The Science of Nails

Top Coats: The Crowning Glory

Nail technician want to dry polish fast, showcase it with a glossy shine, and preserve it with a durable finish. Can a top coat do all this?

However, as mentioned earlier, when you gain in one area you usu­ally give something up. In this case, the increase in strength usually comes with a decrease in adhesion. A giveaway is when the top coat says "For acrylic nails." Some of these top coats can be applied on natural nails with a special base coat that acts like double-sided sticky tape. Other companies have come out with less durable versions specifically for use on natural nails (the less durable formulations have better adhesion).

Some quick-dry top coats are formulated so that some of the sol­vents in them will penetrate the colored polish, drying it faster than normal. Quick-dry top coats that penetrate the layers of colored pol­ish are often thicker than standard top coats and should be applied generously enough so that when all the solvent is absorbed and later evaporated, there is still a layer of clear polish on top of the colored polish to leave a shine.

Lin Halpern, national educator for NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.), says NSI's Thermoshield polish sealant for acrylic nails dries all the layers fast when the nails are exposed to any heal source (the company recommends a 60-watt bulb), "We teach technicians to apply Thermoshield generously. It should be 'floated' on, so it doesn't splatter or bubble the nail polish. There will be some shrink age as it cures, so it should seal all edges of the polish. It contains acrylic copolymers for hardness," says Halpern.

Quick-dry top coats appear to thy all the layers of polish completely within minutes. Variations in polish formulations, humidity in the envi­ronment, and even the color of the polish can affect the speed of the drying (in general, the richer the color, the longer it takes to dry), Martens says, "We like to say that Seche Vite dries all the polish in five minutes. In most eases, it does, but if the base coats or polish aren't fresh, or if the polish is a very rich shade of color, drying will take a hit longer, maybe 10 minutes.

"Seche Vite has a slightly thicker consistency than other top coats, but its thickness is a great asset. Since Seche Vite is not a clear nail enamel, it will not stick to the pol­ish it's being applied over.  Seche Vite is applied with a thick head onto the nail base and is easily ma­nipulated to flow over and self-level on the nail plate without al­tering the underlying polish, decals, or art," says Martens.

"Seche Vite's epoxy-like formu­lation is super flexible, and, like an epoxy film former, dries to a hard and durable finish.


Some top coats arc formulated to dry polish fast when used with a heat source such as a table lamp. The heat generated by the bulb, not the light itself, is the activator, says Nancy Waspi, director of sales for Pro Finish. You can't use a heat source with just any top coat because top-coat makers have mixed a precise formulation of solvents, resins, and polymers that is designed to dry at an optimum rate. A regular quick-dry top coat, if exposed to heat, may dry too quickly, causing the resins and polymers to buckle and wrinkle or appear dull. Several top-coat makers have formulated top coats specifically to dry under a table top light bulb.

Heat-activated top coats aren't inherently different from conven­tional quick-dry top coats, though they are designed to stand up to the rigors of fast drying, says Doug Schoon, executive director of Chemical Awareness Training Ser­vices (Newport Beach, Calif.).

Light-Cureds Make the Long Haul

Light-cured top coats contain a monomer and a resin, usually methacrylate monomer and nitro­cellulose. The top coat is polish-based and becomes a cross-linked polymer when exposed to a UV light source. "The top coat actually pene­trates the polish," says Waspi of the Pro Finish UV Top Coat. Pro Finish holds a patent on its UV Top Coat formulation. Light-cured top coats are compatible with the ingredients in nail polish, so they help the polish underneath to harden. "To use Pro Finish UV Top Coat," says Waspi, "the nail technician should apply a thick coat of the top coat and let it set for three minutes. During this time the top coat combines with the polish. Then you put the nails under a UV light for another three minutes, and voila, the polish is hard.

"When someone can get her keys out, write her check, and do normal activities within six min­utes, that's the true test of a last-drying top coat." Waspi says what sets the UV top coat apart from the rest is its use with pedicures. With­in 10-15 minutes, a pedicure client should he able to put on her shoes and socks and leave the salon.

Some technicians also use a thin UV gel over polish. Waspi says this is a technique, not a product. A true UV gel shouldn't: be applied directly over wet polish because it will seal solvents in the polish, preventing the polish from drying and making it very susceptible to wrinkling and denting, says Waspi.

International   Beauty Design also offers a UV light-cured top coat. "It's our own formulation," says Mar-Leisy. "You apply the pol­ish, wait one minute, and then apply L.A. Polish Dry. Then you can cure it under a table lamp or you can cure it under an ultraviolet light. Either way we recommend curing it for three minutes."

Why use a UV lamp if it cures under a table lamp?   Mar-Leisy says the top coat is more durable if cured with a UV light. Additionally many technicians sell light-cured top coats to clients as a service, says Waspi, increasing their service ticket by an average of $2.

Look to the Future

Manufacturers have come out with air-dry, heat-dry, and light-cured formulations. Some are thick some are thin, some offer high gloss some offer durability, and some let clients leave the salon in just minutes with dry polish. Unfortunately, there still isn't a top coat that does it all perfectly. Don't give up hope yet however. Look for new break throughs in the future.


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Methyl methacrylate (MMA) is an acrylic monomer found by the FDA in 1978 to be unsafe for use in nail products because of the health risk posed to...
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