ESSENTIAL NAIL CHEMISTRY
Every person who considers themselves to be a professional should strive to be a master of their craft. A nail technician should be skilled at applying nail products to all types of nails; they should also be knowledgeable about the products and tools they use. This section provides you with a basic understanding of the chemicals, chemical processes and generic products that underpin all aspects of the nail services.
In the nail industry, the information available about the products in use tends to be provided by manufacturers of brands and this information is usually tied up with marketing exercises. A technician needs to have basic knowledge of chemistry involved and then add specific product knowledge to this as 'postgraduate' learning. You may use the same products every time, but the client, their nails, the circumstances and the environment will differ. By understanding how the chemistry of the products work and what can influence the chemical reactions and their ultimate performance, the professional technician will be equipped to use all products to their best potential and solve any problems that may arise.
The nail industry today
In recent yeas, the professional nail industry has enjoyed massive growth. The media has focused on nail products, nail treatments, nail art and anything nail related. Although there have always been nail stars in the professional world, there are now media nail stars, social networking has probably been one of the main reasons for this focus as a search on any nail topic will bring astonishing amounts of information and images.
This growth has encouraged manufacturers or brand developers to increase their nail product offering, and many new developments and advanced products have been introduced. Research in the sector has never been s intense and the consumer is demanding more and more new products. This has resulted in good, not-so-good and bad outcomes.
lots more products
advanced pigment's and effects
vast choice for both the professional and consumer
more factual information
Proliferation of independent (indie) micro-businesses creating 'unique' polishes and other products - many are knowledgeable and follow the strict cosmetic product legislation and rule but many don't and may use inappropriate ingredients;
New brands created by a small company that purchases small quantities off the shelf from large bulk manufacturers who may have no professional ethics about who they sell to - some (not all) have little to no knowledge of how to use products safely or how to correctly pass on the manufacturer's instructions to customers;
The growth of irresponsible activists organisations using the internet to promote fear-based misinformation in order to gain interest from the media;
Last, but not least, brands attempt to make their products appear different and unique by creating misleading marketing stories that are not bases on facts.
Bad outcomes. Educators in this industry have never been busier. A cause for concern, globally is that there are many educators, teachers or trainers who have been teaching for many years and are not updating their knowledge. Some believe that their length of time in the industry is sufficient. This is not the case because it is a very different place from ten or even five years ago with much more factual information available. As more research is being conducted and technology moving on, the facts of a few years ago are now no longer accurate. Out of date information is being passed to students , manufacturers and magazines, and its wrong.
Never before has it been more important to understand the science behind nail products. In the way you , as a professional, will be equipped to make a decision about brands and marketing information from an informed position. You will not be taken in by incorrect marketing stories or any shock media tactics. You will also be able to educate your clients on what is true, what is myth and what is just wrong. You will be an educated professional and not a gullible, under-educated amateur or a nail technician still practising out-of-date techniques that can damage clients' nail plates.
WHAT IS A CHEMICAL?
What is a chemical?
What is a chemical?
Everything around us (including us) is made of matter that is formed from chemicals. The only exception is what is known as energy, i.e. heat, light and electricity.
The word 'chemical' has evolved into something that so often results in meaning danger. This is especially true for cosmetic products, e.g. 'Don't use that product! Its full of chemicals!'
Clearly, just because something is a chemical doesn't mean it is dangerous. In fact, it most likely is not dangerous, since the vast majority of chemicals we come in to contact with are safe and beneficial. Cosmetic products are among the safest products sold in the world. There are strict regulations about ingredients used, packaging, labelling, storage, etc.
Almost weekly there seems to be a new ingredient that is claimed to be dangerous or hazardous to health. These fear0-based stories may sell articles but little useful fact-based information is provided. Such articles rarely take the time to explain that the level of the supposedly dangerous ingredient in a cosmetic product is many times lower than the maximum safe limits, so no real hazard exists.
Every substance is made of chemicals and each has a safe ad unsafe level of exposure. For example, drinking alcohol in moderation is considered safe for the majority of people. Increase that level enough and there is a chance that the alcohol will adversely affect an individuals health. Increase that even more and the individual could die from alcohol poisoning.
Cosmetic ingredients are used at concentrations that are well within safe limits, which is important for nail professional to understand so they aren't misled by misinformation and score tactics. Even so, nothing is 100 per cent safe, not even roller skates or a bike.
By understanding how to properly use nail products, professionals can safely perform their services and easily avoid issues such as skin allergy or sensitivity. There are a few chemicals that an individual may use that can cause allergic sensitivities, but this can be avoided through proper and safe use.
Safety Data Sheets (SDS) and ingredient lists on labels are designed to help people predict if a specific product could activate an existing allergy or if it is capable of causing new allergies. But the professional needs to have the SDS and read the label in the first place and have more of an understanding about the products used. A product can be used by an individual for many years and then suddenly they appear to develop a sensitivity or allergy to it. The allergy has probably been developing slowly from prolonged or repeated skin contact and the client has ignored the symptoms until they could no longer be easily dismissed. Generally, allergies to cosmetics don't happen suddenly, they build over time, slowly becoming more obvious with each exposure.]
There are a few known ingredients in nail products that are more likely to be allergens (a substance that causes an allergic reaction) than others. Unreacted monomers and oligomers have this potential, so proper care should be taken when using them.
The phrase 'toxic chemicals' is being used more frequently with regard to cosmetic products. This is usually from a brand claiming to have no toxic chemicals, which suggests other brands are, in fact, toxic. This is misleading information designed to frighten, not inform users.
Toxic means poisonous or having the ability to damage organism. As discussed previously, every chemical has a level above which it becomes dangerous or toxic, even water. Toxins are naturally occurring poisons.
An example of one group of ingredients now classed as toxic is phthalates. A common ingredient in nail polish - dibutyl phthalate (DBP) - has been used as a plasticiser to prevent chipping for decades. Research in recent years has looked at the wide range of phthalates and found that a couple of them (and there are many) can be toxic at relatively low levels. None of these have been used in cosmetic products. The others are safe to use. DBP is considered safe in nail polish. However, fear-mongering activist groups misled consumers onto believing that all phthalates were considered dangerous
This, in large part, resulted in nail polish manufacturers removing DBP from their formulations, not because it was toxic or dangerous ingredient but because of the consumer perception that it could be. So this and a few other ingredients that suffered the same fate removed, resulting in the whole marketing story of '3 free' then '5 free', then '7 free' and so on!
As a professional, you will make your own choice about which brands you use. Many brands have excellent products but remember that the 'free' description doesn't necessarily make them better or any safer than other products.
Know your science facts and make informed choices.
Household chlorine bleach, which is sold every day, is toxic. Even a small drop on the skin can burn; ingesting it can kill! Yet, it is used, heavily diluted obviously, in swimming pools to make them safer.
One last example of toxicity: even the sun can create toxic effects. It is essential for life but too much of it results in sunburn. And too much over sustained period of time can result in skin cancer. It is toxic in the wrong doses.
WHAT ARE ORGANIC PRODUCTS
What are organic products?
Like the word chemical, the term 'organic' has evolved into meaning something less than accurate. Chemical has a bad inference; organic has a good inference! Even though everything organic is also a chemical.
The term organic is usually misused and misapplied to mean organically grown. Organically grown is very different from organic.
Organic is a term for all substances based on the carbon atom. All living things are based on carbon, so all are organic and that also includes those that have ever lived. This means that all food is organic (carbon-based). All animals and plants are organic as well. Even petroleum is organic, because it is based on plants that have died and decomposed. The field of chemistry is divided into two substances. Everything that is not organic is considered by scientists to be inorganic. Examples of inorganic substances are minerals, water, air, metals (each of these is non-living and has never lived).
Organically grown or 'certified organic' refers to specific methods of farming and manufacturing that adhere to a specific set of rules. Crops are grown, animals are reared and products are processed without the addition of any synthetic (man-made) materials such as fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics.
Organic is not a guarantee of safety of quality but some cosmetics companies have capitalised on the misconception. Legislation requires organic cosmetic products to contain at least 70 per cent of ingredients (excluding water and salt) that are certified organic and there are also standards set for processing and handling.
No artificial nail coating or adhesive is organically grown nor are any organically certified. Even so, all are based on carbon and therefore are all organic from a chemical point of view. With the exception of certain oils, creams and lotions, no artificial nail product is certified organic. Don't be fooled into believing that organic always means 'safer and more natural'.
Vapours, fumes, odours, gases and gels
A molecule is the smallest particle of a substance that still retains the properties of the substance. Molecules are made up of atoms that are held together by chemical bonds. These bonds form as a result of the haring or exchange of electrons between atoms.
Molecules can pack more tightly together to form a solid substance or they move freely around the container in the form of a liquid, gas or vapour.
A simple example of this water, H20 (i.e. two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen). When tightly packed together, molecules of water create solid ice. When they move feely, these same molecules melt to form a liquid. When heated they may become steam, which is water vapour. All forms are still H20 but in different physical states.
Molecules of some chemicals can evaporate (escape into the air) and become vapour. Water does not smell, simply because the detectors in the nose cannot detect water molecules in the vapour, even though is present in the air all the time to create humidity. Other vapours have detectable odours, such as the vapours from a nail varnish and remover.
Some chemicals can escape into the air much more easily that others. These are classified as volatile. These substances evaporate easily, so they create vapour more easily. Heating these substances can make them evaporate even more quickly. This property is useful in fast-drying nail products. When these molecules are cooled, they condense together to reform into a liquid. That's the hallmark of any type of vapour - it will condense back into a liquid when it cools.
For example, water under normal room temperature conditions does not evaporate very quickly, but will evaporate if left long enough and will evaporate more quickly if heated. The more it is heated, the faster it will evaporate. When the water vapours are cooled they return to a liquid form.
Volatile liquids evaporate very easily at relatively low temperatures so should be kept in closed containers that prevent the molecules from escaping from the container. Substances that are naturally vapours at room temperature are generally referred to as gases. Gases cannot be made to form a liquid unless they are cooled to far below the freezing point of water. Many gases must be highly pressured before they will turn into a liquid, e.g. liquidised natural gas or propane.
Vapours and their odours are often erroneously called fumes, but they are not. Fumes are mixtures of tiny solid particles mixed with gases that usually result from combustion or burning, e.g. chimney/candle smoke, car exhaust. Nail products do not create fumes, only vapours (volatile chemicals escaping into the air). There are NO fumes in a salon, unless you are burning candles or incense, which should be kept away from all flammable products.
Smell or odour is nothing more than your nose's interpretation of the vapours and gases it is exposed to through inhalation. Some substances are detected via our noses, others cannot be detected even though they are present in the air in high concentrations. odour is not always related to the concentration of the vapour in the air. In other words, some substances have a very strong smell even when tiny amounts evaporate, while other substance have a weak odour, even when large amounts are found in the air.
So, strong smelling odours do not necessarily mean there is a lot of vapour in the air, but any odour does indicate that evaporation has occurred to some degree. The opposite is also true, since the lack of an odour does not indicate there are no vapours in the air that may be inhaled. Odour is only one indicator and certainly is not a fool proof way to evaluate the quality of the salon's breathing air.
WHAT IS ACRYLIC?
Nail coating type
Type of acrylic used
This is why it is more correct to call 'acrylic nails' by their precise name, 'monomer and polymer' systems. Nail professionals should avoid using overly simplistic names such as 'liquid and powder' (also known as L&P). Nail technicians often use terms that are too vague and don't properly convey the sophistication of these highly advanced beauty products. In face, artificial nail formulations are the most technically advanced products in the entire beauty and cosmetic industry. Most don't realise this fact because of the over-simplified terms in the nail profession, e.g. liquid, powder or gel. So the complexity of these advanced beauty products is greatly under-appreciated.
Other types of nail acrylic-based enhancements available are UV gel, fibreglass/silk wraps and gel.
UV gel: based on acrylate and methacrylate monomers and short chains of these monomers called oligomers. These formulations are cured upon exposure to UVA energy. So-called 'hard' UV gels tend to be more solvent-resistant and therefore slower to remove than the 'soft' UV gels, which are formulated to be more quickly removed in the proper solvent. These should not be called gels, since this is overly simplistic and creates confusion. The word gel describes the physical form of a substance that is too thick to be runny or flow easily, but still too thin to be a solid.
Fibreglass/silk: based on cyanoacrylate monomers and cure when exposed to moisture. The cure can be accelerated by exposure to a specially designed catalyst or activator that is specific to the wraps systems used. These are also (inaccurately) called 'no light' gel, which indicated that they do not cure via UV energy. These are also gel-like in consistency.
Gel: this can mean several things and causes a lot of confusion. It is a generic description, not an artificial nail product category. The term gel is often misused in the nail salon industry. This term describes a physical condition of a liquid that is too thick to be freely flowing liquid and too thin to be a solid. Gels are thickened liquids that tend to hold their shape and not flow easily on their own. They may or may not contain water, depending on how the gel is formulated.
As a professional, it is important to use the most accurate terminology to avoid confusion. It is also important to take time to properly understand the differences between various product categories and manufacturer's systems.
OTHER PRODUCTS USED BY NAIL PROFESSIONALS
What is acrylic?
Acrylic is the name of a large family of chemicals that are often used to create various plastic materials. Many thousands of different types of acrylic substances are used in a variety of industries to make a wide range of products, including dentures, contact lenses, implantable bone cements, hair brushes, hearing aids, windows, furniture, automotive parts and so on. Many items in your home are made from substances belonging to the acrylic family.
You can see that many products are acrylic-based. The terms has been incorrectly used by the nail industry to describe one particular artificial nail, specifically those using monomer liquids and polymer powders. These were labelled as 'acrylics', which is incorrectly suggests that other types of nails are not made of acrylic. In fact, all artificial nails are bases on acrylic ingredients and cure via acrylic chemistry, and there are no exceptions.
The acrylic family is broken down into many sub-families of which a few are used to create artificial nails. These sub-families are acrylates, methacrylate's and cyanoacrylate's. All artificial nails are made by using one or more of these special types of acrylic chemicals.
All artificial nail coatings are based on acrylic ingredients and cure or polymerise via acrylic chemistry as outlined in the following table.
UV cured nail coatings
Liquid monomer/powder polymer
and UV cured nail coatings
Resins, glues and no-light gels
Urethane acrylate oligomers
Function of a nail primer.
Newer technology nail coatings have great adhesion and do not require any additional adhesion promotion. Surface oils cause a shine on the nail plate and these oils can block adhesion. This is why manufacturers require the shine to be removed. The best adhesion will develop if the surface of the natural nail is clean and oil-free. Modern brands, when properly used, have impressive adhesion to the natural nail.
However, since so many nail technicians so not take time to properly prepare the nail plate, some companies sell a separate product to help create a better adhesive bond. These products are generally known as nail primer. If there is a nail primer in the system it should be used to improve adhesion, if improvements are required. Most importantly, any nail primer should be applied to clean, prepared nails allowed to dry before applying the overlay.
The pH scale measures the acidity or alkalinity of substances (pH stands for potential hydrogen). Some products claim to adjust the pH of the nail plate to improve adhesion, but this is a minor contributing factor to good adhesion. This type of product will only temporarily change the pH, so the effect isn't long-lasting.
The best nail primer to use is the one that is recommended by the manufacturer of the nail coating system of your choice. If needed, the developer will have developed the nail primer to give the best results with this particular system. Do NOT use nail primers that were not designed for use with the system you choose. If you are having adhesion issues, find the solution and solve the problem. Don't rely on nail primers as a replacement for proper nail cleaning and preparation.
As with all nail coating systems, information on how to use products efficiently and safely must come from the manufacturer of that system. Nail professionals should spend some time learning, in depth, all there is to know about the products and a reputable company will provide this information. There may also be some application techniques that are best to use with specific brands and that make an application quicker or more effective or, conversely, those that should be avoided. Do not consider that such training is a waste of time or money- it is the complete opposite. Every product that is on the market will work properly in the right hands; in the wrong hands, where there is insufficient knowledge, most products will not work. When this occurs, the nail technician is the problem, not the products or the client's nails.
The use of acetone
There have been some worried about using acetone to remove nail coatings. Many solvents can pose potential problems if care is not taken in their use and storage.
Improper use of any nail product can create a potential hazard, but with proper and sensible use, such issues are easy to avoid.
Many volatile solvents can cause surface dehydration of the nails and skin, but this is only temporary. It would be impossible to totally dehydrate the nail plate and only the surface moisture is removed. Acetone is the safest and most efficient removal solvent and is recommended for use on most nail coatings. Other solvents can also temporarily dehydrate the nail's surface, but this effect will last less than an hour before beginning to reverse itself.
For enhancement removal (including UV gel polish) there are branded removal products that have additional ingredients to speed removal and reduce the potential for drying the surrounding skin.
In the consumer market there are many so-called acetone-free polish removers. This is a marketing gimmick that is used to infer that acetone is not suitable for removal purposes or is unsafe. Acetone is the safest remover ingredient of all, as long as it is used correctly.
There is no reason to be wary of acetone, other than it is highly flammable. Acetone is naturally occurring in plants and animals and is a normal component of the human body.
NOTE: Soaking the nail plate in any liquid, including acetone, for longer than 60 seconds will cause it to become softer and therefore the surface is more easily damaged. Use great care with any tool, implement or file on the softened surface of the nail plate. Over-aggressive use will cause visible damage that will appear as white spots and patches on the surface.
Polish, varnish, enamel and lacquer are all marketing names for the same type of nail product. Millions of bottles of nail polish are sold every day throughout the world. It is a commonly used cosmetic product but I wonder how many technicians understand what it is?
There are many formulations of nail polish, some of which are specific to a brand. But essentially, they all have similar formulations that vary slightly. Here are some of the more commonly used ingredients.
Polymer resins are used to create the structure of the coating. Nitrocellulose is naturally occurring polymer that produces a hard and shiny surface, but has poor adhesion to the nail plate. Other polymer resins can be combined with nitrocellulose that are less brittle and more durable or may be used alone in place of nitrocellulose.
Plasticisers give the nail coating more flexibility.
Solvents such as butyl acetate, ethyl acetate, ethyl alcohol or toluene are used to make the formulation spreadable. It is the evaporation of these solvents that cause the nail polish to dry.
Suspension agents are ingredients that prevent other ingredients from quickly settling to the bottom of the container. The agent used makes nail polish thixotropic, which means that when the container is shaken or when the nail polish is brushed, it will temporarily become thinner.
Colourants can be solid pigments, liquid dyes or solid lakes (dyes that are soaked up by a solid substrate). Each of these can be used to create thousand of shades.
Stabilisers are added to prevent colours from fading or changing. These can include a UV blocker to prevent the nail polish from becoming clumpy in the container as they age.
The drying time of nail polish depends on its formulation, especially of the amount and type of solvents used, as well as the surrounding temperature. A thinner nail polish probably contains more solvents and will dry more slowly.
Sheer or semi-sheer polish contains fewer pigments and lakes, so solvents can escape more quickly, whereas an opaque colour will take a bit longer because the solvents cannot escape as quickly. The same occurs when the applied layers are overly thick. The coating will contain extra amounts of solvents, so the dry time will be slower.
There is no need to wait for each layer to be completely dry. This is an unnecessary waste of time. As soon as the next layer is applied the solvents in it will wet the previous layer and they will bond together, but this will slow the dry time since solvents have further to travel before they can evaporate from the surface. The few minutes it takes to complete ten fingers and return to the beginning is sufficient time to allow most of the solvents to escape from the lowest layers.
The solvents evaporate into the air. If a cap is left off a container, solvents can quickly escape, making the nail polish too thick and unusable. The container should be kept tightly sealed and to do so will require that the neck of the container be kept clean and free from nail polish.
Shaking the container is necessary to mix the pigments and other colourants, but once per day is enough. The colourants will not settle in the course of a day, unless the nail polis is of poor quality.
There are many 'quick-dry' formulations marketed today. These have higher levels of more rapidly evaporating solvents to encourage quick drying, but this results in a more brittle coating that is prone to chipping. So the general rule is, fast dry time = lower durability and shorter longevity and lower gloss, verses slower dry = longer-lasting results and better gloss.
Base and top coats
As you will see, all the ingredients in nail polish have a part to play. Bae and top coats are very similar in how they work, but have completely different ingredients. Base coats contain ingredients that improve adhesion and prevent staining. Top coats contain ingredients that produce hard, shiny surfaces and have good adhesion to the underlying colour coating. Top coats need to be scratch-resistant as well.
COSMETIC PRODUCTS AND INGREDIENTS
Cosmetic products and ingredients
Cosmetic products are among some of the safest products sold in the world. Every country has its own set of rules and legislations that make sure this is the case. Occasionally some ingredients may be banned in one country and not in another or safe levels may vary slightly. However, this doesn't occur very often.
Some of the rules applying to cosmetic products that are common to every country are listed here.
Labels: these have a long list of requirements that must be followed, e.g. there should be specific warning symbols - if a product contains any potential risk the user should be aware of in order to ensure safe use.
Ingredients list: every ingredient has an approved name that isn't always recognisable. This is because they must conform to the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), e.g. water is 'aqua', vitamin E is 'tocopherol'. As a professional, it is important that you are aware of what is in the products you are using as specific product knowledge is not always provided by the supplier or manufacturer. If you want to know what an ingredient is more commonly known as it is easy to find on the internet. A useful site is
The listing must be written in the order of percentage of the finished product. Some ingredients towards the end of the list are present in very small quantities. Some that are only present in trace quantities may not be included. Looking at these lists will often give you an idea of what the ingredients are and it can also be useful if a client develops an allergy to a product.
All professional products should have a Safety Data Sheet (SDS). This has lots of useful information especially if the product is hazardous. SDS's should be kept and filed in every salon.
Cosmetic ingredients are regulated too. In the UK