Editor’s Note: This article is an endeavor to distinguish between traditional acrylic nail system, low, odor, and odourless systems with various ingredients, currently on the market. NAILS hopes to arm technicians with enough knowledge on the systems so that they may determine which is most compatible to their own work environment and habits, as well as maintain necessary health and safety standards. ---Ed.

Odorless systems came on the market in the mid-1980s in response to a backlash from people both inside and outside the nail industry about the odors associated with traditional acrylic systems. Many salons found themselves banned from malls when neighboring merchants complained of salon odors drifting into their stores. Technicians, who were exposed to the odor of acrylic products all day, demanded an alternative. When manufacturers delivered newly formulated acrylic systems with little or no odor, many technicians thought their problems were solved. And yet, after the initial excitement wore off, the new products weren’t selling as well as their marketers had hoped.

To understand why some nail technicians gave up on odorless products while others use them successfully a grasp of acrylic basics is essential.

All of the scent generated by traditional acrylic systems comes from the monomer. While the nails are curing, the monomer evaporates into the air. This causes a strong smell. Odorless systems, on the other hand, emit relatively odourless vapors.

“There are two ways to get rid of the odor,”says Doug Schoon, director of research and development for Creative Nail Design System (Vista, Calif). “You either reduce the amount of the vapors in the air or choose ingredients that have vapors with no odor. Most monomers in low-odor systems have a slower evaporation rate. Things that evaporate slowly release molecules in the air for your nose detector to pick up. Sometimes they have a low odor because we can’t smell their molecules.” When you smell something, you’re smelling molecules released from the product, explains Schoon. Detectors in your nose may ignore certain molecules such as oxygen, he adds.

“Since there is no smell with odourless systems, many state boards began requiring that tests be done with them. When you get 50 technicians opening the standard liquid in one room, the odor is tremendous,” says Toni Jane Smith, owner of Details Salon & Day Spa in Columbus, Ind., an educator for OPI Products and the NCA.

According to Schoon, the state boards who require testing be done with odourless systems more than likely do not have a ventilation system in place in their test rooms. “Odorless systems may make the air more pleasant, but they don’t necessarily increase your safety because they still release vapors,” says Schoon. “Many technicians who use low-odor or odourless systems incorrectly think they don’t have to worry about working safe so they don’t have a ventilation system.”

“In the late 1980s, odorless systems came on the market with high hopes, but many technicians did not like how the finished product had a tacky layer so there was resistance to them. Soon, many technicians abandoned them,” says Suzi Weiss-Fisehmann, executive vice president of OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.)

“We were happy with an odorless system in our schools, but 90% of the salons were using traditional acrylic products,” says Deborah Mack, director of nail education for Pivot Point International Cosmetology Research Centers (Chicago,III.) “We have an obligation to train for the market, so switched from odorless products to a low-odor system.

“My only caution is that the word ‘odorless’ can fool people into thinking there’s nothing harmful to breathe,” adds Mack. “Hopefully, technicians know that just because you can’t smell something does not mean isn’t there or that it can’t harm you. I explain this to them, using carbon monoxide as an example. Odorless or not, you still need proper ventilation.”


What’s What

The odor level is only one at several key differences between odorless, low-odor, and traditional systems. Traditional powder and liquid acrylic systems usually use a ratio of two parts liquid to one part liquid to one part powder, which creates a slightly wet, shiny ball that is worked with a wet brush. Many traditional systems require a one-ball method of application; the norm is three, while a few systems use five to seven.

Low-odor systems are similar to traditional systems and use nearly identical application techniques. (Application varies slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer.)

For true odorless systems, the liquid-to-powder ratio is usually 1:1; a circular motion with the brush is used to create a slightly dry ball with evident speckles. A dry brush is used to work the ball, which turns glossy on the nail. The addition of liquid to the brush will make the product too wet and because the product must be perfectly balanced every single time, a one-or two-ball method is required.

Schoon says that if the technician uses the odorless system too wet, it can cause an allergic reaction on her client. “The tradeoff with odorless systems,” he says, “is no smell versus the likelihood of an allergic reaction if used incorrectly.”

At IBD (Gardena, Calif.), northeast regional coordinator Debi Connors says the company’s SculptSure light-activated acrylic has no odor and uses a thicker-than-normal monomer formula with new polymers. The application process is similar to traditional systems, she says.

“The self-leveling product doesn’t set until you put it under the light,” says Connors. “Then, you remove the surface, which is more rubbery than gummy, so you won’t gum up your file. Filing is very minimal, so there is less airborne dust to breathe.”

Pro Finish (Scottdale, Ariz.) developed an odorless monomer with a mixture of chemicals that have an extremely low vapor pressure. Because it evaporates so slowly, explains the company’s chemist, the monomer’s odor is virtually eliminated. The advantages to this, of course, are less odor as well as little crystallization, and according to the chemist, better adhesion. However, nail technicians must develop careful, precise application skills. Since the monomer evaporates more slowly, if it gets on the skin it stays on the skin longer and could cause the client to develop sensitivity.

Karyn Vescio, national education director at NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.),says her company’s odorless UV acrylic system is manufactured differently than a traditional acrylic system. “There are photoinitiators, which allow the product to set up after being cured under the UV light. There are also different chemicals in the powder so it works under the UV light. There are also different chemicals in the powder so it works under the UV light,” she says. The amount of photoinitiators is critical for proper curing, says Vescio. “Too many can cause a burning sensation for the client, and if you have too little, the product won’t set up,” she says.


Odor-Free Alternatives


The terms “odourless”and “odor-free”are interchangeable, says Doug Schoon, director of R&D for Creative Nail Design System (Vista Calif.). These systems combine the benefits of acrylics and gels, in the form of liquid and powder systems that are cured under a UV light.


“Low odor means less odor or a pleasant scent, but we have a completely odor-free product.” says Lisa Marie Richardson, national educational coordinator for Star Nail Products (Valencia, Calif.) “There’s a lot of confusion, but it’s like comparing water and vanilla-scented candles. You can still smell the candle, even if it’s not unpleasant, but water has no odor at all.”


“I use my odor-free system with a 1:1 ratio or an even drier consistency, “says Tina Clesia, owner of Blooming Nails in Birmingham, Ala. “I also use a small, flat sable brush that holds less liquid. At the right consistency, UV-cured acrylics sculpt just like traditional acrylics. The film on top is minimal if you kept the correct ratio. Just slough it off, cure for two minutes, then file after curing.”


At OrigiNails Inc (Arlington, Texas), President Emmet Hickey says company’s Odorless Sculptured Nail System, which includes an odorless liquid, is similar to a traditional system. The only difference is that you use slightly less liquid in the application, he says so you don’t work with it as wet.


“Initially, odorless systems had a tacky finish that required a total technique change, “he says. “Technicians who had been using a traditional system for two or three years couldn’t adjust to them. Our new, odorless system uses the same finishing technique as traditional systems so there’s nothing new to learn.”


Adds Debi Connors, northeast regional coordinator for IBD (Gardena, Calif.). “We have always been a light-activated gel company geared toward a healthy environment because there is a big demand for acrylics in the U.S we developed our light-cured acrylic that has no odor, is applied without a primer, and requires minimal filing. This gives technicians another option.”

Making Changes

According to most manufacturers and technicians, odorless systems are not difficult to learn unless you have to unlearn traditional sculpting techniques and relearn odorless methods. Technicians usually accept odorless systems if they learn to use them before learning to use a traditional system. Resistance comes into play when technicians have to adapt to new application techniques. Odorless systems look and feel like traditional products, they apply and set differently.

“It’s just as easy to learn either acrylic system,” stresses Mack. “It’s simply that the techniques differ.”

Applying a traditional system correctly depends on the technicians getting the right liquid-to-powder ratio, says Vescio, but odorless systems, she says there are not as many variables for a perfect set of nails. “With a UV acrylic system, if you use too much liquid, the product won’t set; with UV gels, the product won’t set if you don’t have the right light or if it doesn’t cure long enough,” she explains.

“Odorless acrylic systems occupy a small percentage of the market, but they are growing,” insists Jack Sperling, president of Alpha 9(Van Nuys, Calif.). “There’s nothing to stop their growth; technicians simply like their standard products. If they have a reason to change, such as being located next to a restaurant or having hairdressers in the salon who complain, then they will switch. People get used to doing things a certain way and it’s hard for them to change.”

Gina Marsilii’s experience typifies many technicians’ in that one try was enough for her. After all, who wants to experiment on valuable clients?

“We tried odorless products, but we were immediately turned off by their consistency and the application technique,” says Marsilii, owner of Perfect 10 Nail Salon & Day Spa in Wilmington, Del. “If the fact that the system has no odor is the only benefit, it’s like changing to the odourless perm. Why mess with success?”

Adds Ira Bloom, owner of Nails Now! in Dallas, “We tried odorless products, but we got lifting and cracking. They weren’t as flexible as traditional systems.”

Vescio’s experience with odorless systems differs. “We believe odorless systems adhere to the nail better. They are not as porous once they’ve cured so chances are lifting with a traditional system won’t have lifting with an odorless one.”

Like most salon owners, Bloom still wants to cut down on salon odors. “Now we use a low-odor system that has about 50% less odor than a traditional system,” says Bloom. “The liquid, which we manufacture as a private label, has an aroma, but it’s not an offensive one. Now we’re creating a non-acid primer with a low odor, but it’s not perfected yet.”

For those who say they were committed to learning an odorless system, the benefits are clear.

“I used a traditional system for eight years and it took me about three months to really master an odorless system, but it’s made a big difference for me,” says Jeffrey Grief, a nail technician at Alder Essence in Portland, Ore. “There’s about one-fourth as much dust content in the air because the product rolls off in a dry ball. And because there’s no odor, I’m less congested. It did not cure my sinus problems, but I’ve seen a great improvement.”

Adds Connors, “Nail technicians are usually pushed to the back of salon because of the acrylic smell, but that’s starting to change with more of them learning how to use low-odor products.”

The Nitty Gritty

Besides using a different liquid-to-powder ratio and finishing differently, what adjustments in application must you make when using an odorless acrylic system? First, the user must be very careful to achieve the right balance of liquid and powder...and get it right the first time. “The application has to be impeccable; you can’t re-wet and re-smooth with extra liquid or you’ll destroy your combination,’’ says Smith. “Whether you use the pull or circle method to create a ball, it has to appear slightly dry. With a traditional system, you want the ball to be wet-looking.

“Work the ball of odorless product with a dry brush, as opposed to a wet brush. Work precisely, because if the product is too dry, you’ll get lifting and the entire nail will pop off. Or; the dome will loosen and you’ll get a bacterial infection, even though there is no obvious place for seepage and the nail appears tight at the base, cuticle line, and groove. For precise control of fills, I use a smaller than normal brush.”

The product takes three to four minutes to set and for the tacky film to form. The first step in finishing the odorless product is to remove the film by rolling it off with your file. Let it fall to the table. If the product itself comes off, the consistency was too wet.

Some technicians say odorless acrylic products set quickly, allowing little margin for error; others say traditional acrylic systems set faster. “Odorless acrylic systems appear to set up faster because you work with them drier, but they actually set up slower and that’s why you get the tacky layer.” says Schoon. UV-cured acrylics set only after being placed under a UV light, and take about three minutes to cure.

“The odorless market could be greater if technicians understood the product and its properties,” stresses Smith. “You can’t go buy a kit and pick up the technique; you need to learn from an educator who knows the system and can help you. If you use odorless systems according to the manufacturer’s instructions, are monitored during training, and receive follow-up education to perfect your skills and build speed, then you have a very marketable skill.”

The Road to Success

Many salon owners who wouldn’t add nail services because of the odors associated with acrylics have been more amenable to adding nails now that odorless products are available. If you can convince the owner you can perform nail services without adding that tell-tale smell to the salon, you’ll have tremendous competitive edge. Spas and spa salons in particular are wary of traditional acrylic systems because any scent that is not fresh and aromatic is in opposition to the spa concept and environment.

Those working in a nail salon with several technicians are less likely to use odorless products because most owners prefer everyone to use a single system and deliver the same quality. Still, if you can prove proficiency with odorless systems, owners may not object to you using them.

“Salons that provide product like to use a single system, order product in quantity, and rely on a single manufacturer for continuing education,”says Weiss Fischmann. “So even though most state boards require testing on odourless systems, the salons use traditional systems. Price and convenience are an issue; having the same work leaving the salon lends credibility. The salon environment, ventilation system, and number of technicians are all factors in choosing a system.”

“There is a trend toward natural nail care and a few salons are banning acrylics,”says Mack. “Schools must adapt to the salon market; we’ll see down the road how the market wants us to change our education. If the trend becomes odourless systems, you’ll see the schools follow suit.”

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