No doubt about it, drills are fast-action heroes. They can shave 15 minutes to half an hour off the time it takes to do a full set of sculptured nails, and they can turn fills into an express service. Some technicians claim their drills saved their career by helping them avoid that career-wrecker-carpal tunnel syndrome.

Dao Dobyns, owner of Get Nailed in Carson City, Nev., says she’s used a drill for eight years now and probably couldn’t do a set of sculptured nails without one.    

“I’m so used to it, I can do a new set of nails in 80 to 45 minutes; without one it would take me an hour and 25 minutes. It’s really an all-purpose tool. I use it to clean up the nail, cut and smooth the ridge of a tip, smooth and shape an acrylic overlay, and clean underneath the free edge. It’s invaluable when you do French tips, although I do buff the sides by hand.”


So why is their use controversial? It’s not the noise drills make, or their cost. It’s the perception that drills can be harmful to the health of the nail technicians who use them, even though there are precautions technicians can take to minimize the health risk. And some drill opponents claim that using a drill takes away from the artistry of nail sculpting and is overkill. Purists say that technicians who rely on chills do so because they’re poor (or lazy) sculpturists.

The Dust Storm

“Drills create an extreme amount of dust and this is a major concern,” says Lynn Class, a nail instructor at Pittsburgh Beauty Academy. “You should definitely use a protective mask when drilling; a good ventilation table is important as well.”

Patrick Rafferty, technical director of industrial hygiene at Roy F. Weston, a West Chester, Pa., environmental consulting firm, agrees, noting that the particles from high speed drills arc small in size and are likely to be inhaled.

“If you file manually, I’d guess that the resulting particles are about 100 to 1,000 microns [in size],” he says. “A high-speed device would produce particles in the 10 to 100 micron range, or even smaller. The substance being abraded is much more likely to break into different-sized pieces.”

Breathing in any type of dust on a regular basis is potentially harmful, but since drills and primarily used on sculptured nails, the potential danger is even greater. According to A Guide to Chemical Exposures in the Nail Salon, a book produced by the California Occupational Health Program, the acrylates used in sculptured nail systems can cause asthma; as airborne dust, these chemicals can cause eye irritation and discomfort.

Yet given all this, not a single technician we contacted said she unfailingly uses a dust mask when using drills.


“During enrollment, we tell all our students about the hazards of exposure to dust and chemicals,” says Karen Iolli, an instructor at Ailano School of Cosmetology in Brockton, Mass. “We tell them never to do nails in their homes or around children. Always wear a dust mask when using drills and offer them to clients.”

Few salons have standing policies regarding the use of drills, although some salons attract clients by advertising that they offer natural nail systems only or use no drills — a show to growing concerns about salon environments among both clients and nail technicians. The nation’s 900-plus JC Penney salons have the closest thing to a standardized regulation we could find.

Says Paula Killingsworth, a JC Penney Styling Salon systems manager at the corporate offices in Plano, Texas, “Technicians may use drills if they need to, but we do not recommend their use. We have vented tables in all our salons and if a technician wants to use a drill, we provide protective masks. But we don’t require their use. Any technician who wants to use a drill must provide proof of training in drill use through some type of certification or verbally during the employment interview. If the technician is already working for us and decides she wants to begin using a drill, she has to get training from the manufacturer before she can use it in our salon.”

One way to minimize dust is to use carbide burs, which cause less dust than diamond bits; however, they do require greater skill, since they have small teeth that cut very quickly.

“Carbide burs do cause less dust, but they’re not as gentle as diamond bits are,” says Iolli. “Students, in particular, should use diamond bits when they’re learning because those bits arc gentler on the natural nail if the student hits it by accident.”

Gloria Philips of the Academy of Beauty Care in Miami, Fla., says that carbide bur use may cause less dust but that the real culprits are bad products and coarse powders that require a lot of filing. “The more sophisticated products are less coarse and require less sanding in the first place,” she says.

Drill Use Advantages

There’s no reason why nail technicians can’t incorporate drills into their work as long as they take simple precautions, such as wearing protective masks and goggles if they wear contact lenses and working at vented tables.

“Using drills will definitely cut down on carpal tunnel incidence because you’re balancing the drill on a pivot area, your pinkie.” says Iolli. “You move your whole hand and arm; the motion is not just a flexing of the wrist.”

Concurs Class, “Drills are certainly more beneficial to the hand; there’s less cramping. Using a drill will help in the long run. If your client has arthritis, the fact that the drill works faster makes it easier on her, too.”

Smart technicians can reap many benefits by using drills safely, but many fail to do so because they’re afraid of what clients will think if they see them wearing a mask — or if they offer one to the client. However, clients are not only accustomed to their use by health care professionals, many clients demand they be worn. The use of masks indicates to clients that a salon is “environmentally progressive,” an important consideration for many clients in the ‘90s.


Bits On Burs

Football Bits: Best suited for cleaning under long or hooked nails, the football-shaped bit may also be used to reduce the white line before doing a fill. When using the bit for this procedure, you only need to touch the back part of the acrylic. Never use the drill on the natural nail.

Cone Bits: Used to clean under the nail and to reduce the white line before doing fills, cones vary in shape and size and can get in close to the skin to clean around the cuticle and underneath and around the corners of the nail.

Cylinder (Barrel or Drum) Bits: These come in different sizes, diameters, and grits. Cylinder bits are used to shape product on the surface of the nail and to shorten tips. The larger-size cylinder bits were originally developed to replace mandrel bits, the bits that hold sandpaper. Newer cylinder bits are smaller and technicians say they afford more control.

Mandrel Bits: Mandrel bits are actually cylinder bits with sander bands that do the work of diamond or carbide bits. Different grades of sandpaper, fine (240-grit), medium (180-grit), and coarse (150-grit), can be used depending on the technician’s filing purposes. Mandrel bits take down bulk and reduce length. The advantages of using sandpaper are that it’s less expensive (7¢-8¢ per sander band), and the sand paper can be discarded after each client service.

Abrasive Stones: Stone bits, either cylinder-, taper-, or flame-shaped, are used to buff the nail.

Chamois Buffing Wheels: Buffing wheels buff and polish the nail to a shine. Different grades of chamois buffers are available.

Carbide Bits and Burs: Carbide burs last longer than diamond or synthetic diamond bits (though lifespans depend on the amount of use). Replace every 9-12 months. Carbide burs shave product off the nail; the filing dust is actually very small shavings or chips.

Diamond Bits and Burs: Diamond burs cost about the same as carbide burs but they need to be replaced every 3-12 months. Good diamond bits, those that are well-covered with real diamonds, may last longer because they have the ability to resharpen themselves; but as they get older, the filing time for services will lengthen. Diamond bits have a tendency to pick up product more easily than carbide bits, so it is necessary to clean them with acetone and a brush regularly. It’s time to replace them when you find that it takes significantly longer to do the same job. Rather than shaving or chipping the nail, diamond burs grind product down, acting like a regular file (except that you can file back and forth), The filing dust from diamond burs is a fine powder.

Synthetic Diamond Bits and Burs: Synthetic burs break down and become rounded over time. Synthetics cost less but don’t last as long or have the same cutting ability as real diamond or carbide bits. Their cost is low.

Proper Techniques

Experts disagree on whether a drill should be used on a natural nail. Philips says experienced nail technicians can use it to rough up the nail, but only with a less than coarse bit. “Then, use the medium or fine bits to smooth the acrylic,” she says.

However, because of the potential for damaging the natural nail, most instructors advise against using drills on natural nails, and all say carbide burs should not be used on the natural nail.

“Use the drill on an acrylic surface only,” stresses Iolli. “It is not necessary to use it on the natural nail because you’re only prepping it to remove oil, and oil does not penetrate so far that you need a drill to remove it. Using a drill on the natural nail can cause pain.”

Professionals say a drill may be very useful to new technicians, who tend to apply product too thickly; but this is a catch-22, because using the drill safely requires experience.

“New technicians have yet to master thinning and shaping the nail, so they put on too much product,” explains Iolli. “There should be no product against the flesh in the hyponychium area, between the free edge, plate, and the bed. A drill helps remove it, but this is a delicate area. Holding the drill incorrectly can result in a painful abrasion. It should be held like a pencil. The trick is to apply a very small amount of pressure.

“The hardest part of training is to teach the technician how much pressure to use; we have them all begin on themselves, so that they understand the sensation,” she continues.

“To shape the nail from the free edge to the cuticle, we show them how to use the belly of the bit without lifting the drill. They do the entire nail; any dark spots indicate where they missed. If the tip, not the belly, touches the nail, then there’ll be a problem. Drill bums can cause terrible nail infections. Some technicians try to drill off infections. You can’t do this because the infection comes from underneath. Remember, this is not a medical tool; it’s a sander,” says Iolli.

Right Starts

Clearly, the technician should be educated and practiced in using the drill, but the client needs a bit of educating, too.

“Some clients don’t like the drill or the sensation it creates,” notes Philips.

Introduce the drill to your client by explaining how much faster it’ll make the service go. Let her experience it for a brief moment. Then explain the importance of a mask in terms of her health, and get her approval before using the drill for the entire service.

Adds Philips, “If you have long hair, tie it back. Long hair will get caught in the machine. Also, don’t go faster than you need to. Many drills have speeds of 45,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and that’s too high to use on a client. Most drills were developed as dental tools, but you aren’t working on a porcelain tooth. You can only use a certain speed with clients. I don’t go above 20,000 rpm. Finally, don’t rely on the drill to replace technique. If you lay the product on correctly and shape it right, you’ll save a lot more time.”

Concurs Iolli, “Once you’re skilled in creating a nail, you shouldn’t have to use the drill for more than 30 seconds on each nail. Up-to-par sculpting techniques are still your biggest timesavers and client-keepers.”


Safety First

Using a drill or electric file not only allows you to book more clients per day; if used properly, it could help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.

Follow these safety musts for getting the most out of your drill.

1.      Always use a dust mask when using a drill.

2.      Work at a ventilated table.

3.      Don’t get too close to your work.

4.      Tie back long hair.

5.      Keep the drill moving continuously, with the belly, not the tip, of the bit against the artificial product. Use a light touch, and always keep the drill moving.

6.      Never use a drill on a diabetic or a client who has a blood disorder.

7.      Avoid using high speeds.

8.      Practice your sculpting techniques to avoid creating a nail that’s too thick.

9.      Purchase at least two sets of bits so that one can be disinfected while you’re using the other.

10.  Have your drill professionally cleaned at least once a year.

11.  Always take advantage of manufacturer-specific education and practice on yourself and friends before using a drill in the salon.

Buyer’s Advice:

1. Keep machine rpm low.

2. After every service, clean accumulated product off the bits by soaking them in acetone, from a few minutes to a couple of days, and brushing them with a cleaning brush. This lengthens the life of your burs and keeps them working at their peak performance.

3. Look closely to see that the burs are well-covered with diamond or carbide. Sparse areas mean inexpensive materials, a short bur lifespan, and reduced cutting ability.

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