Troubleshooting Gels

Avoiding allergic reactions and lifting with gel systems is a matter of precision and correct technique.

Years ago, it seemed everything was being marketed in a gel form—toothpaste, shampoo, hairstyling products, soap, and suntan lotion—and trend-happy consumers loved it. It seemed that if you offered anything in a gel form, people would buy it. Not surprisingly, nail extensions in gel form also that hit the market, and they’ve been enjoying increasing popularity ever since. The 1991 NAILS Magazine Reader survey shows that 44% of technicians surveyed offer some type of gel service, either with a light or no-light gel system.

Clients like gel nails because they’re light and natural-looking. Technicians like gels because they’re so versatile: You can use them to extend, as a wrap or tip overlay, to strengthen natural nails, to give nails a durable shine, or to dry nail polish quickly.

Because of their flexibility and resilience, gels can last longer on some clients than other types of nails, say manufactures which means clients can go longer between fills. Many technicians prefer the salon environment when gels are used because gels have low ordor. Since many gels are self-leveling and don’t require much, if any, filing, there’s also less dust during the service.


The word gel applies to the form of the product, not the product itself. Gel systems are either acrylic-based or cyanoacrylate-based, and they can be cured in a variety of ways, depending on their chemical makeup. All gels are brushed on the nail and harden when cured with UV light, visible light, or with a brush-on or spray-on activator. Because each gel system on the market is a little different, nail technicians should be certain they understand exactly how their chosen system works. “Gel systems are not interchangeable or compatible,” says Susan Weiss, executive vice president of OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.).

Light-cured gels contain acrylic resins and monomers as well as photo initiators (chemicals that begin the reaction with light), according to Christina Jahn, marketing director at Star Nail Products (Valencia, Calif.). When the photo initiators react with a certain wavelength of light, the gel hardens (a process known as polymerization). These gels are cured with either UV or visible light units.

The proportion of resins to monomers determines the gel’s consistency: the higher proportion of resins, the thicker the viscosity. Light-cured gels come in at least three consistencies (thicknesses). Each has a different purpose, base or bonding gel increases adherence of the gel to the nail; building or sculpting gels are used to sculpt nail extensions; multipurpose gels are used for overlays; and finishing or sealing gels can make nails shiny or dry polish Each application of light-cured gel must be cured by placing the nails under the light.

No-light gels are cyanoacrylate-based and are usually used as overlays. They can be cured with a spray or brush-on activator.

“Cyanoacrylate gels can be used as overlays on wrap systems or for capping, which is an overlay of the natural nail,” says Monica Ladd, national sales/education coordinator at Soft Touch (Brea, Calif.). Because they are usually of a thinner consistency, most no-light gels are not designed for sculpting extensions.


There are subtle and not-so-subtle differences in application techniques among gel systems. Some gel systems require primer, while others contain bonding agents that improve their adherence to the nail. Whichever system you decide to use, it’s important to take a class, watch a video, practice, and ask questions to be sure you’re using the product properly “Ninety percent of gel system failures are the result of poor technique,” says Fred Slack, president of NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.).

Nicolas Coomber, managing director of Light Concept Nails International (Charlottesville, Va.), adds, “As far as technique, someone may switch from another manufacturer’s gel system but she still needs some training, because all gels are not the same.”

When using a light system, the most common problems technicians encounter are peeling and lifting. “Because gels are easy to apply, nail technicians may look at them as simple,” says Jahn, “but there are some troubleshooting things they need to pay attention to. You have to pay attention to the free edge. You have to round the product over the free edge, or there won’t be a seal, and the product will peel, shrink, or pop off.”

Not allowing the gel to cure long enough is another cause of problems with light-cured gel nails. Even if you leave the hand under the light long enough, the bulb in the light unit may be too weak to complete a cure. “When you first get the system, take some gel, put it on a tip, and put the tip under the light,” says Jahn. “It should cure in about 60 seconds. Time it. If you have problems, say, if the product rolls off the top or a nail feels gummy, repeat the test. Nine times out of 10, inadequate curing is caused by a weakened bulb.” Jahn recommends changing the bulb about every six months if you use the system daily.

Says Weiss, “Sometimes there is a limited curing range in a machine, meaning that certain areas of the nail cure more completely than others. If you roll the nails from side to side as they’re curing inside the machine, it will help them cure uniformly.”

Bubbling gel is another complaint. It’s likely that technicians have bubbling problems because they apply the gel as they would acrylic: by patting it out. But gels should be stroked onto the nail.

Unfortunately, lifting is the bane of gel users just as to acrylic users. Some simple precautions should eliminate most of the problem. “One of the reasons you get lifting is because the gel is getting too close to the cuticle,” explains Beth Hickey, national sales manager for Origi-Nails (Arlington, Texas). “Keep the gel away from the skin. Once you apply the gel, it will level itself out, and when it levels out it may go onto the skin.” You may need to allow extra space for the gel to level as you apply it. Put gel about 1/8- to 1/16-inch from the cuticle, depending upon the recommendation of the gel system manufacturer.

“Also, instead of using an orange-wood stick to remove any gel that floods the cuticle, nail technicians should get into the habit of using a polish corrector pen to remove the gel from the skin,” says Jahn.

“To prevent peeling, rough up the nail tip prior to applying the gel overlay,” Hickey says. “The tip is smooth plastic; roughing it up will help prevent peeling. Another reason for peeling is that the client may use heavy detergents, baby oil, or mineral oil excessively.”

Keep the nail a manageable length. “A common problem is having the nail too long,” Hickey says. “You need a shorter nail or a length that balances the length of the nail plate.”

Sticky nails may be the result of insufficient cleansing of the nail after curing, says a spokesperson for International Beauty Design (Gardena, Calif.). Also, the consistency of the gel can change with the temperature. Cold gel won’t level out, for example, and warm gel is too runny. IBD recommends allowing the gel to stand at room temperature until it has the proper consistency.

Some technicians complain of pitting when using no-light gels. This is often caused by not applying activator correctly. Do not apply sprays too close to the nail.

“Apply thinner coats to help prevent pitting and lifting,” says Ladd. “If the customer complains of brittleness, apply extra coats or apply a strip of mesh across the stress area to keep the nail from shattering.”

If your gel system doesn’t work for a client even after this troubleshooting, see if the manufacturer has another gel system or a special product for problem nails. “There’s no such thing as a perfect product,” says Coomber. “We have to accept each products limitations and provide the client with different things to try.”


According to several manufacturers, more people develop allergic reactions to gels than to other nail applications. The key to preventing rashes and blisters is simply to keep the gel away from the skin.

“The biggest problem occurs when the material puddles into the cuticle. You end up with irritation,” says Lin Halpern, clinical director of research and development at NSI. “If you don’t touch the skin, you can eliminate 90% of contact dermatitis.”

“Gels are not water soluble,” adds Slack. ‘Therefore, if the technician is sloppy and the material remains on the skin, the client can carry the chemicals for a period of time and develop an allergic reaction.”

If a reaction — a rash or blisters — develops, remove the gels from the nails. There are several ways to remove gels (see “Removing Gels”).

While gels shouldn’t be used on the few clients who are allergic to them, they are excellent for many other clients. “There’s no reason anyone anywhere can’t have gel nails,” says Coomber.

“Gels are good for a person with a thinner nail,” says Ladd. “Anyone with an allergic reaction to a light-cured gel can probably use a no- light gel without a problem. Gels are a good treatment for men who want extra strength in their nails or who want to repair a smashed thumb.”

Hickey adds, “A client who wants a short-to medium-length natural-looking nail is a good candidate for gels.” There are so many ways to apply gels, says IBD, that the nail technician can adapt her application to different clients.

There’s very little the client needs to do between appointments to maintain her gel nails besides conditioning the cuticles, using a nail brush, and treating them well. “If clients file their nails at home, we tell them to file in only one direction to prevent breaking the seal,” explains Jahn.

Halpern puts it simply: “Don’t use them as tools, treat them as jewels.”


Manufacturers offer support systems not only to teach the nail technician gel techniques, but also to help her reach her customers. Items such as posters, fliers, and window stickers let clients know you have gel services available. A spokesperson for IBD says, “The most proven method for technicians to promote gels is to wear them on their own nails.”

To help the nail technician further, manufacturers are expanding current gel lines and adding colors to existing formulas. But the best way for the nail technician to ensure she gives her clients set after set and fill after fill of perfect gel nails is to keep asking questions and educating herself. That way, gels will be as popular in your salon as they are everywhere else.


Gels are meant to remain on the nail for a long time, say manufacturers. But for clients who want their gel nails taken off because of allergies or for any other reason, manufacturers describe several removal methods: let the nails grow out, file the top of the nail to break the seal so they can be soaked off with gel remover, buff them down, or clip the free edge and buff the gel over the nail bed.

“The best way is to grow them out,” says Lin Halpern, “and the second best way is to buff them down as thin as you can, polish the nails, and let them grow out. I don’t recommend clipping them off.”

For clients who develop an allergic reaction, it’s important to remove the gel nails completely. IBD’s spokesperson recommends clipping nails back to the free edge, filing the top of the nails to loosen gel adhesion, and applying remover. Ifs important to allow the remover to dissolve the gel, says IBD.

Whatever the method of removal, the manufacturers interviewed advise technicians to exercise extreme care in removing gels to prevent damage to the natural nail.

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