The Science of Gels

What’s really going on when your client puts her hand in the nail lamp? We explain what gel is made of and why it works so well.



The word “gel” lends itself to confusion ­because it originally described the nail product’s physical state, but over the years it has become a generic name of the product category. Whereas liquid-and-powder nails are a two-part system in which the powder has already been polymerized to its full ­extent, gel is a homogenous product in which the monomers and oligomers (strings of monomers) stay in a semi-liquid/semi-solid state because it hasn’t polymerized. Think of gel as premixed acrylic.

Gel nails first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1980s, but were met with limited success. At the time, the manufacturers of gel lights and the gel itself had not joined forces, not yet recognizing the need to precisely match the intensity of the light to the photoinitiators in the gel. Nail techs and clients soon found out that ­using the wrong light or applying too much gel caused a burning sensation on the client’s fingertips. ­Additionally, education on gel application was limited, leaving nail techs in the dark about the product, and home-use ­systems were introduced around the same time, damaging the reputation of salon-use systems by ­association. By the end of the ‘80s, many companies had pulled their gel products from the market.

But by the end of the ‘90s, gel nails were back on the U.S. nail scene, now with much-improved formulas that were ­designed to work with a precise light wavelength and intensity. These new formulations also delivered better clarity and ­durability. By 2010, 63% of salons offered gel nail services to their clients, according to NAILS 2010-2011 Big Book, and gels are one of the most frequently added services to salon menus. Additional innovations in gels appeared in the 2000s, ­including 3-D gels, soak-off gels, and polish-gel hybrids (see “Innovations in Gels”).

Next page: All in the Family and Innovations in Gels

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