The arrival of sculptured acrylic nails on the salon scene in the 1970s was heartily applauded by nail technicians and clients. At last, technicians could give every client strong, long-lasting, beautiful nails — and make them as long as the client wanted. Clients would have the glamour of Hollywood film stars such as Greta Garbo, who wore false nails made of a plastic putty, at their fingertips.

Acrylic was already in use in dentistry before it was ever applied to nails. “In the United States and Canada, nail technicians started experimenting with dental powders – I guess with some success or they wouldn’t have gone on,” says Laureen Wright, president of The Nail Institute and Nailtech Supply Company in Toronto.

“The nail industry’s use of acrylic came 10 years after the dental industry began using it,” says Monica L.Beckett, administrator of the Institute of Nail Technology, Pittsburgh Beauty Academy. “Those who tried the dental powder and liquid combination found that the granules were too coarse and the resulting nails were too dense. They had to file too much. It also yellowed easily. But the good thing was that this research done with the dental acrylic alerted manufacturers to the need for acrylics for the nail.”

Some of the first acrylic formulas developed for nails contained methyl methacrylate, a strong chemical later found to be hazardous. In 1974 and 1975 the FDA seized and recalled products containing methyl methacrylate, an action that caused manufacturers to refine their acrylic systems. New acrylic systems containing ethyl methacrylate, isobutyl methacrylate, and other substitutes arrived on the market.

Health and Education

Nail technicians, alerted to possible health risks surrounding the use of acrylic, sought education, not only on applying the product but also on the chemicals it contained. Unfortunately for those technicians, education was not available to the extent it is today.

“When I started, there was very little training available,” says Melodie Underwood, owner of Nails Unlimited in Charleston, South Carolina. “You would get a brochure with the product, but there were no hands-on workshops in my area. I was taught by the lady who owned the salon I worked at. In fact, I learned only by watching her and practicing on my own.”

Other salon professionals managed to find some formal training. “I took training in esthetics first, “says Wright. “ I opened an esthetics shop in a hair salon, and then clients started coming to me with fungus and nail damage. I went from there to taking training for nail applications. I also went to the States to take training. But it wasn’t enough. I was not being told the whole truth. Some of the manufacturers were more interested in selling their product than in helping you run your business. They didn’t tell you what to look out for.

“In addition, I was looking into the ingredients of the products. In esthetics, the health of the client is more important than long nails. I finally talked to my dentist and my doctor about the ingredients. The only way I found out as much as I did was by working in the field and by staying in close contact with the dentist and doctor. Training has improved over the years, but the level of training is still not where it should be.”

Nail technicians are still concerned, not only about the effects of the chemicals on the client’s skin and nails, but also how breathing chemicals released in the salon will affect their own health.

“There are a lot of people who like to do acrylics, but it’s too smelly,” says Robin Lee Sitko, owner of The Nail and Body Boutique in Rochester, Michigan. ”I’ve done them for eight years, and when you do one client after another after another, you can get dizzy and nauseous. There is not enough research on the long-term effects of using acrylics.”

Small Changes

The actual elements in an acrylic system have changed little since the product’s introduction. However, manufacturers have improved the product steadily, say nail technicians.

“Manufacturers are double-and triple-sifting powders to make the finished nail much smoother,” says Underwood. “How fine a product is is determined by how much they sift or press it. Some technicians prefer finer, some coarser. Another improvement are UV absorbers, which keep the acrylic from yellowing in the sun.”

“Manufacturers have made a tremendous improvement in acrylics, “says Jo Livingston, a nail technician at Amico’s Grand in Chicago. “Even the weight of the nail 20 years ago compared to today is night and day. Today, they’re more flexible and durable, and the client can wear them thinner.”

Application techniques have also changed – or perhaps it is better to say that there are more ways than ever to apply acrylic nails. “The technique has changed quite a bit,” Wright explains. There are so many different methods now it’s astounding. I know 12 different methods just for acrylic.”

The different types of acrylic available give the technician more choice in treating clients. “We use three different acrylics. What determines what kind we use is the nail plate,” says Underwood. “If the nail plate is oily, we use the hardest acrylic, because a harder acrylic adheres better. If the client is out in the sun a lot, we use an acrylic with high UV absorbency. But if they’re hard on their nails, I’d still use the harder acrylic. The third is a clearer acrylic for just about anybody.”

Whether technicians have asked for non-yellowing nails, extra strength, or finer powder, manufacturers have been quick to meet their demands. “There’s no way we’re going backwards,” says Livingston, “thanks to the manufacturers who have tried a product and pulled it off the market to revamp it. What worked in 1985 doesn’t work in 1991. Why? Because it’s obsolete. The same ladies who are jogging, walking the dog, and taking care of the house are the same ones who are stockbrokers and real estate agents – and they need a high quality product.”

Acrylic Alternatives

While manufacturers have improved acrylic systems, they have not completely eliminated the problems associated with acrylics. For technicians who didn’t like the odor or who had an allergic reaction to the chemicals in acrylics, odorless systems were developed. Says Livingston, “As you get older, your body chemistry changes and you can’t wear the same product you wore 15 years ago.”

Many technicians, having found that the odorless lines are not as strong as traditional acrylics and that they require a change in technique, hope that manufacturers will continue to improve odorless systems. Until then, there are other alternatives to acrylics. Some technicians have found that gels, for example, provide a good alternative.

“Gels have improved tremendously to the point that in some areas of Chicago, acrylics are obsolete,” says Livingston. “Many who used to do acrylics are switching over to gel, which is easier to apply and still gives us the feeling of creating something from nothing. We can still create our own masterpiece on a client’s nails. There is a wide range of sculpting a technician can do without acrylics.”

Some nail technicians, looking for a strong treatment with less odor than acrylics, have turned to fiberglass wraps. “Now that there’s fiberglass, it’s the first time acrylics have real competition,” says Wright. “I believe that in the next five years the market will be shared equally by acrylics and fiberglass, especially since you can sculpt nails with fiberglass. Most bright technicians will offer both for now.”

Acrylics Obsolete?

Given the advantages and disadvantages of acrylic, and the alternatives available, what lies in the future?

“Acrylics are on their way out,” says nail technician Gena Calderon of Appearance Centers of California in Hermosa Beach. “I don’t have any more acrylic clients. I learned fiberglass because that was the only treatment that would stay on the owner, so she sent me through the training. Fiberglass nails are strong and attractive and will last indefinitely if the client keeps up with fills.”

Not all technicians share Calderon’s view, however. “In the States, sculptured nails are still popular, they’re still king of the pile,” says Wright. “I think they will stay for quite a while. Nail technicians don’t want to give up the traditional acrylics. The change to fiberglass will not happen as fast as we’d like.”

“Acrylics will only get bigger,” says Underwood. For many women, acrylics will always  provide good-looking, easy-maintenance nails.”

“Acrylics, obsolete Absolutely not,” says Livingston. “Like the microwave, they’re here to stay. I don’t think there will ever be a time when we don’t use acrylics. In the Midwest, acrylics are not as big as in New York or Los Angeles, so they’ll be around while we’re catching up.”

Livingston thinks the manufacturers themselves will eventually create the system that will keep acrylics on the market indefinitely. “We are going toward a futuristic nail: one that’s thin, hard, and so natural looking no one can tell it’s artificial,” she says. “Our clients are into doing things that are healthy. Even though the nails are artificial, we want them to feel and look as natural as possible. This is forcing companies to develop products that look as close to natural as possible.”

Livingston continues, “What will be obsolete are fungi and mold caused by acrylic and porcelain-based products. In the next five years acrylics are going to have to work very fast, so that it will take not even 45 minutes to complete a set. Some manufacturers have gels in colors – they may even make acrylics in colors.”

Perhaps the best way to enhance an acrylic service is to provide it along with alternatives. “The nail technician should know as many methods and products as she can,” says Wright. “One system is not good for everyone. When there are allergies or problems, you’re wiser to have an alternative. You can say ‘This is not working. Let’s try something else, instead of ‘too bad.’ It’s important to expand on knowledge and technique.”

“If a client can no longer wear acrylics,” says Livingston, “the technician with a wide repertoire can say, ‘Great! It’s time for us to change. Here are your choices.’ We have that choice today. We didn’t have it five years ago.”

While attitudes about acrylics are changing and nail technicians are offering a variety of services, acrylic systems are still very popular among nail technicians, and show signs of continuing to be popular. “I enjoy doing acrylics. It takes talent and lots of practice.” says Sitko.

Adds Livingston, “There are still millions of women who are not wearing acrylic nails for a reason. They may not be informed, or they may be getting regular manicures. All you need is one lady who’s never worn acrylic nails to get an excellent job and she’ll tell her friends. It’s like getting engaged: You tell the whole world about it.” And that, she says, gives rise to a new generation of women who wear acrylics.

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