Every nail technician needs a good table lamp to see by. Some nail technicians need a second lamp, to cure by. They turn to UV light, a technology that has been developed and perfected over the course of about 15 years. These sleek, compact lights look like boxes that emit a television-like glow. Clients place their hand in the slot, and in a few minutes, their gel or UV light-cured acrylic nails are ready to wear.

“The attraction of light-cured products is that you do away with solvents,” says Lee Tomlinson, president of IBD (Gardena, Calif.). “A great deal of research and development went into solvent-free products in other industries too, such as the advent of water-based paints.” The UV lamp cures gel or acrylic without emitting vapors; the relatively low amount of UV light emitted is considered safe for both client and nail technician. The amount is within the minimum safe exposure level set by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. A working knowledge of ultraviolet light, how the lamps are made, and how they work will help nail technicians get the best results from their investment.

What’s in a Lamp?

In the technology’s infancy, curing lamps used both UV light and other forms of light to cure artificial nails. UV light is a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. all the wavelengths from the shortest gamma waves to the longest radio waves; and including visible light) that contains wavelengths between 10 and 400 nanometers (nm). Nanometers measure the size of the wave. An example of extremely short waves would be microwaves; x-rays are on the longer end of the scale. Visible light includes the light emitted from ordinary incandescent bulbs. Sunlight radiates UV light, visible light, and infrared light. The portion used for UV lamps (and considered safest for human exposure) are the UVA wavelengths, which are between 320 and 400 nm. They are closest to the visible light spectrum.

James Giuliano is credited with inventing UV lights and gels. During World War II, Giuliano, trained as a makeup artist in Hollywood, was asked by the Navy to develop artificial body parts for the wounded, especially artificial eyes. In the years following the war, Giuliano continued working on a UV-cured coating to protect the plastic eye, and one day a bit of it fell onto his fingernail. “It wouldn’t come off,” he recalls. “I figured I was onto something.” A few years later, about 1982, Giuliano brought Lamp Light, a UV gel system, to market.

The lamp resembled an outdoor floodlight and used a 100- watt bulb that emitted about 365 nm of UV light. According to Giuliano, the system sold very well, but when bad health forced him to sell the patent, the Lamp Light eventually disappeared from the market. However, Giuliano recently returned to the nail industry with the Libra II gel system, which comes as either a tabletop unit or as a swing-arm lamp.

An early model that used visible light instead of UV light was the System III, invented by George Schaeffer, president of OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.). “At the time, I did not feel UV light was safe enough for someone to be exposed to for eight hours a day,” explains Schaeffer. His lamp, which was developed in 1984, was shaped like a pyramid and focused intense visible light to cure the nail deeply. The biggest problem was that only one nail could be cured at a time.

Meanwhile, nail product manufacturers began to develop UV lights, and soon other light sources were abandoned in favor of UV light. “At first the manufacturers of lamps and of UV products did not join forces with each other,” says Lin Halpern, clinical director of R&D for NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.), “but eventually they realized you need to precisely match the microwattage of the lamp to the photo initiators in the product. It’s like a key that fits into a lock. They must be a matching set to work properly.” (Microwatts measure the power or intensity of light.) Most companies now offer an entire system, including the gel, UV lamp, accessories, and instructional materials; they strongly encourage nail technicians to stick with one system. However, UV lamps are also sold separately.

Randall Johnston, president of Vibrato (Park City, Utah), gets calls from nail technicians who want to keep their lamp, but want to try his company’s gel system. “Our light is ultraviolet, but it actually crosses over a bit into the visible light spectrum,” he explains. Our gel cures all the way down and you need a strong light source to do this. That’s why we try to encourage nail technicians not to cross over. Every lamp and every system is a little bit different.”

The Light Source

If you pull apart a UV light, you’ll see that the primary components are the housing, the switching mechanism, reflectors, and of course, the UV light bulbs. Most lamps come with their own UV bulbs, and use anywhere from one to four bulbs. UV bulbs usually range from four to six watts. However, it’s important to note that a lamp’s total number of watts is not necessarily the sum of its bulbs. “One of the biggest misconceptions about UV lamps is that if it has two four-watt bulbs, it must have eight total watts,” says Christina Jahn, director of marketing for Star Nail Products (Valencia, Calif.). “This is incorrect.”

IBD’s newest lamp, Salon Essentials, uses two tube-shaped bulbs that snap on the top of the light and are parallel to each other. A curved piece of reflective material around the sides and top of the unit reflect the bulbs’ rays both straight down and at cross angles to ensure even curing. The bottom of the unit has a quilted square of reflective material that helps scatter the light onto hard-to-reach places, such as the thumbs and the sides of the nails.

OPI’s MicroBond light uses three U-shaped nine-watt bulbs that, when inserted on both sides and in the back, form a continuous circle around the unit. For more even lighting, the unit has a contoured platform that fits the hand, and slides in and out of the unit “This helps keep the lamp clean, since clients sometimes brush their wet nails against the bulbs inside,” explains Judy Kazmierkowski, educational coordinator for OPI Products in Junction City, Ore.

Most bulbs will last 2,000-3,000 hours, so if you use a light for two hours a day, five days a week, theoretically your bulbs should be good for about four years. Nevertheless, most say the bulbs actually wear out more quickly than that; “We advise our customers to change their bulb every six months,” says Gina Capelli, director of education for Pro Finish (Scottsdale, Ariz.). “UV light bulbs don’t burn out like normal bulbs; they just gradually lose their strength.”

“I change my bulb every 6-8 months,” says Astrid Beath, owner of Nail Collection in Dandenong, Melbourne, Australia. “I know that it needs to be changed when the curing time starts to take longer.” Cara Babcock, a nail technician at Finger Prints in Boise, Idaho, advised her boss to change her bulb after one year when it stopped curing properly. After she changed the bulb, the lamp worked again.

Some manufacturers say a timer will help lengthen bulb life, while others insist that keeping a light on all day is more energy-efficient than switching it on and off. Whatever the case, a technician would be wise to evaluate how many bulbs a light requires, how long they are supposed to last, and how much replacement bulbs cost when she purchases the light. Another key factor is whether the unit cures a full hand at a time, or whether it takes four fingers of one hand first, four fingers of the other hand next, and then the two thumbs last.

Keep the Lamp Burning

Another way to keep bulbs lasting as long as possible is to clean them daily. At the end of each day, turn the unit off and wipe the bulbs with a nail wipe and an alcohol-based cleaning solution. “Alcohol is good to clean any shiny surface,” advises Halpern. “However, follow manufacturer’s instruction for cleaning solutions.” Don’t use acetone on any part of your lamp, especially those parts made of plastic, she warns; it could melt the plastic housing.

Cleaning gel off of your bulb is very difficult, especially if it hardens. Small bits of it can be carefully removed by rubbing gently with a cloth. Larger amounts likely cannot be removed, and if enough product accumulates on the bulb, the bulb should probably be replaced. “Your best bet is to train your clients to place their hands carefully into the light,” says Halpern. “Place their fingers so that the balls of their fingertips rest on the bottom of the unit and ask them to remain still while the nails are curing.”

Keep the rest of your light in good shape by cleaning the exterior with a household cleaning solvent. Many manufacturers recommend sanitizing the unit between clients; refer to your manufacturer for a recommendation on what kind of disinfection procedure is best.

Babcock has learned many things about her lamp in the year that she’s used it. “My lamp cost me $100, it has a three-pronged plug with a thick cord, nice venting, and it works even after I’ve dropped it a few times,” she says. “I’ve learned to do thinner layers because they cure better, and I know exactly what a cured nail should sound like when I thump it.” UV lamps have much to offer the busy nail technician; if cared for properly, they should make great and long-lasting partners.

Nails in the Fast Lane

Some call them the “poor man’s gel.” Others call them “glorified glue.” whatever the name, no-light gels have their fans and their critics.

About the time that light-cured gels came on the market, no-light gels also made their appearance. “Essentially; a no-light gel is a thick cyanoacrylate product (the ingredient used in nail adhesives) that is activated by either a spray or brush-on activator;” explains Sunny Stinchcombe, vice president of Gena Laboratories (Duncanville, Texas).”It was an alternative to buying an expensive UV lamp, and it didn’t require the level of proficiency to apply as light- cured gels did.”

No-light gels are used in a variety of ways. They are applied, just like polish, over a natural nail. Some technicians use them on tips, or along with a silk or fiberglass wrap, “I wear it over my wraps and it works great,” Stinchcombe says.

Most systems are quick and easy to apply and create a thin, shiny overlay. They generally do not last as long as gels or acrylics, since the overlay is not truly bonded to the nail surface.”You cannot sculpt or shape with them,” comments Lin Halpern. ‘They just sit on top of the nail.” Another disadvantage, say some technicians, is that the product tends to be brittle and yellows easily. No-light gels also suffer from an image problem; they are considered almost “too easy” for a self-respecting nail technician to offer as a service. For the most part, no-light gels are one of the many over-the- counter systems offered to consumers looking for a quick fix.

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