Before there was gel-polish, there was gel. Making its debut in the mid-1980s, this product was designed as an enhancement for clients who desired a glossy, durable finish. While many clients might think there is a big difference between gel and acrylic, gels actually rely on ingredients from the acrylic family. Perhaps the tougher distinction to make is between hard (traditional) and soft (soak-off) gels.
This graph from NSI shows the basic molecular difference between hard and soft gel.
Gel isn’t just for hair anymore. The nail industry has embraced gel products, with gel-polish gaining popularity in recent years and rounding out the category. Despite the rise in demand for gel-polish, gels have actually been around for some time. With a more gel than lacquer-like consistency, these products are actually pre-mixed monomers that polymerize when cured. Because they are in their monomer state when uncured, they look and apply like a gel. When cured under a light they harden and give off a glossy shine similar to acrylics. Ultimately, all soft gel and gel-polish begins as traditional gel. Ingredients are merely added to weaken the formula, thus evolving gels into the more dissolvable gel-polish.
To begin to understand the difference between hard and soft gels, it helps to look at the chemical makeup of these products. Traditional gels have a tight molecular structure and low molecular weight. Because of this tight structure, acetone cannot penetrate to break down the gel. This is why filing is used to remove hard gel from the nails. Soft gels, however, have a higher molecular weight and elongated molecular structure, creating space between cross-linking agents. The space between allows for solvents to penetrate and break down the product. Some nail techs like the idea of soaking gel off because there is no dust, and the easy-to-remove system can be sold as an add-on service.
For clients who are looking to add significant length to their nails, a traditional gel would be the better option since it is more durable. “This is not to say that soak-off gels won’t last long, but they might wear on the free edge over time,” explains Light Elegance president and chemist Jim McConnell. In comparison, soak-off gels last about one or two weeks longer without chipping than regular polish. For clients who require a transitory enhancement before returning to natural nails, a soak-off gel is the ideal option.
Besides forming and building nails, traditional gels can also be used to create nail art such as flowers or 3-D objects. A soft gel, being weaker, might not be able to endure the sculpting process as well. Painting can also be done on top of hard gels, providing more nail art options. When it comes to encasing, however, be careful to not apply a hard gel over a soft gel, as this could cause cracking. Additional uses for hard gels include overlays with tips or as a final layer on top of acrylic.
Regardless of hard or soft, one gel product is not necessarily better for nails than the other. According to the Nail Manufacturers Council (NMC), “All nail enhancement products are safe for the natural nail if properly applied, maintained, and removed.” If any nail damage occurs due to an enhancement, the NMC cites over-filing or improper practices during application or removal as the most likely culprit. For optimum application and removal it is important to adhere to the gel manufacturer’s instructions and not to mix gel systems.
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