While we at The Nailscape know that posts like this exist and have been written about before, very well, it’s always useful to remind the public and ourselves what things really mean when you walk into a salon and ask for a service. We hope to dispel myths, help to determine best options, and create a dialogue between clients and nail techs about the valuable service we provide. While we strive to research and provide the very best, most correct information possible, some nail techs may disagree with our definitions or categorizations. We understand, and hope that you see this for what it is intended to be; a guide to help clients wade through marketing buzzwords and learn the truth about the nail services they receive. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
As nail techs, we pride ourselves in the fact that we are licensed to care for our clients’ nails. That license represents our approval by the state we live in (in the US – other countries have different rules,) to perform nail services according to the state’s licensing requirements.
To us, and many nail techs reading this, our licenses hanging on the wall represent the time we spent in nail or cosmetology school, learning nail anatomy, nail disorders, product chemistry, and the continuing quest to become the best nail artists, nail caretakers, and nail geniuses we can be.
This guide serves as a reminder to our clients, interested consumers, and members of the media that we take what we do seriously. Sometimes marketing of nail products can be confusing – even to us. We nail techs who eat, sleep, and breathe new products, new techniques, and new nail trends everyday.
Some Basic Chemistry
Before we delve into which enhancement service is right for you, and what the deal is with those “no light” gels, we want to impart some very basic chemistry to help everyone understand what we mean when we classify things a certain way later.
Nail chemistry is important for nail techs to understand, because it allows us to tailor a service to a client’s specific needs, troubleshoot when things don’t go as expected, and to remove the stuff someone else may have applied.
Many nail products that are used in salon services contain a form of acrylate polymer. An acrylate polymer is essentially a type of plastic that is known for its flexibility, resistance to breakage, and transparency. And even more basically, a polymer is a chain of linked molecules, in various forms. A polymer is formed when a catalyst is applied to a monomer and polymer mix, thus creating the polymer’s final form. This definition will be handy to keep in your back pocket, as we will refer to it again and again in this post. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
Solvents are also an ingredient in many nail products. Solvents keep the polish a uniform consistency in its container, and generally evaporate away once applied.
Now that we’ve got the science out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff.
Nail polish vs. “No-light” gel
Traditional nail polish was originally formulated from the recipe for car paint. Charles Revson, his brother Joseph, and chemist Charles Lachman, used a formulation from the auto industry to bring Revlon nail enamel to the masses in 1932. Almost all modern nail polish is formulated with some combination of nitrocellulose and solvents (remember?) like butyl acetate or ethyl acetate, among others. The solvents evaporate as the polish dries, and the nitrocellulose forms a shiny film. With plasticizers, pigments, UV filters, and other ingredients for color or to create a shimmer or glitter effect, nail polish is a complex chemical formulation that must be kept sealed and in a stable environment. (We don’t recommend keeping nail polish in the car or in the fridge, for obvious reasons.) Examples: OPI, Essie, butter LONDON, Revlon, CND Creative Play, pretty much any traditional nail polish you can think of.
In the past few years, a new product has emerged called hybrid polishes, long wearing polishes, week-long polishes, and no-light gels. These are all essentially the same product. They generally use a nitrocellulose-based color like traditional nail polish, which air dries as the solvents evaporate. The topcoat is the secret weapon in the equation. The topcoat air dries, but it also contains a UV hardener that, when exposed to natural or fluorescent light, gets harder and harder, protecting the polish and giving it potential for a longer life on the nail. That’s why the topcoat comes in an opaque or very dark bottle. These products remove with regular nail polish remover, and do not need to be soaked off with foil/cotton. They also generally do not require a base coat. Here we get into some sticky marketing terms to describe some of these products, like “gel.” We’ll get to that word later in the article, but I can promise you that if you don’t go into a lamp to cure the product, it’s not gel. (Sorry Sally Hansen.) Examples of hybrid polishes include CND Vinylux, Young Nails Caption, Sally Hansen Miracle Gel, Essie Gel Couture, Revlon Gel Envy, etc.
This is where one would typically expect to see the definition of gel polish, but we’re going to skip to enhancements now and you’ll see why in a minute.
A nail enhancement is any material that can add length or strength to the natural nail. There are several options for nail enhancements, but for our purposes, we’ll break them down into four categories. Liquid and Powder, Hard and Soft Gels, Fiberglass/Resin Wraps, and Dip Systems. To understand these categories, we need to remember our friends from earlier, the acrylate polymers. Almost every enhancement system we mentioned uses some form of an acrylate polymer to form a nail coating or extension. They are applied differently, have different features and benefits, and are used for different client indications.
Please note that no enhancement system or product “ruins your nails.” Every system for applying nail enhancements described below include products that are approved and formulated specifically for application to the natural nail. No enhancement product inherently damages the nail. Nail enhancements, when applied and maintained correctly, are completely safe and non-damaging. It is when the product is improperly applied, cared for, or removed, that it can cause everything from minor nail plate damage to severe chemical and allergic reactions to loss of the nail entirely. That is why the information in this post is so important to read, understand, and heed. Nail products are rarely to blame for nail damage – it is almost always the fault of improper application, removal, or improper or lack of home care.
Liquid and Powder
Liquid and powder enhancements are arguably the enhancement type that most nail clients are familiar with. Often referred to as acrylic nails, fake nails, Solar nails (which is a long discontinued brand of CND liquid and powder), porcelain nails, and false nails, liquid and powder enhancements are applied with a brush dipped in a sometimes strong-smelling liquid monomer and then a powder, and shaped onto the nail. Liquid and powder enhancements cure without a light, and once hardened and cured, are quite strong. Powders can be clear, white, pink, or a myriad of different colors. Additive drops can be added to the monomer liquid to change the color and achieve stained glass-like results. Liquid and powder is an ideal medium for embedding materials such as glitter, dried flowers, stone chips, etc. It is durable and perfect for long enhancements or overlays of the natural nail.
Side note: There are different formulations of acrylic monomers in use in nail salons around the world. MMA, or methyl methacrylate monomer (the liquid) is not safe for salon application. It can cause severe allergic reactions, and cures very hard to the nail. If the acrylic breaks, it can take the nail with it, which is dangerous and therefore not advised for use in salons. However, the presence of MMA in the powder portion of liquid and powder is harmless. Since the powder is the polymer in the equation of liquid and powder, the fully polymerized version of MMA is quite safe for salon application. High quality salons use ethyl methacrylate monomer (EMA), which is a larger molecule that contains extra carbon and hydrogen atoms. It has been declared safe for use on the natural nail plate by the Cosmetic Ingredients Review Board. Examples: CND Retention+ Liquid & Powder, Artistic Rock Hard Liquid & Powder, Tammy Taylor, NSI, Harmony Prohesion, etc.
Fiberglass or Resin nail wraps are, you guessed it, an acrylate polymer. Cyanoacrylate, to be exact. In the procedure for fiberglass nail enhancements, a very thin, flexible fiberglass fabric, made of long strands of actual melted glass that is woven into thread-like strands which are woven into a fabric. The fabric is applied via a self-adhesive backing, to the natural nail. Then, the cyanoacrylate resin is applied. Cyanoacrylates require a catalyst to “cure” and form into a hardened material, and in this case, it is generally a sprayed “activator,” which is usually a solution of a small amount of an alkali and another liquid to speed up the polymerization process. The polymer resin cures quickly once the activator is applied, but continues to cure for 24-48 hours after application, becoming very strong. This type of enhancement is ideal for an overlay, when a client has trouble growing natural nails to any sustainable length. Examples of fiberglass/resin wrap brands are Diamond Dust Nails, ASP, Backscratchers, etc.
Dip systems have been around for many years, but are gaining in popularity because of their novelty, and in some cases, creative marketing as a “non-damaging” nail enhancement system. Dip systems begin with the application of a cyanoacrylate resin “glue” to the nail plate, and then the finger tip is dipped into a container of acrylic powder, and the process is repeated until the desired thickness is achieved. Since there is no liquid (monomer) used, dip systems are low odor, and can be soaked off with acetone. Dip system enhancements are also generally more flexible and are similar in consistency to a gel enhancement. Dip system powders come in many colors, and can also be done in a traditional pink and white French application. Brands of dip system enhancements include SNS, ANC, Revel Nails, and Extreme.
Hard and Soft Gels
Gel is an acrylate that is suspended in its monomer state, thus it is a gelatinous consistency before curing. Gel is called gel because it is a gel – think of the consistency of hair gel in a potted container or bottle. All gels are cured in a lamp that emits UV light, whether it contains florescent bulbs or LED bulbs. All gel products are generally applied with a brush and floated onto the natural nail as an overlay, or used to extend the nail over a tip or sculpted onto a nail form.
There are two kinds of gel used for enhancement services: “hard” and “soft” gels. Those names refer to the ability to break those gels down with a solvent, so a hard gel is solvent-resistant where a soft gel is not. Hard gels have a low molecular weight and a high resistance to solvents such as acetone, and therefore must be filed off of the nail to be removed. Soft gels have a high molecular weight and a low resistance to solvents, meaning they can be soaked off with acetone. An example of a soft gel is gel polish. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
So why would you use one over the other? A hard gel is better suited to longer enhancements, as it is more durable. We advise using a hard gel whenever length is being added to the nail. Soft gel is great for adding color or a bit of support to the nail itself, often called an overlay. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
It is important to note that if it a nail service is composed of liquid and powder, it is not gel nail service. We have often seen salon nails advertised as gel nails meaning a liquid and powder service and a gel topcoat to add shine. This generally costs $10-$15 more than a traditional liquid and powder service for very little more value.
Examples of hard gels include Artistic Rock Hard Gel, CND Brisa Gel, Light Elegance, Masterworks by Amy Becker. Some soft gels include CND Brisa Lite, Biosculpture Gel, Bioseaweed Gel, and all gel polishes.
Now that we know what a soft gel is, let’s talk about gel polish. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
Gel polish, often referred to as a “no-chip” polish, is a type of soft gel that is cured in a UV/LED lamp, and is penetrable by acetone. Usually available as a bottle and brush combination, or in a small pot, the containers are opaque with either a small window to see the color or a color swatch. Gel polishes are also often referred to as Shellac manicures, which is only partially correct. Shellac is a brand of gel polish from the manufacturer CND, and like Kleenex, has become synonymous with all brands of gel polish.
There are two types of gel polish; those that are formulated with solvents, and those that are not. The reason behind adding solvents to gel polish is to facilitate a faster removal time. The solvents dissolve when acetone is introduced, allowing it to penetrate down to the nail, and releasing the base coat from the nail plate. However, adding solvents to gel polish can have some unintended side effects. Solvents in the gel polish bottle can separate from the gel and pigments, creating the potential for service breakdown if not re-mixed properly before applying. 100% gel polishes that contain no solvents can also be very difficult to remove, as the absence of solvents can mean very long soak off times.
The most important thing to remember when receiving a gel polish manicure, is that it isn’t bulletproof. Care must be taken to maintain the integrity of the manicure. Do not file the free edge, pick or peel the polish, or use your nails like tools while you have a gel polish manicure (or ever.) Using cuticle oil is the best home care practice that one can do while wearing gel polish, or any enhancement, really. Cuticle oil penetrates in and under the polish to keep the nail moisturized, conditioned, and the gel polish flexible and well-attached to the nail. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
When it comes to removal of gel polish, gentle is best. Soaking the product off should happen with either cotton and foil, or our preferred method, Pro Tip Clips, not in a bowl of acetone. The product should also be almost falling off before it is gently pushed away with an orangewood stick, not a metal pusher. Almost no pressure should be applied to remove gel polish; if pressure is needed, the product needs to soak longer. If you go to a salon where this happens, protect yourself and insist that the foil go back on to protect you and your nails from injury. NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH
While this is really just scratching the surface (puns!) of the myriad of possibilities available to nail salon clients, this list does serve to categorize almost every type of nail service available. Education is really the best defense against deceptive marketing strategies, incorrect information, media hype, and untrained nail techs out in the world. We hope that you share this guide with your friends, clients, and nail lovers, to help spread the word about the types of nail services available, and how they work, to better assess what service is right for you.
We welcome your feedback, and thank Nails Magazine for much of the information in this post, from their stellar reference library.
NAIL SERVICES EXPLAINED: ACRYLIC, GEL & POLISH