Photo courtesy of Light Elegance

Photo courtesy of Light Elegance

*Editor's Note: This article has been updated from its earlier version. 

Jenna Lombardi-Brown, owner of Just Gel’n Nails & Skincare in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., describes her first-hand experience during a gel nail heat spike as “excruciating.” “It’s like a sunburn that’s focused intensely on your fingertips,” she says.

Typically, gel nails release heat during the curing process that tops out at about 105°F — roughly the temperature of a hot tub. But when the speed of the chemical reaction goes awry, temperatures can climb to 115°F (when clients start to notice a sensation) and upwards to 120°F (the beginning of heat spike territory) to as high as about 150°F — a painful level similar to what Lombardi-Brown experienced, according to Doug Schoon, founder of Schoon Scientific + Regulatory Consulting, LLC and co-chair of the Nail Manufacturer Council on Safety.

Gel nail heat spikes are pervasive, according to two long-time gel educators who were interviewed for this story. Denae Sambrano, store manager and director of education for Gemini Cosmetics, a supply store that carries multiple gel brands in Sparks, Nev., says: “Heat spikes are a frequent and common issue our customers come in with.” Risé Carter, brand manager of industry association Associated Nail Professionals, concurs, stating that it’s most likely if the tech is rushed. An equally pervasive and troubling issue is that clients may buy into the idea that beauty is pain, meaning they mistakenly think it is “normal” to feel as though their fingers are on fire in order to achieve chip-free nail color.

Perhaps for this reason, we didn’t hear from any nail techs who had personally lost clients or had anyone downgrade to natural nail services due to a painful gel curing experience. But Kristine Thiessen, a nail tech and esthetician at Gismondis Hair, Skin & Nails Salon in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, has picked up gel clients lost by neighboring salons. “I have the odd client come to me because of a bad experience at another salon. Usually the nails will hurt during the curing process because the tech over-prepped and thinned out the nail, or because the tech pried off the old enhancement with a tool instead of removing it properly,” she says.

Carter, who interacted with many nail techs in her former roles as international sales and education director for NSI and CND Team Creative member, says losing a gel client due to heat spikes is certainly a possibility. She says, “Some clients have become scared of nail salons. They don’t want their nails damaged; they don’t want to have pain.” If a client wants her gels removed, the nail tech should do so, Carter says. However, Carter cautions that these clients may find their natural nails to be “weak” in comparison to enhancements, which may cause the client to seek out enhancements again — providing strong motivation to the tech to figure out the exact reason for the heat spike and resolve the issue.


Down to a Science

The science behind gel heat spikes is well understood. Jim McConnell, president at gel manufacturer Light Elegance, says, “The heat spike is a result of chemical bonds being formed during the curing process; this is called an exothermic reaction. Every time a bond is formed, heat is given off during the curing process. A certain amount of energy is used to create the bond and energy is given off after the bond is formed. The difference between the energy required and energy given off is felt as heat.” When the energy is given off in a controlled way, the client likely won’t feel any sensation at all. When the energy is given off more quickly, the client may feel pressure or pain.

Different categories of gels are more or less susceptible to heat spikes. “Soak-off gels are less prone to heat generation because fewer bonds are formed and as a result, less heat is created. Harder gels typically form more bonds and as a result, more heat,” says McConnell, who also holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. “This is not always the case. There are some gels that are very hard and have less heat because the resins that are used are slower reacting and results in less heat being created. UV/LED gels are designed to react fast and as such, they tend to create more heat than regular UV gels.”

Kristine Thiessen makes it a point to explain to her clients why a thin gel application is best.

Kristine Thiessen makes it a point to explain to her clients why a thin gel application is best.

So what can cause a runaway chemical reaction that results in a heat spike? Schoon says, “The main problem is that nail techs and many manufacturers are incorrectly saying that you can use any nail lamp to cure the products. That is false information.” He cites the example of a nail tech who places a traditional UV gel product in a UV/LED lamp. UV/LED lamps cure faster because they release more UV rays. So heat that would normally be released over two minutes instead releases in less than half that time, which unsurprisingly could result in the client feeling the heat.

Schoon adds: “The other common way you can get heat spikes is from over-filing the natural nail,” which he says happens commonly. Indeed, he says, “I’ve never met a nail tech who under-files the natural nail. They either do it right or they do too much.” Over-filing can make the nail bed extra sensitive, resulting in the client feeling heat she normally wouldn’t feel. Schoon offers the following analogy: “If my tooth is healthy and I tap on it, nothing happens. But if I have a toothache and then tap on it, I will go through the roof in pain.”


Several Solutions

The first and most simple solution is to use the manufacturer’s entire system (if you weren’t using it already). That means the base coat, gel color, top coat, and, perhaps most importantly, the lamp, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions exactly. The caveat is that lamp bulbs decrease in intensity or output with repeated use. “If the bulbs were more stable, we could formulate to a specific bulb emittance and be able to avoid such exothermic reactions to a greater degree,” McConnell says. Mark the bottom of your light with the bulb purchase date so you can track their age for a better idea of whether the bulbs are emitting their intended output, Sambrano recommends.

The second possible solution harkens to Schoon’s point about over-filing, which would be to file the nails less. “You should assume you are overfilling,” Schoon says. “If you see that the new growth is thicker than the old growth, then you’ve over-filed. You’re not supposed to remove any layers of nail plate. The instructions say to ‘take off the shine,’ and the nail plate itself doesn’t shine — it’s the oils on the surface that shine.” If you file less and find that you are getting poor adhesion, Schoon says there is something wrong with your technique or product, not that you should return to filing more. “These days products adhere too well, so nail techs lose patience and rather than take time to remove them, they force them off and cause nail damage,” he says.

Another solution is to apply the gel thinly — the less gel there is, the less molecules there are to react and release heat. Every gel has its own personality and some of the thickness determination is trial and error. But in general, the first coat should be about as thick as three business cards, recommends McConnell. If your client’s nails break when you go that thin, there are likely other issues that you’ll need to research and resolve.

Urethane dimethacrylate (UDMA) is a common molecule used in the nail industry for gels.  When this molecule is combined with itself (polymerization reaction), heat is generated.

Urethane dimethacrylate (UDMA) is a common molecule used in the nail industry for gels.  When this molecule is combined with itself (polymerization reaction), heat is generated. 

Some techs have found success in adding a sort of buffer layer. “Clients who damage their nail beds by biting or irritating them in other ways can control the heat they experience using the above techniques and by using a softer gel against the nail plate. Then a harder gel can be used on the top surface to give increased durability,” McConnell says. “The first layer of gel that is against the fingernail acts as an insulation layer, which will help to protect the client from the heat that is generated. Lombardi-Brown uses IBX nail strengthener by Famous Names on clients with weaker nails prior to applying gel.

Finally, prior to application, you may want to ask clients if they’ve had gel nails before and if they’ve ever experienced a heat spike, as well as examine the client’s nails for signs of pre-existing damage. Carter says, “If the client has a thinned down natural nail, I’ll let her know before we go into the lamp that she might feel heat. I tell her that I’ll do everything I can to prevent it from happening, for example, applying the gel thinly. I tell her that if she feels too much heat, she should pull her hand temporarily out of the lamp.”


Heat of the Moment

If despite your best initial efforts a client experiences a heat spike, it’s best to empathize and explain, recommends McConnell. Lombardi-Brown says: “I apologize profusely. I always try to explain the possible causes.” She begins an investigative process to figure out what went wrong to avoid the spike with the other hand. “I don’t assume right off the bat that it’s because their nails are thin. Once they understand the mechanism behind it, they seem to be more comfortable letting me put their other hand into the light,” she says.

The bottom line is that heat spikes are solvable — and not “normal.” Sambrano says, “In my experience, both personal and when troubleshooting with customers, if a manufacturer’s gel system is being used in its entirety, heat spikes are rarely an issue. If it is becoming a problem, it is usually an application issue. The burning sensation may be especially true if the natural nail bed is damaged or thin.” It’s up to you to play detective and solve the heat spike issue, giving clients a luxurious nail salon experience, not a painful one.


Avoid Workarounds

Search for “heat spikes” on online nail tech messaging boards, and you’ll find a wealth of workarounds — some scientifically-based and some nothing more than client distractions while the pain subsides.

A commonly cited workaround is flash curing the client’s nails for a few seconds, having the client pull her hand out, and then having her place it back either for the rest of the full cure or for repeated flash cures. While this does slow down the bond formation process and thus release less heat each time, it is a poor solution, says Doug Schoon.

“The solution would address the issue, not cope with it,” says Schoon. “The responsible thing to do is to find out why the heat spike is happening and stop it from occurring.” He adds that in his opinion flash curing is only appropriate for setting smile lines. “You’re also not following manufacturer’s directions if you use this workaround. You need to figure out if you’re over-filing or using the wrong lamp or what the true cause is. Don’t hide the truth from yourself,” he says.

Other workarounds, such as tapping the client’s nails with your brush, only work inasmuch as they are distractions from the heat.



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