Light-cured gels often have been described as a pre-mixed, liquid form of acrylic. Not true, say chemists, who explain here what gels are made of and how they work.
Editor’s note: NAILS published an article in it’s “How Products Work” series in the April 1995 issue on gel system technology. Due to the complexity of the subject, the article did not coverall of the latest innovations that have been made in this product area nor did it thoroughly cover how gel systems work. The article outlined some industry misconceptions about gels that applied to some, but not all, industry products. The article below attempts to fill in where our first article was incomplete, and covers how the various gel systems work and answers some common troubleshooting questions about the technology. We apologize for any confusion caused by the previous article and we welcome your questions on gel technology, which we trill address in upcoming issues. — Cyndy Drummey
When light-cured gel systems debuted in the nail industry roughly 10 years ago, they were the hottest system around. But in less than two years this hot service got the cold shoulder from nail technicians because the technology wasn’t fully developed and education was nonexistent. Like acrylics, gel technology easily. A medium-viscosity gel, often called a sealing gel, is applied last to seal the product around the free edge, fill in any low spots, and add a high-gloss shine.
Explains Lin Halpern, director of research and development for NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.): “Different gel viscosities are for different parts of the application. The thicker the gel, the less it flows and the more control the nail technician has. Likewise, the thinner the gel, the more quickly it flows and the less control she has. However, thinner gels have more self-leveling properties. “Think of it in terms of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — peanut butter goes on the bread nice and thick but with lots of grooves; when jelly goes on, it fills all the nooks and crannies and leaves a smooth surface.”
Then are also systems with just one gel, such as Pro Finish’s Easy On Easy Off Gel. Intended for natural nail and tip overlays and for use with fiberglass, Pro Finish claims its gel is as easy to apply as polish and that it soaks off in acetone polish remover in five minutes (most gels have to be filed off the nail). Unlike most gels, which are acrylate-based, Pro Finish’s gel is methacrylate-based like acrylics, which is why it can be soaked off like an acrylic.
Let There Be Light
No matter how many different viscosity gels your system comes with, each layer of gel must be cured under the system’s light. Be sure to use the light intended for your system and cure for the recommended amount of time. Never use one company’s gel with an other company’s light without checking with the gel manufacturer first because gels are formulated to work with certain wattages.
Light, whether it is ultraviolet or visible, is the catalyst that triggers the photoinitiator in the gel, causing polymerization to begin. Gel lamps typically have a platform the client places her hand on to cure the gel. Because the gel lights contain very low-wattage bulbs (American-made lights contain bulbs that range from 4-28 watts), clients must hold their hands level and still for the entire curing process. “The product can slide or sag off the nail if the client holds her hands at an angle or if one finger droops over the side of the platform. This will result in an uneven, incomplete cure, and any shape you worked to sculpt will undoubtedly be deformed” says Deb Bordeaux, national sales and education director for Cosmic (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.).
After curing for the recommended time, the nail surface needs to be wiped with the gel cleaners that comes with the system. Because the lamps use such low-wattage bulbs, oxygen in the air has time to interfere with the curing process, inhibiting the photoinitiator in the uppermost layer of gel and causing it to remain tacky. A gel cleanser wipes away this tacky layer and exposes the hardened surface below. While the main component of many cleansers is isopropyl alcohol, straight alcohol can dry and whiten the nail surface, says Vivian Valenty, chemist for Pro Finish. She recommends using the ge1 cleanser that comes with the system because it has been specially formulated to work with that gel.
Gel Attributes: The Good And The Bad
Like any artificial nail system, gels do have their drawbacks. For example, only the most talented technicians can sculpt with gels because gels, by their very nature, are not thick enough to be sculpted and formed like acrylics. Still, some companies such as IBD do offer a sculpting gel that can be used with forms. “Our Builder gel has a thickening agent in it, but it’s not as thick as acrylic. Acrylic is a pliable product that you pat with your brush to shape. Builder gel has to be workable from the jar. You just can’t make a gel thick enough, so it requires a special brush technique to sculpt,” says Marr-Leisy.
Another drawback is that gels are more likely to cause an allergic redaction in clients. According to Chris Jahn, marketing director for Star Nail Products (Valencia, Calif.), gels are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than other artificial nail products because the chemicals they use are more likely to cause an allergic reaction. Still, poor technique is more to blame for allergic reactions than the product itself, says chemist Doug Schoon, executive director of Chemical Awareness Training Service (Newport Beach, Calif.).
A client can only develop an allergic reaction to gels if the product touches soft tissue — the skin or the nail bed. For the product to touch the skin, it would have to flow into the cuticle or sidewall areas, be brushed on the skin, or seep through the nail plate to the nail bed (which can only happen if the product is not fully cured). With proper training and technique, these situations should never occur.
If you do get product on the client’s skin, be aware that soap and water won’t wash it off. “In fact,” says Halpern, “it will be smeared on even more skin. Only a gel cleanser will remove the gel.”
It’s long been said that clients who are allergic to gels will be allergic to acrylics and vice-versa. Not true, say the people we interviewed. “Gels and acrylics are chemically different enough so that they probably won’t cross-react,” says Schoon. Even though the chemicals used in acrylics and gels are related, there are enough differences for the body to tell them apart. However, if an acrylic contains a monomer or polymer that is very similar to a monomer or polymer in the gel a client had a reaction to the client may also be allergic to that acrylic. For this reason, Marr-Leisy recommends always applying a test nail when trying a new system on a client who has had an allergic reaction to another system.
On the upside, gels are noted for being virtually odor-free, having high clarity, and requiring little or no bulling. And, unlike acrylic, which starts hardening as soon as the liquid touches the powder, you can work the gel on the nail as long as you want because it won’t begin curing until it’s under the light.
As for being thinner and more flexible than acrylics, you have to judge for yourself. Some say it’s just a marketing claim, while others say they’ve got test results to prove their gel really is thinner and more flexible. Pro Finish, for example, offers a gel that is specifically formulated to be thin and flexible on the nail — so flexible, in fact, that you can bend and squeeze a nail overlaid with the gel and the gel will bend (within reason) with the natural nail, says Waspi.
For ease of application and time (or lack of) spent shaping and filing, gels can’t be beat. If you tried gels when they first came out in the ’80s and were disappointed, try again. The technology is updated, the education is in-depth, and the final product looks great. Join the growing number of salons (a few of which might be your competitors) in offering clients yet another artificial nail service that creates great-looking nails.