Service Recipes

Nail Technician's Construction Crew

Adhesives and activators help build up the nail, removers and solvents help tear it down.

Among the tools and treatments stored on a nail technician’s tabletop are chemicals that bind artificial nails to natural nails, that soften acrylic and dissolve adhesive, that remove polish, and that help other chemicals work better and faster. Adhesives, wrap coatings, removes, and activators can be called the nail salon’s “construction crew” – they help build and tear down nail applications. They are also among the most common-and the safest-chemicals in the salon.


What nail technicians and manufacturers call glue is really not glue at all. Glues, such as the famous kind used by schoolchildren, have a protein in base made from cow’s or horses’ hooves. What technicians use on clients’ nails are more correctly called adhesives, which contain a non-protein base.

Nail adhesives and wrap coatings contain cyanoacrylates, which work like cement to adhere tips and wraps to the natural nail. Cyanoarcrylates in liquid form (monomer) make up about 90% of the adhesive.

The remaining 10% of the adhesive formula consists of polymers and polymerization inhibitors, sometimes called stabilizers. Without the polymers, the adhesive would be the consistency of water. The thickness allows the nail technician better control of the product. Polymers also give strength and flexibility to the finished nail.

Polymerization inhibitors keep the adhesives from hardening in the bottle. Once the adhesive is on the nail, though, the curing process will take place. Monomers such as cyanoarcylates can be thought of as waiting to make longer chains called polymers. The process of polymerization sets, or cures, the adhesive. Inhibitors keep the monomers from curing until the technician wants them to.

Oxygen helps inhibitors do their job. To keep the adhesive from curing in the bottle, manufacturers package all cyanoacrylate adhesives in plastic, because oxygen can permeate it.

While it is commonly believed that air dries adhesives, the fact is that adhesives are actually cured by the residual moisture that lies on every surface. The small amount of moisture on a prepared nail is enough to start the monomers linking together in polymer chains and adhering. But don’t be fooled into thinking that more water will “Shock” the system, causing the adhesive to turn white and crack.

When used correctly, adhesives are effective and safe. Because nail adhesives are so potent, it’s important to use only one drop-or less-per nail. Like all other chemicals, adhesives should be kept away from the skin and eyes. Getting a small amount of the product in the mouth is usually not dangerous because it is difficult for the body to absorb.

The shelf life of adhesives and wrap coatings is at least six months, and can be up to 12 months if moisture is kept out of the bottle. Adhesives and wrap coating should be stored in a dry cool place, or , to prolong shelf life, they can be refrigerated or frozen, they must be stored in a unit designated for chemicals only – not food – until they’re opened. When ready to use, allow adhesives to reach room temperature (about six hours) before opening and using them. Wipe any moisture off the outside of the bottle before opening it to prevent curing. Once the bottle is opened there’s no need to continue storing the adhesive in the refrigerator because the cooler temperature will no longer prolong shelf life.

All nail adhesive contain cyanoacrylates, polymers, and inhibitors, regardless of whether the adhesive is a wrap or tip adhesive, a one-second glue, or a five-second glue.

What, then, makes each adhesive different from the rest? The amount and type of polymers and inhibitors used in their manufacture.

Using fewer polymer additives creates a more watery adhesive, and using fewer inhibitors creates a “quick-dry” adhesive.

Wrap coatings, on the other hand, cure more slowly because of their thickness. The thickness gives the nail technician greater control. Left alone to cure, they may take as long as five minutes. Fortunately, there are chemicals that will speed up the curing process.


The activator serves as a sort of construction site foreman-when the construction crew needs to get going, it’s there to speed things along. Activators contain a catalyst that kicks off the curing process of an adhesive or wrap coating. Only about 0.5% to 1% of the liquid is the catalyst, which is usually a chemical called N,N-Dimethyl-p-toluidine. The catalyst is dissolved in a solvent such as 1,1,1-trichloroethane (also called TCE) or Freon. (Manufacturers will eventually use alternatives to Freon and TCE, as these chemicals harm the ozone layer. Some already have eliminated the use of Freon and TCE.) Activators work by setting off the polymerization reaction in the adhesive.

When adhesive is applied to the nail to bond a tip, it’s spread in a thin layer. This layer of adhesive is called the bond line or glue line. Generally, a thin bond line will cure more quickly than a thick one. A thin bond line sandwiched between natural nail and a tip will cure very quickly because both surfaces contain moisture, and the adhesive is cured from the top and the bottom. Also, since oxygen can’t reach under the tip, it can’t help the inhibitors prevent curing. A thicker bond line on top of the nail cures more slowly. Left alone, a wrap coating will begin curing from the bottom up. In addition, oxygen can reach the top of the bond line, where it helps the inhibitors keep the adhesive from curing. When the activators is applied, it starts the polymerization process from the top of the nail and speeds up the curing process.

The toxicity of activators when inhaled or absorbed through the skin is not fully understood, so it’s best to keep activators where they belong-in the bottle or on the nail. When activators are sprayed, the chemicals are more easily inhaled because they’re in droplets. Also, the chemicals are more likely to disperse, landing not only on the nails, but on the skin and tabletop as well. While clients will have limited exposure to these chemicals, the nail technician who sprays activator on client after client is subject to increased exposure. A drop bottle or brush-on system will allow greater control of the product than a spray. However, if you prefer a spray system, use a non-aerosol pump that dispenses only a little product at a time.

N,N-Dimethyl-p-toluidine, one of the catalysts commonly used in activators for wrap systems, is light-sensitive; if exposed to light, the product will discolor. Always store activators in a cool, dark area.


When technician wants to remove polish, acrylic, or a nail wrap, she calls on her demolition crew-removers. The solvents in removers act like a wrecking ball to dissolve nail treatments.

Most adhesive , wrap, and acrylic removers contain an acetone base. Polish removers are a diluted form of these product removers and may contain in a base of ethyl acetate, butyl acetate, or methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), solvents that are weaker than acetone. The solvent is strong enough to remove polish without softening the artificial nail beneath it. Some removers also contain moisturizers such as keratin and panthenol to condition the nail.

The solvents in remove work by breaking up the product on the nail, just as a wrecking ball smashes a building: Little pieces remain, but the building is no longer standing. If you were to examine the used remover under a microscope, you would see solid bits of acrylic adhesive, or polish in the liquid.

While adhesives are removed from the nail fairly easily, acrylics are not, because when acrylics cure, they form cross-linked polymers, which resist solvents. Wrap and tip adhesives and polish form weaker bonds that aren’t as resistant to solvents.

Removers are relatively safe chemicals. Their fumes may be hazardous when inhaled, so work with them in a well-ventilated area. When ingested in small amounts, acetone, and MEK are relatively non-toxic. But products containing acetonitrile have been found to be dangerous or fatal when swallowed, because the body metabolizes this chemical as cyanide. Earlier this year, the FDA outlawed products containing acetonitrile.

Removers should be stored in a cool place away from direct sunlight; because all solvents are flammable, store them away from any heat source. Keep removers away from children. Removers should enjoy at least a two-year shelf life.


Now that you’re an expert in adhesives, activators, and removers, keep your salon a healthy place to work in a well-ventilated area, keep the table clean, and consider wearing gloves and safety glasses to reduce your chances of sure and as a conscientious safety measure. While some of the hazards of the chemicals have been pointed out, it is up to the nail technician, as the construction overseer, to create safe working environment.

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