The cliché, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” does not apply to acrylic powders. There are fine, medium-fine, and coarse powders; some apply very smoothly, others require a wet consistency, while others are used very dry.
Acrylic powders are a blend of polymethacrylates, which are polymers that are soluble only in monomers, says Scott Hanrahan, chemist for Forsythe Cosmetic Group (Lawrence N.Y.).
Different grades of methacrylates have different characteristics. For example, some are hard, others are softer and more flexible, and their setting time also varies, he explains.
One way to classify acrylic powders is by their particle size. According to Doug Schoon, chemist and owner of Chemical Awareness Training Service (Newport Beach, Calif.), the particle size of an acrylic powder determines its workability. “There is a slower pick-up and a drier consistency with large particles. With finely ground particles, there’s a much faster pick-up and a wetter consistency because the powder absorbs the liquid faster,” he explains.
If the particle size is too small, the powder has poor strength and poor adhesive properties. On the other hand a powder with too large a particle size can create a dry, doughy mixture that doesn’t dissolve well, says Schoon. The perfect balance: a particle size that is not too small or too large.
Powder particles are measured in microns and range from as big as 125 microns to as small as 25 microns (for comparison’s sake, a human hair is 125 microns thick).
Says Hanrahan, “An important quality of the product is the ability of the powder and liquid to make a cohesive blend without lumps or undissolved particles. A large particle size requires the nail technician to work the mixture a little bit more. With a smaller particle size, there is very little filing because the powder is completely dispersed in the monomer.”
Some manufacturers sift the powder to eliminate clumps and particles that are too large. Sifting acrylic powder is much the same process as sifting four – the powder is run through a mesh screen to remove large particles and achieve a finely ground product.
Says Trish Phelan, a nail technician at Panaché (Mt. Laurel, N.J.), “The finer the grind is, the smoother it will go on and the less filing will be needed. It’s like making gravy, you don’t want to use a lumpy flour, but a finely sifted one.”
Sometimes a manufacturer will put the powders through the mesh a few times and these are called double-sifted or triple-sifted powders. How many times you need to sift the powder depends on its initial quality, says Schoon.
“Triple-sifting ensures that no undissolved particles or grains are left behind,” says April Cook, national education/sales director for Amoresse Laboratories (Riverside, Calif.).
Fine-ground powders that have been sifted more than once allow technicians to apply thinner nails. Says Billy Wooldridge, educator for Alpha 9 (Van Nuys, Calif.) “Product goes on more smoothly because it’s finely ground, so less filing is needed. It used to be that the thicker the nail, the stronger it was. But with triple-sifting, you get a thinner nail with more flexibility.”
Flexibility in a nail is important. “The benefits of a softer-core acrylic powder is clear when a client bangs her nail. Instead of cracking or shattering, the nail will remain flexible and will move or bend, while still retaining its strength and durability,” says Pat VanStrander, educator for OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.).
Even with their small particle size, refined powders are very durable. “The finer the grit is, the more thorough bonding and better control and durability of the product,” says Pattie LaValle, corporate educator for Tom Holcomb Products (Corona, Calif.). While this is true to a point, says Schoon, a powder with the consistency of tale would be a nightmare to work with.
Jan Zielinski, national educator SuperNail (Los Angeles, Calif.), adds, “Regardless of consistency, a good powder will provide a nice, durable surface. But the finer the powder is, the more smoothly it goes on.”
Arlene Homaidan, vice president of Princess Nail Products (Hesperia, Calif.) agrees: “Ultrafine powders yield an extremely smooth finish. As a result, less filing is needed.”
Since different powder consistencies affect a technician’s technique, Suzan Sorensen, a nail technician at Michelle’s Nails (Redondo Beach, Calif.), prefers to use a finer powder because it is easier to work with. A coarser powder requires a lot more buffing and filing to get that smooth, finished look, she says.
Reduced filing is also a benefit for the salon environment. Says Cook, “Less filing creates less dust, which provides a healthier, more comfortable workplace for the nail technician and her client.”
Renee Soares, owner of Nails Beyond Belief (Fairhaven, Mass.), believes that new technicians will want to work with a finer powder since it requires less filing. “I really don’t have a preference and can pretty much work with anything,” she admits. “Once you get your technique down, it’s a matter of personal choice.”
And the personal choice for Debra Riley, owner of Academy Nails (Charlotte, N.C.), is a medium-grind powder. “I like it because it has more retention and beautiful, smooth control. For me, fine-grind powders aren’t strong enough to hold up for sculpting nails, but they’re great for fill-ins because they go on smooth, wet, and fast,” she says.
Some technicians choose to use a self-leveling powder. “There is little filing needed with a self-leveling powder, which is usually a more refined powder,” says Corie Lefkowitz, director of education for Star Nail Products (Valencia, Calif.). Self-leveling means that when the product is applied, it will actually start to move on its own and the technician simply directs the product where she wants it to go.
“Self-leveling cuts your sculpting time in half because it allows half of your work to be done for you,” says Lefkowitz.
Once a technician has achieved a certain level of proficiency in her sculpting skills, she may opt to use a fast-setting powder to cut down her sculpting time.
According to the educational department at NSI (W. Conshohocken, Pa.), “The chemical formulation and controlled particle sizing is what makes a fast-setting powder different from a traditional acrylic powder.”
Fast-setting acrylic powders are very finely ground powders that do not run, says Jayne Waynick, educator for Galaxy Nail Products (Huntington Beach, Calif.). “When you pick up the powder with the liquid, it will spread on the nail, but you can gently guide it into place.” It also remains flexible while it’s setting, dries smoother, and is easier to file out, she adds.
Says Soares, “Regardless of whether or not you use a fast-setting powder, it all comes back down to your filing technique.” What’s going to cut down your time the most, she says, is proper placement of the product and the condition of the client’s nails.
Riley concurs: “You need to sculpt with your brush and not with your file, and there is a lot less filing if you know how to apply the product with your brush.” Riley prefers not to use fast-setting powders because they don’t give her enough time to do her best artistic work. But when she’s in a hurry and needs to do a quick repair on a client, she uses a fast set-system.
For Phelan, fast-setting powders aren’t her cup of tea. She explains: “They set up too quickly and you don’t have enough time to work with them if you need to restructure the nail.”
Pamela Taylor-Hudnall, marketing/operations and educator for Tammy Taylor Nails (Irvine, Calif.), says the good thing about a fast-setting powder is that it gives a more proficient technician the opportunity to use a powder that matches her speed.
Although a fast-setting powder is easy to apply, VanStrander doesn’t recommend it to beginners because it sets up a lot quicker than traditional powders and there’s less time to work with it.
Sorensen agrees: “I think new technicians are not going to be quick enough to work with a product that sets up fast. They need to use something they can play around with.”
Waynick offers a different viewpoint and says, “The best thing for a student to do is use what she like and master that. If she starts out using a slower setting powder and she wants to go to a faster setting one, she will have to relearn her technique.
“For students, the fast-setting powders are good because all they have to do is use a little more liquid and the powder files out easier, which is one of the most difficult parts of the service,” she adds.
The temperature of the liquid and powder can also have an effect on how fast a product will set up, says Taylor-Hudnall. The hotter it is, the faster it will set up, and the colder it is, the slower it will set up. “You can change the temperature of the liquid by placing the bottle in a bowl of hot or cold water, and you can heat up the powder by placing it under the lamp at your station.,” she suggests. Don’t put products in the microwave or on top of a furnace because they could overheat and explode.
Also, take care where you store products. “Acrylic powder needs to be stored in a cool, dry place, such as a cabinet or drawer, away from the liquid, because even if both products are tightly sealed and they are stored next to each other, the fumes from the liquid will get into the powder and form a crust over the top,” says Taylor-Hudnall.
A seasoned technician has had plenty of opportunity to test different powders to see what works best for her and her clients. What Phelan looks for in a powder is ease of application, color, how well it stays on the nail, its durability, and how well it holds up in the winter, which is a good test because a lot of products will crack in cold weather, she says.
Riley looks for color stability, flexibility, and great retention. She likes the acrylic system she uses because all of the components go together – the right primer with the right liquid. “You’re safe when you use one system because you’re not mismatching different systems, which can be dangerous because you don’t know if the chemicals are compatible,” she warns.
Flexibility is the preference for Sorenson. “I don’t want something that is going to set up quickly, because I want enough time to work with it in case I get too much on the brush and need extra time.” The benefits of the system she uses is that it doesn’t crystallize or harden too fast. “I can use it real wet and it moves around on the nail easily,” she adds.
For Soares, the best acrylic would be one that looks like clear polish on the natural nail, but is as durable and non-yellowing as a high-quality acrylic. “Clients are getting choosier,” she says. “They want the best of both worlds – an acrylic that looks as natural as possible, but they also want durability.
Since there are so many acrylic powder and liquid systems available, a new technician has a pretty tough time deciding which one is right for her. Phelan recommends a powder that applies easily and requires minimal filing. Riley suggests a powder that has good flow and controllability.
To find the powder that’s right for you, Soares recommends new technicians look for a good salon owner who will teach her the ropes and help her understand the variety of products. Another route, says Soares, is for a beginning technician to contact as many companies as possible and to attend manufacturers classes to see what product works best for her. She should test different powders on friends and family and on a plastic practice sheet or practice hand.
Whatever route your search for the perfect powder takes you, make sure you don’t jump from powder to powder while sticking with the same liquid. Manufacturers create powders and liquids that work together as a system, and you should use them that way. Otherwise, you could encounter product allergies, unforeseen chemical reactions, and liability for any injuries resulting from mixing one manufacturer’s powders with another’s liquid.
In order for a nail technician to select the powder that best suits her, she needs to know and understand their different formulations and features. Only then can she truly master the art of sculpting.
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