Almost all clients, whether they choose artificial extensions or a natural manicure, leave the salon wearing nail polish. To many clients, nail polish represents the whole service- no matter what else you do. You could spend an hour building, shaping, and buffing the nails, but the work is wasted in the client’s eyes if the polish has even a minor flow.

How polish holds up after the client leaves the salon is crucial. As far as she’s concerned, her nails no longer look good once the high gloss fades and the polish wears or chips. And your professional service quickly becomes less valuable to her if the polish chips away just a few days after her appointment.

Technicians are constantly looking for the best product - a fast-drying polish that has a high-gloss and a durable finish that will resist peeling, wearing, chipping, and yellowing between appointments.

As the service provider and salesperson, nail technicians need to evaluate polishes before they use them on clients. In this installment of NAILS Encyclopedia, we help technicians understand the varieties of nail polishes and expected performance by explaining what polish is made of, how these ingredients work together, and how to choose the right polish to use and sell in their salon.

A Mix of Ingredients

Polish contains seven basic ingredients, each serving a specific purpose in how polish works -brushability, adhesion, durability, high gloss, wear resistance, or a fast drying time. This beauty concoction has endured for more than 50 years.

The main ingredient in nail polish is nitrocellulose, which is wood pulp that has been ground extremely fine. Nitrocellulose is used because it quickly releases solvents - allowing polish to dry fast - and forms a durable film on the nail.

Resin is combined with nitrocellulose to make it more flexible. Resin increases nitrocellulose’s tensile strength (resistance to tearing) and makes polish adhere better to the nail. Together, nitrocellulose and resin form a hard, strong film with good sticking power. Toluenesulfonamide formaldehyde resin is most commonly used because it is very strong and has no color. Formaldehyde-free polishes substitute polyester resin or toluenesulfonamide epoxy resin.

A plasticizer is added to the nitrocellulose and resin to reduce shrinkage of the film and to reduce shrinkage of the film and to make dry polish more flexible and bendable - more like pliable plastic than like glass. Dibutyl phthalate is a plasticizer commonly used in polish. Without plasticizer, polish would be much more likely to chip.

Solvents dissolve nitrocellulose and resin into a liquid, allowing the mixture to be brushed on the nail. Without solvents, polish would be a thick, gluey liquid. Butyl acetate and ethyl acetate are the most common solvents found in polish.

Brushability and drying time depend on the evaporation of solvents: if they evaporate too slowly, the polish will take a long time to dry. If the solvents evaporate too quickly, the brush will drag as you apply polish. Manufacturers use at least two solvents for greater control of drying time.

Diluents are added as an inexpensive way to dilute the polish and to control drying time. They evaporate from the polish like solvents. Toluene and isopropyl alcohol are two common diluents used in nail polish. Diluents differ from solvents in that they do not dissolve polish solids; they only work with solvents to control the drying time.

Pigments are what give polish its color. The thousands of nail polish shades available are all made from eight colored pigments: deep blue, yellow, red, blue-red, orange-red, purple, and umber. For  opaqueness and depth, the pigments are mixed with white and black.

Frosted or opalescent polishes also contain nacreous pigments, which are derived from mother-of-pearl. The pigments give dry polish its luster and sheen. Guanine (a natural material made from fish scales) bismuth oxychloride (a synthetic pearl material), and titanium-coated mica (a mineral silicate commonly found in lava or metamorphic rocks) can be added to give frosted polishes their pearly luster and sheen.

A suspension gel is added to the mixture to suspend pigments, which are so heavy they would settle to the bottom of the bottle if there was nothing to support them. Stearalkonium hectorite, a suspension gel derived from clay, breaks up into extremely small particles when forcefully mixed with the other ingredients. Under the microscope, these clay particles resemble little fuzzy balls and form a network of small fibers that suspend the pigments.

Most manufacturers add ultraviolet light inhibitors to protect polish color from yellowing and fading. Without them, clear polish can yellow, and pink shades can darken.

Some companies also include additives in polish, such as protein or amino acids, to strengthen natural nails. Additives and other treatments may act as a temporary armor for the natural nail, but they have no lasting effect on nail health. Because the nail plate is composed of dead keratin, it is unresponsive to additives. To act as strengtheners, additives must be applied directly to the natural nail. They cannot permeate artificial overlays or even base coats.   

Tides of Change

Like just about every other product available, nail polish has been under fire for supposed health risks, Formaldehyde has been attacked and toluene is being quietly phased out in California, effective in 1992.

Formaldehyde is a commonly used preservative, most widely associated with embalming. The chemical has many other uses, however, including its use as a nail polish resin. The FDA’s Cosmetics division says there is no health risk from exposure to formaldehyde in nail polish because it is molecularly bonded (forming a chain) with another chemical. Formaldehyde, says the FDA, only poses a risk when it is not bonded with other chemicals.

After all the media attention, however, many manufacturers have switched to formaldehyde free nail polish, substituting a polyester resin for toluenesulfonamide formaldehyde resin. The change has not swept the market because formaldehyde-free polish does not adhere as well as traditional polishes that do contain formaldehyde resin.

Formaldehyde-free polishes are good news for the small percentage of the population that is allergic to formaldehyde. If a client is allergic to formaldehyde, use formaldehyde-free polish. In California, another polish ingredient is being brought before the public eye.

Effective in 1992, warning labels must be put on products containing toluene that are made or sold in California as part of Proposition 65, a low that regulates hazardous chemicals. Because toluene is a suspected carcinogen, manufacturers must either substitute another diluents or print warning labels on polish diluents for sale in California.

Know Its Limits

Despite the intense research and development that goes into a manufacturer’s polish formula, nail technicians complain about thickened polish, thin coverage, chipping, or slow drying.

The perfect polish is unavailable at this time. Meanwhile, manufacturers strive to find a formulation with as many desirable qualities as possible. It’s a delicate balance. For example, manufacturers could make polish dry faster, but then it would be brittle and more likely to chip. Better adhesion could also be possible if more resin were added, but then it would take days, instead of hours, to dry completely.

Changing the amount of nitrocellulose, resin, or plasticizer in the formula alters the film’s qualities. While all polishes dry and adhere to the nail, how fast they dry and how well they adhere can vary. Gloss, wear, and durability can also be affected by altering the formulation.

Polish marketers develop brand loyalty by giving technicians what they want. So many polish lines are popular because not all technicians want, or expect, the same performance from their polish. Some want polish to dry fast, others want it to last. One may want one coat coverage, while another prefers to apply two thin coats.

Understanding how polish ingredients work together and what you can expect from nail polish prepares you to sift through manufacturers’ claims and make informed purchases. How the polish looks as the client leaves the salon, and how it holds up between appointments, greatly influences how she feels about paying for nail services.


Protecting Your Investment

Nail polish sells to the salon for anywhere from 75c to $2.75 per bottle (costing from 1c to 4c per client). This doesn’t seem very expensive until you consider how many colors you stock for services plus what you buy for retailing. Because nail polish has a limited shelf life, you should buy only what you need for services; don’t overstock your retail section.

Manufacturers will tell you that polish has a shelf life of nine months to one year, but you must remember that if the polish is held by the manufacturer for a month and then sits on a distributors shelf for another two months, you have to use it or sell it within six months. If it takes you three months to turn over your retail polish stock, the client may have as little as three months to use the polish.

Not all polishes have the same shelf life. Cream polishes last longer than frosted polishes and dark colors last longer than light colors. This is because titanium dioxide (white pigment) and pearlescents (nacreous pigments) are much heavier than darker pigments. The added weight of these pigments makes the suspension gel break down, allowing the polish to separate. Because dark, cream shades contain little white pigment and no nacreous  pigment, they last significantly longer, up to two years.

Technically, polish never really spoils unless the bottle is not properly sealed and the solvents evaporate. More often, the pigments separate and settle to the bottom. Once you shake it up, the color mixes back in and it looks just like before - temporarily.

During manufacture, suspension gel is mixed into the polish with great force. You can’t mimic this high force by shaking the bottle in the salon, so the pigments will never fully re enter suspension. If you shake well before each use, it will probably perform adequately, but you can never again completely disperse the pigment.

To get the maximum shelf life, store polish in a dark, cool place in the salon. Keep retail displays away from windows and heat vents. Heat quickens solvent release, causing polish thickening even if the bottle is tightly sealed. Also, polish expands when exposed to heal, which can cause the bottles to explode. You can put polish in the refrigerator to preserve it, but let it warm to room temperature before application.

Always keep polish tightly capped. The solvents in polish evaporate  when exposed to air, thickening the polish and making it difficult if not impossible, to brush on the nail. If this happens, add a drop of polish thinner to lower the viscosity. Don’t add more than a drop or two because too much thinner will make the polish streak on application. Use a polish thinner because it contains the same solvents used in polish - ethyl acetate and butyl acetate. Never use acetone because it will break down polish, just as it does when you remove polish from the nail.


Packaging Appeal

When choosing your polish line, don’t ignore the packaging. You’ll spend a lot of time holding the bottle, so make sure it’s not too heavy or unwieldy. The cap should fit in your grip with smooth edges that don’t cut into your fingers and should have a textured finish that won’t be slippery. The brush’s bristles should be firmly attached and straight. Bent bristles or bristles that fall out will make the polish streak.

Most polish bottles are made from glass. While the bottle, doesn’t affect quality or performance, the customers first impression is formed at a glance. If she’s impressed, her eye is pulled to the product. If not, she will move on.

The grade of glass used to hold polish can make colors look more appealing. Rippled, low-grade distorts colors and can make the polish look unevenly colored. Look for a bottle that has even distribution of glass. Is one side thicker than another? Does the bottom have an even thickness?

Some companies go one step further with packaging efforts by boxing their polishes. Boxes are effective because they’re unique and arouse clients’ curiosity. You should display samples out of their boxes so customers can browse without having to open every box to look at colors.

Once you’ve narrowed down your polish choices to two or three lines, look at what else the companies offer you. Is there a phone number you can call with questions? Do they guarantee to have colors available on demand? Can you return product if you’re not satisfied? Can you sample the polish before purchasing it? Additionally, some companies will let you exchange polish if it separates or if a color is unpopular.

It’s not necessary to have a selection of 500 colors, but a good-sized collection of appealing colors is a must. Ask if the same colors are always available and whether the company introduces collections on seasonal basis. Some clients pick one color and wear it forever, so you should be able to reorder favorites as necessary. Seasonal collections widen client’s selection and can help revive retail sales for clients who want to collect new favorites.


Evaluating Polish

Nail polish should last seven to 10 days on natural nails, and about two weeks on artificial extensions. Formaldehyde-free polishes do not wear as well as formaldehyde polishes, and should only be expected to last four to five days on natural nails, and 10 to 12 days on artificial extensions.

Always try before you buy. Several companies offer samples upon request, and you can try polish on your own nails at many trade shows. Test polishes adheres exceptionally well to artificial products because artificial nails are non-porous and do not flex like the natural nail. Natural nails challenge a polish’s adhesion and wear resistance properties because they are porous, moist, and flexible - all factors that stress polish.

Examine the polish’s total performance. It should flow smoothly onto the nail, neither dragging the brush nor running across the nail. The first coat should cover the nail without streaking, even if it is a thin, transparent coat. A second coat should give total coverage with a smooth finish. The top layer of polish should be dry enough to leave the salon within five to 10 minutes, although it will take about eight hours for it to harden completely.

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