufacturer's instructions.  In some cases, you may have to use a form to re-extend the nail to match the other nails.


  • Use a thicker, gel-like nail adhesive which breaks down more slowly, or attach tips with acrylic or sculpt the nail.
  • Make sure your mix ratio is correct for your product.
  • Make sure you clean your UV./LED bulbs daily and change them regularly.
  • Have the client use a good quality cuticle oil (not one that contains mineral oil or petroleum products) not just on their cuticle area but also under the free edge on the natural nail several times a day.
  • Each time you file the length down on a set of nails where the natural nail is the same length as the enhancement, you will need to cap the edge with a small layer of acrylic or gel to seal around the client's nails and the enhancement.