Chemist's Corner: Nail Cleanser

by Brittni Rubin | June 3, 2014
Nail cleansing is a regular part of any nail service or routine, whether you’re prepping for an enhancement application or a standard polish manicure. Nail aficionados and manufacturers often stress the sometimes overlooked importance of incorporating this step. Karoline Wells, formulation chemist at Elixery, an artisan cosmetic house in Minneapolis, explains why it’s imperative to utilize and understand the effects of nail cleansers.

NAILS: What are the primary uses and functions of nail cleansers in the nail care industry?

Karoline Wells: Nail cleansers are used to help the adhesion of varnish or other enhancements so that they last as long as possible. Adhesion happens when molecules are electrically attracted to each other to form a durable film over the surface of the nail. In order for the molecules to “find” each other, they must be very close together without excess interferences. Since molecules are so small, even a nanometer of dirt and oil can increase the distance between molecules so they can’t reach each other to create an even film. Dirt, oil, and water can all interfere with the formation of a durable film, which leads to chipping and flaking.

NA: How are nail cleansers made?

KW: The first step is figuring out which skin-safe solvents can dissolve the debris. To do that, chemists first look at the electrical charge, or “polarity” of the substance they want to dissolve. Some substances are polar and some are non-polar. For example, the majority of dirt and oils are non-polar whereas water is polar. Isopropyl alcohol easily dissolves polar water, dehydrating the nail plate. Acetone can dissolve both polar and non-polar oils. A ratio of the two is effective in dissolving most of the debris.

NA: How do these ingredients remove oil and moisture from the nail plate?

KW: When the solvent mixture is applied to the nail, the oils and water on the nail will dissolve into the solvent liquid. Now that the debris is contained in the solvent instead of the surface of the nail, the debris can be physically wiped away with the solvent. The solvents used in nail cleansers are also highly volatile, meaning they evaporate into the air quickly without leaving behind residual liquid.

NA: Are there different kinds of nail cleansers?

KW: Yes. Some cleansers are intended for wiping residue from the nail after a coating is applied, especially with gel-polish. These types of cleansers only contain solvents that won’t damage the coating. In this case, an isopropyl alcohol-based cleanser is safe to use. But acetone or ethyl acetate would dissolve the varnish.

NA: Are there any non-alcohol/acetone-based cleansers?

KW: Detergent-based cleansers also exist, and those should work fine for dirt and oil cleaning. A detergent encapsulates the particles of dirt and oil with a micelle (a cluster of microscopic molecules dispersed in liquid with lower surface tension), and allows the debris to be rinsed away with water. However, this method may still require a final wipe with an isopropyl alcohol-based cleanser to remove excess moisture from the nail plate.

NA: Can a nail cleanser act as a fungus preventer?

KW: Combined with clean tools and hygienic practices, a nail cleanser can help reduce the fungal load. Isopropyl alcohol is a disinfectant that can kill bacteria and fungus as well as remove the water they need to grow. That being said, the most effective way to prevent fungus is to reduce the “bioburden,” or the amount of bacteria or fungal spores that are being introduced. Remember to disinfect your tools and combine that with a sanitizing nail cleanser containing isopropyl alcohol. Visible fungus, however, may require treatment with a stronger fungicide.

Common ingredients: 

> Isopropyl alcohol

 > Acetone

> Ethyl Acetate

> Vitamin E

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