The next product explosion facing the nail care profession is quite obviously the now light-cured nail bonding systems, reported NAILS Magazine in September 1985. This prediction came after a dozen companies debuted their systems at the 1985 summer BBSI show, traditionally a forum for new product introductions.

As NAILS predicted, gel systems did explode into the professional nail industry, but in less than two years this hot service got cold reception from nail technicians. Ironically, it wasn’t until home gel systems soared in popularity around 1989 that gels look off again in the salon. By 1992, gels were the second fastest-growing salon service. The short, roller-coaster history of gels holds a lesson for the nail industry about technology ahead of its time and the importance of education, both for technicians and clients.


Ahead of Its Time


By the early 1980s, acrylic nails dominated the artificial extension field. Although acrylic formulations continued to improve and wraps gained in popularity, manufacturers still searched for new technologies to gain a market edge. The result was light-cured gels, a liquid form of acrylics.

One of the first professional-use light-cured gel systems was introduced by Nails by Lamp Light in 1984. The system had a swing-arm light that looked like a clip-on desk lamp. After the technician brushed on the gel, the client field her hands under the desk lamp, which had a black ultraviolet light bulb.

By 1985, other companies brought out light systems and the race was on to capture nail technicians’ business. OPI introduced a visible light system (a different spectrum of light from UV light) and Creative Nail Design came out with a hand-held fiber optic laser gun that technicians aimed at the nail to cure the gel. Even Zotos, at the time a big hair care company, ventured into nails with its Light Strokes gel system, which had a swing-arm lamp. Nailite and Ladyfingers had systems that used a desk lamp-style light, while other companies, including Brand Nails, DuBunné, IBD, Light Concept Nails, Origi-Nails, and Star Nail Products, came out with box-style lamps similar to many of today’s models.

But by 1987, gels had lost their cachet. According to Deanna Riddle-Frames, president of DuBunné (Omaha, Neb,), gels lost prominence because some companies didn’t completely understand gel technology. Gel technology was borrowed from the dental industry, and according to several manufacturers, not enough time was spent on researching the use of gels on nails. Since then, manufacturers have adjusted their formulations. Gels are now more durable, less toxic.

And while gel education is readily available today, technicians could not gel the training and education they needed in 1985. As an example of poor education, Riddle-Frakes remembers hearing one educator tell technicians to put the gel in the microwave if it was too thick (a definite no-no).

In addition, several light systems on the market couldn’t cure the curved surface of a nail, and the gels themselves were often too thick. But the biggest selling point of gels — their easy and quick application — was also the largest contributor to their downfall.

“They looked so simple,’’ saws Chris Jahn, marketing director for Star Nail Products (Valencia. Calif.). Technicians and manufacturers alike did not emphasize education for the finer points of gel application. Technicians didn’t learn at that early stage how to prepare the nail properly to prevent lifting and peeling, for example. And many clients whose skin came in contact with the product had allergic reactions. Hand-on classes and workshops just weren’t available in 1985, so technicians soon became frustrated because they couldn’t make the nails stay on.

“Everyone jumped on gels because it was a new technology and the first breakthrough in quite some time. I think that a lot of people who didn’t know too much about the nail industry jumped on the bandwagon,’’ explains Tracy Denove, marketing manager for IBD (Gardena, Calif). The big craze lasted about 18 months, she says, and only a few contenders remained by 1989. Creative Nail Design soon pulled its UV-light gel system from the market, as did Brand Nails, Ladyfingers, Origi-Nails. and Zolos. The rest stuck it out, with Nailite converting its lamp to a box-style one.


Setting the Stage


Gels didn’t lose favor completely, say manufacturers, and the slowdown in gel business actually helped set the stage for their comeback because it gave manufacturers time to research the technology and design better lamps and improve gel formulations. But no one expected the resurgence in popularity to be spurred by consumer demand.

At about the same time that professional systems debuted, gel systems were introduced to the home market by multilevel marketing companies such as Lume, Emily Rose, Neways, Attitudes, and Results, to name a few. For about $100, consumers could buy a UV-light gel system for home use. Professional nail technicians and nail manufacturers alike were outraged as consumers lined up to buy the systems.

Why did consumers go nuts over home gel systems after ignoring acrylic kits sold in drugstores? “It was the pitch,” asserts Jahn. “If you pay $50 for a set and $20 for a fill every two weeks at the salon, plus a tip, it adds up. The pitch is that if you buy this $100 system, you’ll save $500 the first year. That’s a great pitch.”

And, unlike acrylics, gels looked very easy to apply. If you could apply nail polish, consumers were told, you could apply gels. “Someone comes into your home and sells it like Tupper-ware and Amway. They show everyone how wonderful it can be. Adding it up, the savings seem enormous,” adds Nadine Galli, educator for OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif).

While dire predictions were made about the damage home manicuring was doing to the professional nail industry, in retrospect, professional gel manufacturers say home gel systems actually helped gels make a comeback in the salon.

“Short term, it did hurt the professional industry because it attempted lo take nail care out of the salon and into the home.” says Denove. Over the long term, however, Denove says home systems made the public aware of gel nails and created a desire for them in the salon.

Margie Elliott, a nail technician at Visible Changes in Ruidoso, N.M., agrees. She started doing gels when a customer told her about her own home gel system. Elliott used her client’s system, then ordered one for herself. “I had been doing manicures since 1946, and the gel system influenced me to start doing artificial nails,” she says.

If home systems had worked for consumers as well as promised, the damage to the professional industry may have been significant. But like most do-it-yourself come-ons, gels looked a lot easier to do than they really were. It wasn’t that the application itself was so difficult, but it did require good nail preparation and a skilled hand.

“Women liked the feeling of lightness and the filing was easy. Gel systems were sold to be painted on like nail polish. But the gel composition wasn’t great, the lights weren’t great, and clients didn’t have the education.” says Rose MacMillan, educator for Light Concept Nails (Hartford, Conn.). Asks MacMillan, “If the professional industry didn’t fully understand gel technology or application, how could the consumer be expected to?”

Nail technician Stacy Winick of ???? Natural in Braintree, Mass., doubts that home gel systems stole many salon clients. “People can go out and buy a system and period it, then they don’t come into salons because it’s less expensive and they don’t have to tip. But any system, be it gels or any other product, won’t give you the results that a salon can give because of the technician’s expertise,” she says. A few of Winick’s customers bought home gel systems, but they soon returned to the salon wheal they saw that their amateur nails did not look salon perfect.

Soon after home gel systems were introduced, manufacturers say that their sale’s to salons rose as we’ll. Regardless of the popularity of home systems, however, gels never would have made a comeback in salons if manufacturers hadn’t been spurred to improve the lights and gel formulations. Most manufacturers now offer a selection of gels for tip overlays, extensions, natural nail capping, polish overlays, and even colored gels for French manicures, semi-permanent nail color, and nail art.


The Other Side Speaks


Home gel systems are not dead, say the companies who sell them. Jamie Brown, owner of Neways (Napless, Fla.), says home system sales are not as strong as they were a few years ago, but she predicts that sales will be higher than ever in the next few years. Brown, who also owns a nail salon, says that professionals shouldn’t be threatened by the thought of losing salon business to home gel system users. She notes that only 6% of American women visit salons for nail services. So Neways targets that 94% who don’t visit salons. “Their are a lot of people who can’t afford to visit a salon and they never will be able to afford it. So if we can get them using the product and doing their nails at home, why not?” she asks

A former Lume representative in Southern California agrees, saying there are a lot of things that people can do themselves but choose to hire a professional to do, such as painting a house or fixing a car. She notes that painters and mechanics are not being put out of business by do-it-yourselfers. According to her, there are two distinct market segments: Women who want salon services and those who won’t go to a salon, no matter what. Even during the peak of the home system craze, she says she got calls all the time from women wanting a referral to a salon where they could get gel nails applied by a professional.

While a few companies still sell home get systems, the home market is not as susceptible to the marketing pitch as it once was says a former owner of a home gel system company. As more and more women bought the system and became disenchanted, word spread and the home gel craze died down. What technicians should note, though, is that consumers became disenchanted with the idea of doing it themselves, not the product. Any this former owner believes that there is still great potential in the home gel market if education is emphasized.

And what can’t be forgotten (though no one likes to discuss it) is that professional nail technicians also bought home gel systems for intended use in their salons. Some nail technicians were even sales representatives for the companies. There was no better saleswoman for home gel systems than a professional nail technician because she could make the nails look easy to apply and the finished product looked great.

Here To Stay

Today, gels are still good business. In NAILS Magazine’s 1992 reader survey, technicians reported that gels are the second fastest-growing service. And, while gels require a higher initial investment ($150 to $500 for a starter system) than wraps or acrylics. Denove says this has helped the service gain popularity in middle – and high-end salons because salons cannot offer the service at such deep discounts.

“Techs are so attracted to gels because this is truly a service industry and nail techs are able to capitalize on the service aspect of gels. It’s a valid service to have in the salon, and discount salons can’t compete by lowering their prices. If discount salons want to get involved, they have to make an investment in the product and the education,” says Denove.

To ensure the long-term success of gels in the salon, manufacturers emphasize the need for education. “The technique is oversimplified in the user’s eyes. It’s not as easy as it looks,” says Jahn. “We get so many troubleshooting calls about etching sealing and not getting gel on the skin. Unlike acrylic, you can’t just wipe it off the skin.”

The best lesson technicians can learn from the history of gels is that they offer service first, product second. Home gel systems proved that anyone can buy the product, but only trained, seasoned professionals can attain the look clients want.


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.

Read more about