Hard gels, or pre-mixed monomers that cure to become polymers either by UV or LED light, wear many hats. They can be used as an overlay with tips, on natural nails, to sculpt and lengthen a nail, or to provide a final layer on acrylic for a shiny, sturdy finish. Gels are also highly resistant to acetone and other harsh chemicals — the only removal method is filing, rather than soaking. But with so many newer gel-based inventions on the market (soft gels, gel-polish, soak-off gels), how does hard gel stand out? Director of research and development at Nubar, Dr. Norair Arkoian, and Light Elegance president Jim McConnell explain it all.

NAILS: What’s the difference between gel, soak-off gel, and gel-polish?

Norair Arkoian: The basic difference is the product’s ability to soak off. Technically, traditional gel is a much harder product that needs to be filed off, but that’s where all gels start. We make the soak-off version by adding some other ingredients to weaken the hard gel formula, making it able to dissolve in acetone. Gel-polish soaks off similarly but is a less viscous product, which means it’s thinner and acts more like nail polish than gel in its application.
[Editor’s Note: Let’s get chemical. Soak-off gels are designed and formulated with a higher molecular weight and elongated molecular structure. This creates space between the cross-linked agents, allowing penetration of solvents, which break down the gel. For traditional hard gel, the base has a tighter molecular structure and low molecular weight, making it highly resistant to acetone.]

NAILS: What can you do with traditional gel that you can’t do with other products?

NA: Traditional UV-cured gel is very strong. With traditional gel, you can form nails, build nails, and create decorative art like flowers or objects, whereas gel-polish or soak-off gel are much weaker and might not be able to withstand that. However, technology moves and improves really quickly, so we’re starting to see and test new products.

NAILS: Are there many differences between using traditional gels or acrylics to build nails?

NA: The major difference is the way the product is applied. Hard gel must be applied in thin layers, or in a thick building layer, and then cured, whereas acrylic is a monomer and polymer system that cures without a UV lamp. But overall, traditional gel and acrylic are quite similar in cured, physical characteristics. Although there are basic technical differences, they tend to have similar end results and can be combined together in one nail or used as two separate systems.

NAILS: What are some tips for applying traditional gel that all techs should keep in mind?

Jim McConnell: It’s important to clean the nail surface with a cleansing product (such as 99% isopropyl alcohol) before filing and preparing the nail. Traditional hard gels come in a variety of physical characteristics, from flexible to very hard and brittle. If you choose a flexible gel, then you can perform your service in one or two coats of gel. If you use a very hard, brittle gel, apply it in multiple thin layers, curing between each layer. It’s also important to know the gel that you’re using by understanding how it will perform, so practice is very important. Lastly, it’s crucial to use the appropriate UV lamp with the gel you choose. Don’t forget to follow the gel manufacturer’s recommendations.

NAILS: Who’s the ideal client for gel, and why?

NA: Anyone who wants a natural-looking nail that lasts a long time and is very durable is an ideal client. Traditional gels will retain gloss and strength for longer periods of time and won’t wear off until you file them off. I’d say it’s especially good for the busy woman who doesn’t have a lot of time to get pampered or spend time in the salon. It’s also great for people allergic to resin found in acrylics.

NAILS: We’re seeing more and more nail artists encasing nail art created with gels in gel-polish so it soaks off with ease. Is it OK to mix gel with other mediums?

JM: It has become common practice in the salon to use hard gels and acrylics together for nail art. Many nail technicians are also using certain vinyl paints in one-stroke designs on top of hard gels and acrylics. Various mediums are combined with great results and success. Success is also achieved in using soak-off gel-polishes over hard gels and acrylics. One good idea is to avoid using hard gels or acrylics over a soak-off gel system. It can lead to problems like cracking that should be avoided.

Common ingredients:

> Urethane acrylates and urethane methacrylates

> Although the resins in soak-off gels and hard gel sound alike, there are chemical differences

> Photoinitiators are found in both hard and soak-off gel systems, but additional photoinitiators are used in the soak-off gels so they can cure under LED lamps.

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