Nail technicians want a top coat that will prevent polish from discoloring, chipping, and peeling; keep polish looking fresh longer; make nails harder; and prevent nails from yellowing. They want an affordable top coat with a long shelf life and no unpleasant odor. But most­ly, they want a fast-drying, long-lasting top coat with a high-gloss shine.

Is all of this possible? Yes, to a point, say the marketers and chemists we interviewed. The "perfect" top coat — one that dries in just minutes to a high gloss and prevents polish from wearing and chip­ping between services — doesn't exist yet, but there are many top coats on the mar­ket that come close.

"Technology has improved so much over the years that it is possible to have a faster-drying top coat without compromis­ing too much on wear and durability," says Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, executive vice pres­ident of OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.). Still, she adds, marketers have to decide what they want most from the top coat, then strive for that.

For example, European Touch Co. (Butler, Wis.) kept getting complaints from technicians who said they couldn't find a top coat that worked well in warmer climates. So the company came up with Express Dry, which was formulated specifically not to bubble and peel in warmer, humid climates. As an added bonus, they heard from nail technicians who said the top coat worked great as a nail art sealer, says Karen Raasch, direc­tor of international accounts.

Instead of answering one need, other manufacturers choose to address several needs. Pro Finish (Scottsdale, Ariz.), for ex­ample, offers three different top coat for­mulations; U.V. System, which the company says provides the best durability and allows the nail technician to provide a drying "service" that she can charge for; Heat Coat, which provides a durable, high gloss shine without the use of a light; and Ai Dry, which offers the benefits of a fast drying top coat yet is not quite as durable a the company's U.V, System.

Says Lynn Hayes Granger, vice president of advertising and marketing for Orly International (Chatsworth, Calif.), "It's always striking a balance between what you most want it to do without going so far that you give up too much in other areas."

Each function of a top coat require-different chemical, and each chemical affects the other chemicals and their functions. For example, says Granger, product is super flexible and durable, it might not dry as fast. If it dries really fast it might not be as flexible, making it more likely to chip. Making the top coat gloss might make the liquid thick and difficult to brush on, while a more durable, harder, top coat may not adhere to the nail as well.

As a result, manufacturers say they often sacrifice one or two characteristics so that their top coat can "deliver the goods" on another characteristic. Meanwhile, experimentation with new ingredients and combinations of chemicals is encouraging. The result is beneficial to the nail tech­nician, who can choose from a vari­ety of top coats, each of which of­fers unique properties.

Three Basic Ingredients Make a Top Coat

Top coals owe their existence to the automobile industry. Once a car was painted, it needed a glossy finishing coat to bring out the paints color. If the finishing coat helped the paint dry fasten' and helped protect it from scratching, all the better.

The first top coats for nails were basically clear nail enamel de­signed to give polish more shine. Colored polish absorbs light and can appear dull once it dries. Also, polish wears off over time as the nails brush up against objects. With a clear top coat, the top coat wears off first, protecting the color. As the nail industry grew and tech­nicians' demands became more so­phisticated, top coat makers exper­imented with new formulations that offered more than protection and shine.

All nail coatings — whether they are base coats, colored polishes, or top coats — contain many of the same ingredients. Manufacturers may exchange one chemical for a similar one or vary the ratio of the same ingredients. Some may add property-enhancing ingredients such as plasticizers or yellowing inhibitors. But as with acrylic systems and many other nail products, most top coats contain the same basic ingredients.

The three basic ingredients in a top coat are polymers, a plasticizer, and solvents.

A film-forming polymer is a fancy way of saying "this will level to form a film coating that will be one con­tinuous piece." The polymer film is what's left on the nail after all the solvents evaporate. The more poly­mers, the more durable the top coat. Mixtures containing copoly­mers (two or more polymers) tend to be more durable top coats than homopolymers (only one polymer).

Additional polymers affect the strength, adhesion, and gloss of a top coat. Polymers absorb everyday shocks and improve the durability of the topcoat.

Plasticizers add flexibility, and solvents affect the spread-ability and drying time. A top coat may contain 50%-75% solvents. A mix­ture of several solvents can he used in a single top coat to control flow and drying time. At the same time, different solvents evaporate at dif­ferent rates. If a top coat contains more than one solvent, the manu­facturer has to ensure the different rates of evaporation between sol­vents don't cause the polish to wrinkle or bubble as it dries.

Additives Help Prevent Yellowing

Other top coat additives may in­clude pigments, thickeners, preservatives, stabilizers, and fra­grances. Some solvents and chem­icals in heat-cured and light-cured top coats have an unpleasant odor. Xylene and naptha are solvents added to minimize odors.

Nitrocellulose is a good resin, and most manufacturers use it in their top coats. Still, nitrocellulose, which is chemically related to paper, yellows over time when ex­posed to sunlight. Accordingly, benzophenone may be added to absorb UV light and stave off yel­lowing; pigments also may be added to counteract yellowing.

Seche Vite, one of the newer generation of quick-drying top coats, contains cellulose acetate butyrate resin ((JAB), a synthetic rel­ative of nitrocellulose, which the company says won't yellow. In fact, Seche received a U.S. patent on its top coat in July 1992. Since Seche . Vite has a different chemical composition from polish, the selling fea­ture of the product is that it can be applied over wet polish without dragging. Bill Martens, president of Seche International, Inc. (Laguna Beach. Calif.) explains:  "Most top coats are clear, fast-drying polish. Seche Vite is totally different. Ap­plying other top coats over polish is like brushing glue on top of glue — it'll drag. Seche Vite won't do that."

What Makes a True Top Coat?

A top coat, as its name implies, is the final coat of product you apply on the nails. The most basic top coat is nail polish without pig­ments (which arc what give polish color). Nail polish, whether clear or colored, contains solvents. As the solvents evaporate from clear polish, the clear film remains. When all the solvents have evapo­rated, the polish is dry enough to withstand abrasion and rubbing. Colored polish can take hours to dry completely, while clear polish can dry in just minutes.

A "true" top coat seals polish and helps prevent it from chipping, wearing, and yellowing. It also adds gloss and durability. How fast it dries is a different matter, and is the factor that spurred manufacturers to refine their top coat formula­tions. For example, explains Jan Arnold, president, Creative Nail Design Systems (Vista, Calif.) Speedey top coat sets polish in about two minutes because the top coat contains a high proportion of sol­vents. The company's other top coat, Super Shiney; takes longer to dry be­cause it contains a higher percent­age of solids. Its virtue, she says, is that it lasts longer on the nail and has a higher gloss. "We recommend that technicians use Super Shiney during the service and retail Speedey to clients to use every few days to give their manicure a lift. Speedey is so thin and last-setting it won't soften the layers of polish," explains Arnold.

As technology has advanced, many marketers have reformulated their top coats altogether to do more than just dry the polish and add shine. According to their man­ufacturers, these products actually leave the polish harder and significantly increase wearability.

These top coats are also chemi­cally different. While early top coats were clear polish, the new genera­tion of top coats contain monomers that polymerize, says Debra Mar-Leisy, Ph.D., director of research and development (or International Beauty Design (Gardena, Calif.). Polymerization creates a harder, more durable finish, says Mar-Leisy.


However, as mentioned earlier, when you gain in one area you usu­ally give something up. In this case, the increase in strength usually comes with a decrease in adhesion. A giveaway is when the top coat says "For acrylic nails." Some of these top coats can be applied on natural nails with a special base coat that acts like double-sided sticky tape. Other companies have come out with less durable versions specifically for use on natural nails (the less durable formulations have better adhesion).

Some quick-dry top coats are formulated so that some of the sol­vents in them will penetrate the colored polish, drying it faster than normal. Quick-dry top coats that penetrate the layers of colored pol­ish are often thicker than standard top coats and should be applied generously enough so that when all the solvent is absorbed and later evaporated, there is still a layer of clear polish on top of the colored polish to leave a shine.

Lin Halpern, national educator for NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.), says NSI's Thermoshield polish sealant for acrylic nails dries all the layers fast when the nails are exposed to any heal source (the company recommends a 60-watt bulb), "We teach technicians to apply Thermoshield generously. It should be 'floated' on, so it doesn't splatter or bubble the nail polish. There will be some shrink age as it cures, so it should seal all edges of the polish. It contains acrylic copolymers for hardness," says Halpern.

Quick-dry top coats appear to thy all the layers of polish completely within minutes. Variations in polish formulations, humidity in the envi­ronment, and even the color of the polish can affect the speed of the drying (in general, the richer the color, the longer it takes to dry), Martens says, "We like to say that Seche Vite dries all the polish in five minutes. In most eases, it does, but if the base coats or polish aren't fresh, or if the polish is a very rich shade of color, drying will take a hit longer, maybe 10 minutes.

"Seche Vite has a slightly thicker consistency than other top coats, but its thickness is a great asset. Since Seche Vite is not a clear nail enamel, it will not stick to the pol­ish it's being applied over.  Seche Vite is applied with a thick head onto the nail base and is easily ma­nipulated to flow over and self-level on the nail plate without al­tering the underlying polish, decals, or art," says Martens.

"Seche Vite's epoxy-like formu­lation is super flexible, and, like an epoxy film former, dries to a hard and durable finish.


Some top coats arc formulated to dry polish fast when used with a heat source such as a table lamp. The heat generated by the bulb, not the light itself, is the activator, says Nancy Waspi, director of sales for Pro Finish. You can't use a heat source with just any top coat because top-coat makers have mixed a precise formulation of solvents, resins, and polymers that is designed to dry at an optimum rate. A regular quick-dry top coat, if exposed to heat, may dry too quickly, causing the resins and polymers to buckle and wrinkle or appear dull. Several top-coat makers have formulated top coats specifically to dry under a table top light bulb.

Heat-activated top coats aren't inherently different from conven­tional quick-dry top coats, though they are designed to stand up to the rigors of fast drying, says Doug Schoon, executive director of Chemical Awareness Training Ser­vices (Newport Beach, Calif.).

Light-Cureds Make the Long Haul

Light-cured top coats contain a monomer and a resin, usually methacrylate monomer and nitro­cellulose. The top coat is polish-based and becomes a cross-linked polymer when exposed to a UV light source. "The top coat actually pene­trates the polish," says Waspi of the Pro Finish UV Top Coat. Pro Finish holds a patent on its UV Top Coat formulation. Light-cured top coats are compatible with the ingredients in nail polish, so they help the polish underneath to harden. "To use Pro Finish UV Top Coat," says Waspi, "the nail technician should apply a thick coat of the top coat and let it set for three minutes. During this time the top coat combines with the polish. Then you put the nails under a UV light for another three minutes, and voila, the polish is hard.

"When someone can get her keys out, write her check, and do normal activities within six min­utes, that's the true test of a last-drying top coat." Waspi says what sets the UV top coat apart from the rest is its use with pedicures. With­in 10-15 minutes, a pedicure client should he able to put on her shoes and socks and leave the salon.

Some technicians also use a thin UV gel over polish. Waspi says this is a technique, not a product. A true UV gel shouldn't: be applied directly over wet polish because it will seal solvents in the polish, preventing the polish from drying and making it very susceptible to wrinkling and denting, says Waspi.

International   Beauty Design also offers a UV light-cured top coat. "It's our own formulation," says Mar-Leisy. "You apply the pol­ish, wait one minute, and then apply L.A. Polish Dry. Then you can cure it under a table lamp or you can cure it under an ultraviolet light. Either way we recommend curing it for three minutes."

Why use a UV lamp if it cures under a table lamp?   Mar-Leisy says the top coat is more durable if cured with a UV light. Additionally many technicians sell light-cured top coats to clients as a service, says Waspi, increasing their service ticket by an average of $2.

Look to the Future

Manufacturers have come out with air-dry, heat-dry, and light-cured formulations. Some are thick some are thin, some offer high gloss some offer durability, and some let clients leave the salon in just minutes with dry polish. Unfortunately, there still isn't a top coat that does it all perfectly. Don't give up hope yet however. Look for new break throughs in the future.

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