Long used in fiberglass boat construction, in the dental industry, and in building computer microchips, gels were introduced to the nail industry in the mid-’80s. One-third of all salons in 1989 offered gels. Now, according to the 1994 NAILS Magazine Fact Book, almost half of all salons offer gels. Many nail technicians say they prefer gels because they require no primer and the product has little or no odor. Susan Weiss-Fischmann executive vice president of OPI Products in N. Hollywood, Calif., says that especially when using a gel system for nail overlays, an educated nail technician can save as much as 15-20 minutes when applying a full set. Many clients prefer gels, as they tend to be lighter and thinner than acrylics, says Christina Jahn, marketing director for Star Nail Products in Valencia, Calif. Gels can be used for overlays, sculpting, and natural nail reinforcement. Torn Sullivan, president of Light Concept Nails in East Hartford, Conn., says that one advantage gel systems have over liquid and powder systems is that the nail technician controls when the cure begins; she can spend as much time as she likes to get her desired shape, unlike with traditional liquid and powder systems that begin curing as soon as the two elements are mixed.

You can think of gels in many ways as premixed liquid and powder system that depends upon light to start tin polymerization process, says Michael Bannett, president of Cosmic in Ft Lauderdale, Fla. No-light gels are different than light-cured gels; in fact, no-light gels are chemical cousins to the cyanoacrylate resins used in wrap systems and are also cured with a spray or brush-on activator.

To understand how gels work, you must understand how each component in the system works. The basic components in most light-cured gel systems include the gel, the gel wipe/cleaner, and an ultraviolet lamp.

Gel Product

The gel product itself is comprised of monomer, oligomer, cross-linker, and photoinitiator. The monomer is what gives the gel its pre-cure consistency. It is similar to the monomer used in liquid and powder systems. The oligomer (oligo=few or several, mer=unit) is monomer units linked together, and it gives the gel its basic properties (shininess, rigidity) after curing, says Debra Marr-Leisy, research and development director at International Beauty Design in Gardena, Calif. The cross-linker is an ingredient that has more than one reactive site on each molecule. The cross-linker forms a “fishnet” that makes the gel harden when it comes in contact with the monomer and oligomer.

The element that these three ingredients are bonded by and that allows the gel to harden is the photoinitiator. A photoinitiator is a chemical that, when exposed to ultraviolet or visible light, breaks down the gel product into free radicals. The free radicals bond and the material hardens on the nail, says Doug Schoon, executive director of the Chemical Awareness Training Center in Newport Beach, Calif. This process is called polymerization.

How Different Gels Work

Some systems use only one gel to create the nails, while other gel systems come with as many as three gels of varying viscosities, or thicknesses. The different gels are applied at different stages of the service. The gel that is applied first (the “base coat”) typically has a bonding agent that acts like double-sided tape to bond layers of gel to the nail plate to each other. This is why some systems do not require primer.

Gel products in multi-gel systems have minor variations. The base gels have bonding agents but no thickeners, so it is slightly runny and can fill in ridges and gaps better than a thicker gel can. The thickest gel is usually used to build and shape the middle layers quickly and easily. A medium-viscosity gel, often called a sealing gel, is applied last to seal the product around the free edge and prevent lifting.

Another component of the gel system is the nail wipe solution, also known as nail cleaner. The nail wipe solution removes the sticky residue that is left behind after the product cures. Schoon explains that the residue is caused by oxygen in the air coming into contact with the top layer of gel product, slowing down the curing process. As a result, the top-most layer of product remains close to its original gel-like state. The nail wipe solution, usually just isopropyl alcohol, removes that sticky layer, which is basically polymer that hasn’t completely cured.

The final component of a gel system is the lamp. Light, whether it is ultraviolet or visible light, is the catalyst that polymerizes the gel. It activates the photoinitiator to begin the curing (hardening) process. Some systems use UV light, while others use visible light. Different gel product formulations require different light sources.

With UV lamps it is not the blue light you see that polymerizes UV light-cured gels but a part of the light spectrum that humans cannot see. Also, it isn’t just the number of watts of the bulb that cures, but the wavelengths of light the bulb emits. The gels polymerize when output of light reaches a peak of 350-480 wavelengths and the lamp has been on for two minutes, says Schoon. If the output of light is too high, the photoinitiator will cause the product to polymerize too fast, causing the client to feel a burning sensation (or, the product may contain too much photoinitiator); too low and the product doesn’t polymerize adequately.

Gel lamps typically have a platform the client places her hand on to cure the gel. Deb Bordeaux, national sales and education director of Cosmic, explains the importance of instructing clients on why they must keep their hands and nails very level during the cure: “During the cure, the product can slide or sag if the client holds her hands at an angle or if one finger droops over the side of the platform. This will result in an uneven, incomplete cure, and any shape you worked to sculpt will undoubtedly be deformed.”

Generally speaking, most bulbs have a life of 2,000 hours, but check your lamp manufacturer’s, recommendations. It is a good rule of thumb, says Schoon, to change the bulbs in your gel lamp twice yearly and to clean the bulbs weekly. Anything that obstructs the light or prevents it from reaching the nails will inhibit the cure. Wipe off any gel or dust that gets on the bulbs before each use.

Gel Myths and Concerns

Myth Number One: Gels are great for women who are rough on their nails because gels are flexible. This is not true. Gels are rigid and strong when cured properly.

This Flexibility myth probably came from nail technicians who cured the gels improperly. If gels are not completely cured, they are flexible and can even be sticky. Incompletely cured gel can be caused by a weak bulb, old product, or product applied so thickly that the light cannot roach the photoinitiator to polymerize the gel product.

A flexible finished product might sound like a good thing. But partially cured gel leaves unreacted monomer on the nail plate that can seep through to the nail bed, potentially causing an allergic reaction to the monomer. Allergic reactions are one of the few drawbacks of gel systems. According to Jahn, gels are 5% more allergic reactive than other artificial nail systems.

You also want to make sure product doesn’t touch the sidewalks or cuticle. Allergic reactions to gels happen only when the product touches soft tissue (skin or nail bed tissue). According to Bannett, an allergic reaction to gels manifests as a red, bumpy rash found on the forearms, fingers, hands, or cuticles. If the product is not removed immediately, more severe symptoms, such as separation of the nail plate from the nail bed, may occur.

Lin Halpern, research and development for NSI in W. Conshohocken. Pa., elaborates. “If you accidentally get the product on your client’s skin, and then have her wash with soap and water, the gel won’t be washed off; in fact, it will be smeared on even more skin. Only a gel cleaner will remove the gel. You can then have her wash off the cleaner with soap and water.”

Myth Number Two: Lamps used with light-cured gel systems expose you and your clients to light radiation that can damage eyes or skin. This is not true. The bulbs used in UV lamps typically have wry low wattage — usually as few as 8 watts (German lamps always use 38-45-watt bulbs). The bulbs used with any of these systems do not emit enough UV rays to damage the skin. “In fact, a person driving a convertible with the top down on a sunny day will be exposed to more ultraviolet rays than having gel nails applied,” says Schoon.

Clients who are taking photosensitive medications, such as tetracycline, should be watched closely for the same kind of redness you would find with a mild sunburn. Photo-sensitive medications cause a patient’s skin to burn from exposure to UV light more easily. Weiss-Fischmann recommends that if a client has concerns about her possible photo-sensitivity, slit take information about the gel system and the light to her doctor. You don’t need to recommend against gels for these clients, says Schoon, but you need to warn them that they may experience a reaction and to be on the lookout for one, and document on their client cards that they have been warned. You should be able to offer clients an alternative service if they desire.

To prevent damage to the eyes, all you need to do is position the lamp facing away from you or not look into the lamp during operation.

The advantages of gel systems are the speed and ease in application of the product. Educate yourself, know what you are using, and enjoy the fruits of your labor as well as how your clients will love their great-looking nails.

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