Whether you're a vet­eran nail technician or a newbie, you're probably aware of the myriad technological advances that have taken place in this business. During the past 70 years, some so-called revolutionary nail products have bombed (perfumed polish) while others have triumphed (fast-dry top coats). One product category that has had its share of both hits and misses is UV light-activated gel systems. The systems, with their mod-shape light units, even look the space-age part. After more than a decade of research and development, manufacturers are still trying to find the perfect match between chemicals and lighting.

The Gel Legacy

Since the first UV light and gel sys­tem came out in 1982, manufacturers have been trying to build a better mousetrap, so to speak.

"Technicians who tried some of the original gels back in the mid-80s found them to be of poor quality and extreme­ly brittle," says Joan Komorowski, mar­keting manager of IBD (Gardena, Calif).

"So they went back to acrylics because of their strength and ease of application."

Although some of the original gel systems were quite good (while others were quickly reformulated) adequate training was either not offered or not readily available. Only the most deter­mined technicians perfected the tech­nique and found a place for gels in their repertoire of services.

Janice Gonzales, nail technician at Trenz Hair Salon in Lomita, Calif., says that when she first saw gels at a trade show about 12 years ago, she was anx­ious to introduce the new look to her clients. "I tried just about every gel system out there," she says. "Experiment­ing with each new product helped me hone my technique, but it took a lot of practice, patience, money, and time before I was confident in my product and my application."

Many technicians, particularly those fresh out of school, had already invested in an acrylic system and couldn't afford, or weren't willing to take, a financial risk with a new product.

"Another thing that hurt the light-cured gel business in the 1980s was that UV lights were fairly rudimentary and not always designed to match a partic­ular gel system," says Christina Jalm, marketing director for Star Nail Prod­ucts (Valencia, Calif).

In the 1980s, manufacturers of lamps and UV products did not join forces, not yet recognizing the need to precise­ly match the wattage of the lamp to the photoinitiator in the product. Techni­cians and clients soon found out that using the wrong light or applying too much gel caused a burning sensation. Additionally, a rash of home-use systems was introduced around this same time, and the reputation of salon-use systems suffered by association. Not surprisingly, by the end of the 80s most companies pulled their products from the market, while a few others reformu­lated and hung on to a minimal per­centage of the pie.

Gels: The Next Generation

Although 38% of all nail salons in the U.S. offer light-cured gels (according to NAILS' 1998-99 Fact Book), most nail clients don't even know they exist, says Jaime Maroney, marketing director for Styling Technologies Corp. (Scottsdale, Ariz.). "Like most of us, nail technicians are leery of change, and switching sys­tems is a big commitment. I think that a lot of technicians who are making good money right now figure 'Why bother?'"

But, as time goes by, a spate of news from manufacturers touting the advan­tages found in their new cutting-edge technologies has more and more nail technicians paying attention.

"There has been a renewed interest in gel products recently," says Dalia Stoddard, assistant director of mar­keting for OPI Products (N. Holly­wood, Calif.). "Nail professionals are typically curious about new products, but the difference today lies in their willingness to change. A lot of nail technicians 1 meet arc considering some of the new alternatives."

Many are realizing that the benefits of the new gel systems far outweigh the drawbacks of learning them. Most light-cured gel systems require no primer, no liquid and powder mixing, and are self-leveling, greatly reducing filing and filing dust. The new gel sys­tems have been formulated from more advanced acrylic molecules that are specifically designed to work with a precise light source and temperature. The new blends deliver more durability and clari­ty to the artificial nail. Best of all, they're odorless.

Understanding the Basics

The word gel lends itself to confu­sion. The term actually describes the product's consistency or physical state, but over the years it has become a gener­ic name of a product category, rather than a description of one. Adding to the confusion is the fact that although light-cured gels are not considered acrylic products, they are formulated with acrylic resin and harden through poly­merization just as acrylic does. Its pre­mixed ingredients, made up of methane and acrylate polymers, and some systems contain no methacrylic acid and bond to the surface of the nail rather than through it.

Although the term "light activated" describes the beginning of the curing process, and the term "light cured" de­scribes the final process, both terms are interchanged by product manufactur­ers who choose to use one over the other. The confusion doesn't stop there — gel services on salon menus can read from "Sculptured Nails" to "Light Gel Overlays" to "Gel-acti­vated Nails."

To further confuse things, there are no-light gels that are chemically related to light-cured gels, but used with wraps or as a lightweight overlay with tips. Also, some light-cured gel companies label their systems "resins" or "sculptured nail sys­tems." Several of the new formulations stand alone and include an all-in-one gel for a multitude of uses, in­cluding everything from natural nail overlays to acrylic repairs to wrap and fiberglass overlays. But most of the new systems use a three-gel method with base, builder, and sealing gels that can be used over tips or forms for length, then sculpted into shape.

Shop Talk

For all the differing descriptive terms and application methods, the basic chemistry behind all light-cured products is the same: UV photoinitiators activate the molecules so they will polymerize. IBD chemist Rolf Mast explains that there are many different types of acrylic molecules with different mechanical and skin compatibili­ty properties.

"The result is virtually an infinite number of different gels and final-cured properties, even though the basic chem­istry behind the way they solidify is the same," says Mast.

Lin Halpern, director of R&D for NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.), says, "The chemistry in most light-activated gels is the same in almost every respect except for the delivery."

The base gel gives adhesion, and some formulations use more adhesives than others. Although the viscosity varies from product to product, the builder gel, or sculpture gel, gives strength and shape. The sealer gel needs to be thin but strong, and these consistencies vary as well.

Most new gel systems contain more efficient photoinitiator, which has greatly reduced the burning sensation once experienced during the curing process. Additionally, new gel products are carefully matched to precise UV light levels necessary for proper curing and a more durable product.

Regardless of the name, the designat­ed use, or the variance in molecules, the new gels offer legitimate benefits. Like any other method of enhancements, you must find the one that works best for you and your individual clients.

The Benefits of Gels

"The characteristics of light-activat­ed gel systems lend themselves to a healthy salon environment," says Larry Gaynor, president and CEO of Nailco Salon Marketplace (Farmington Hills, Mich.)- "I think you will see continuous growth in the gel business as more and more health issues are addressed in the salon," says Gaynor.

Some gel systems use an acid-free priming step, and others build a form of primer into their base gel. Gel systems have only residual levels of acid; some have none at all. The UV light cures gel with less vapors, resulting in an odor-free product.

Sharon Werner, director of education and business coordinator for en Vogue Sculptured Nail Systems (Burnaby, British Columbia), says, "The chemicals are less porous, sealing the nail."

The most important difference is the self-leveling property of gels be­cause it allows a minimal amount of filing, particularly during refills, re­sulting in virtually no airborne dust. Coarse files are never needed, mini­mizing the chance of skin abrasion and limiting the physical labor to a technician's busy hands.

Light-activated gels have many aes­thetic values, as well. The clarity of gel; means natural-looking nails. Because gels flow and do not harden until placed under a UV light, they can be draped during sculpting to make a thin, yet properly arched nail.


Finally, gels save the technician time. "There is no mixing, very little filing, and less maintenance," says Gonzales, who schedules most of her refills and backfills in three-to-four-week inter­vals. "My clients have very little break­age and lifting. Without repairs, the ser­vice time is much shorter," she says.

Proper Training

Although most gel manufacturers today offer training classes or video instruction, gel application is not al­ways taught in school. But that is changing, says Komorowski. "Now that many states are requiring no-odor systems to be taught in school, you will see an increase in gel train­ing. IBD has had so many requests lately from schools that we introduced the IBD Institute School Program."

Gel application is so much different than acrylic application, it was once. thought that only the most talented nail technicians could master sculpting gels. Margo Reed, director of education for IBD, says a good technician can learn to do both successfully. "Sculpting with acrylic is like working with clay. It be­gins to set up and hold its shape as you continue to work. Gels, don't do that. Sculpting with gels requires using a gel designed for that purpose: a gel that somewhat holds its shape while it self levels at the same time," says Reed.

Halpern, who teaches gel application, says the technique takes an enormous amount of education and practice. "You have to start from scratch and learn a whole new way of thinking. Some tech­nicians find it too hard to break their old habits, and they give up," she says.

Acrylic application requires a more aggressive and heavier hand than gels.

"Shaping acrylic takes patting, push­ing, and pulling the product into form," says Werner, "But while build­ing the dome or apex over the stress point with gels, a technician needs to hover over the area with a brush. That's how the product moves."

Gonzales calls it "plumping," and says a builder gel doesn't move around until you manipulate it with a brush. "But gels are not as forgiving as acrylic in that a gel will torque more, and if you make the nail too flexible, it will give and pop off."

Nail technician Susan Hilker was skep­tical after doing acrylics for more than 10 years, but recently decided to tackle gel application so she could offer her clients at Salon D.J. in Lomita, Calif., more op­tions. "I think it was more difficult for me because it was so different and learning something new took a little more pa­tience. It does take a while and 1 feel like I'm still learning," says Hilker, who now has four regular clients wearing gels.

What's Available

One-component gels, such as Pro Finish's Easy On Easy Off Gel and The Supply Source's Euro Gel, are medium-viscosity UV gels that can be used to overlay on natural nails, wraps, or tips.

T3 Fiber-Gel from Star Nail Products is a patented UV gel made to work ex­clusively with fiberglass mesh. The sys­tem sandwiches the fiberglass between two layers of gel. The same medium-viscosity gel is used in three layers to j hold the fiber mesh in place while com­pletely hiding it on the nail surface. The mesh offers durability without sculpt­ing, making this system an alternative for technicians who find sculpting gels either too difficult or time-consuming.

Lightbox Gels from For Professional Use Only uses a non-acid primer with a three-gel system for use on natural nails or tips. Each of the three gels, Fu­sion Gel, Sculpting Gel, and Power Seal undergoes the photo-crosslinking process of polymerization. The nail coating, which the company says im­parts durability and shine, is the result of the aggregate layers.

NSI's Light Fantastic Gel System uses a non-acid priming step with NSI Adhesive Promoter, which provides a chemical bond that allows the natural nail plate to accept the gel chemistry. Each layer of the three-gel system per­forms its own function and with accu­rate placement of the first, base gel, suc­cessive layers apply perfectly.

MicroBond Nail Gel Bonding System from OPI Products uses Bond-Aid for extra adhesion, three gels for bonding, building, and sealing, and MicroBond Lamp for curing. The lamp has three nine-watt UV bulbs, nearly three times more wattage than most other UV lights.

IBD recently reformulated its Salon Essentials Gel System, using a method called "Fused Matrix Technology," a chemical process that prevents the burning that is a common complaint with gels. What the company calls "crystal monomers" give the finished nail its shine. The system includes five gels, including Clear Gel for natural nail or tip overlays and Color Gel for long-lasting color.

En Vogue and Light Concept Nails offer more expensive light-activated gel systems that are acrylate resin products and used without primer.

Today, gel manufacturers offer their own product-specific UV lamps that range anywhere from $50 to $279, and the systems themselves are available from $59 to $379. Some companies offer a free lamp with the purchase of a full system, and most offer starter kits at a discount All manufacturers recommend coupling that starter kit with a product specific education class to learn the ins-and-outs of the particular system. As a technician, you should always know your product and understand how and why it works. After you have done your homework, maybe you will find that gels are the wave of the future for you.

Gels in Europe

If gels are so popular in Europe, why didn't they catch on here initially?

Nails are just now be­coming big business in Eu­rope, and because the focus from European manufacturers has been on gels since the onset of nail services, nail techni­cians were originally trained in gel application, Many European salons and technicians are just now being introduced to acrylic nails,

Unlike the United States with its many nails-only sa­lons, nail services in Eu­rope traditionally have been offered in hair sa­lons, increasing the impor­tance of an odor-free product, "The clients also view going to the beauty salon as a luxury and as a pampering experience as opposed to the walk-in and walk-out in 40 min­utes with a full set. Their mindset is more like that of the clients found in today's U.S. day spa," says Joan Komorowski of IBD.

Artificial nails have not been as accepted in Europe as they have been in the U.S., but because gels have such a natural look, some women feel less guilty about getting them done, says nail technician Natascha Mapp of Crazy Nails in Wies­baden, Germany.

"German women don't want anything fake on them — it's been a real stigma, but I find that if I call nail en­hancements "art" nails rather than "artificial" nails, it really helps," says Mapp.

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