NAILS' Gel Handbook

It’s 2003. Do you know where your gels are? One of the fastest- growing salon services, gels still remain a mystery to many nail techs and their clients. Whether you are familiar with gels or just turning your attention to them, use this primer to help guide you through the multitude of uses, techniques, and troubleshooting tips associated with today’s gels.

 Times Are Changing

Once stigmatized by less-than-glowing reviews, gels are coming into their own as one of the fastest-growing salon services. Spurred by better products and a strong emphasis on all things natural, gels are filling a need for spa-friendly, high-end services.

When gels first appeared on the market nearly 20 years ago, many nail techs found that they left much to be desired. Plagued by a lack of available education, unfamiliar application techniques, allergic reactions, inefficient curing lamps, and inferior results, gels failed to live up to their hype as the next big nail enhancement service.

“Almost every veteran nail tech with more than three years’ experience has a gel system of one type or other stashed away in a closet,” says Barb Wetzel, a LaGrange, ILL- based independent educator and founder of the educational website, While gels were hailed as an alternative for acrylic enhancements, their application methods were counterintuitive for nail techs used to applying acrylics.

“Gels are applied with a feather-like touch — gliding over the nail—while acrylics are applied with a patting or pushing motion,” says Amber Haslett, a Seattle, Wash.-based OPI national trainer. As a result, techs couldn’t seem to adjust to the technical variations and many soon lost interest in the service. “Gels are easy to learn, but hard to master,” says Wetzel.

Frustrated by these problems and content to offer the more established acrylic enhancement services, many nail techs shied away from gels during their early growing pains. Luckily, some nail techs saw— and tenaciously clung to — the benefits that gels offered and those manufacturers that remained in the game tweaked, reworked, and reinvented their formulations to create a new generation of superior gels that are now available on the market.

Turning Over a New Leaf

Marisa Crane, a Zephyr Hill, Fla.-based school education consultant for. AII, says “the biggest change in gels in recent years is the ability to make them both durable and flexible.”

“The resins that are being used are of better quality, the raw materials are better, the quality control systems are better, and there is less dependence on chemicals that could potentially cause allergies,” points out Wetzel “Manufacturers have really begun to give the technology behind gel systems the same sort of attention and innovation that they previously only gave to acrylic systems.”

Consequently, the gooey, inconsistent quality of earlier gels has given way to more manageable, specialized gels for varied services from natural-looking pink-and-white sculpted nails, to glass-clear overlays, to durable colored gel polish. “You can do anything with gels that you can do with acrylics, and then some,” says Haley Alexander, a veteran gel user and nail tech at Robert Bachelor Salon in Universal City, Calif.

Apples and Oranges, Sort Of

Now truly a comparable alternative to acrylics, gels also offer unique advantages to both techs and clients. “Many consumers may shy away from the smell of acrylics,” says Wetzel. Gel systems, which are all odorless, appeal to these clients and are often regarded as being a more high-end service. For this reason spas and salons with tight odor-control policies have embraced the service.

Offering a softer side of enhancements, gels are more lightweight than acrylics and adhere extremely well to the nail plate. Their flexibility appeals to clients who may not have appreciated the rigidity and density of acrylics. As with all services, gels are not for everyone. Acrylic clients who are used to the thickness of acrylics may be too hard on gels initial­ly, and suffer a few broken nails. “However, by the time they get their first rebalance, they have grown to appreciate the natural feel, look, and flexibility of gels,” says Dixie Eklund, vice president of sales for FPO in Farmington Hills, Mich.

An additional benefit of gels is that all systems are pre-mixed and are self-leveling, greatly reducing filing time and airborne filing dust. Also, some systems do not require primer. Because of the durable nature of today’s gels, many techs have found that clients may space their fills up to three weeks or more apart with no problem. But because of the high-end perception of the service, the added skill and patience gels require, and the fact that it is still a relative specialty, nail techs have the option of charging more for gel full sets and fills.

So while gels are a comparable service to acrylics, techs and clients must both keep in mind that they are two separate animals. Gels offer a durable, flexible, chemically impervious enhancement that resists chipping, lifting, and normal wear and tear. Acrylic is a heavier, more rigid product that may be able to withstand slightly rougher treatment but may be more prone to lifting.

No longer a liability in the salon, “gels offer superior adhesion, greater clarity and flexibility than traditional acrylics, and are equally durable enhancements,” says Alexander. As manufacturers invest in better gel technology, they are also offering more consistent education to accompany the product. News of the new generation of gels has spread quickly and according to the 2002-2003 NAILS Fact Book, 51% of the nation’s salons are offering gel nails — making it one of the fastest-growing salon services.

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