The Science of Nails

Top Coats: The Crowning Glory

Nail technician want to dry polish fast, showcase it with a glossy shine, and preserve it with a durable finish. Can a top coat do all this?

Nail technicians want a top coat that will prevent polish from discoloring, chipping, and peeling; keep polish looking fresh longer; make nails harder; and prevent nails from yellowing. They want an affordable top coat with a long shelf life and no unpleasant odor. But most­ly, they want a fast-drying, long-lasting top coat with a high-gloss shine.

Is all of this possible? Yes, to a point, say the marketers and chemists we interviewed. The "perfect" top coat — one that dries in just minutes to a high gloss and prevents polish from wearing and chip­ping between services — doesn't exist yet, but there are many top coats on the mar­ket that come close.

"Technology has improved so much over the years that it is possible to have a faster-drying top coat without compromis­ing too much on wear and durability," says Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, executive vice pres­ident of OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.). Still, she adds, marketers have to decide what they want most from the top coat, then strive for that.

For example, European Touch Co. (Butler, Wis.) kept getting complaints from technicians who said they couldn't find a top coat that worked well in warmer climates. So the company came up with Express Dry, which was formulated specifically not to bubble and peel in warmer, humid climates. As an added bonus, they heard from nail technicians who said the top coat worked great as a nail art sealer, says Karen Raasch, direc­tor of international accounts.

Instead of answering one need, other manufacturers choose to address several needs. Pro Finish (Scottsdale, Ariz.), for ex­ample, offers three different top coat for­mulations; U.V. System, which the company says provides the best durability and allows the nail technician to provide a drying "service" that she can charge for; Heat Coat, which provides a durable, high gloss shine without the use of a light; and Ai Dry, which offers the benefits of a fast drying top coat yet is not quite as durable a the company's U.V, System.

Says Lynn Hayes Granger, vice president of advertising and marketing for Orly International (Chatsworth, Calif.), "It's always striking a balance between what you most want it to do without going so far that you give up too much in other areas."

Each function of a top coat require-different chemical, and each chemical affects the other chemicals and their functions. For example, says Granger, product is super flexible and durable, it might not dry as fast. If it dries really fast it might not be as flexible, making it more likely to chip. Making the top coat gloss might make the liquid thick and difficult to brush on, while a more durable, harder, top coat may not adhere to the nail as well.

As a result, manufacturers say they often sacrifice one or two characteristics so that their top coat can "deliver the goods" on another characteristic. Meanwhile, experimentation with new ingredients and combinations of chemicals is encouraging. The result is beneficial to the nail tech­nician, who can choose from a vari­ety of top coats, each of which of­fers unique properties.

Three Basic Ingredients Make a Top Coat

Top coals owe their existence to the automobile industry. Once a car was painted, it needed a glossy finishing coat to bring out the paints color. If the finishing coat helped the paint dry fasten' and helped protect it from scratching, all the better.

The first top coats for nails were basically clear nail enamel de­signed to give polish more shine. Colored polish absorbs light and can appear dull once it dries. Also, polish wears off over time as the nails brush up against objects. With a clear top coat, the top coat wears off first, protecting the color. As the nail industry grew and tech­nicians' demands became more so­phisticated, top coat makers exper­imented with new formulations that offered more than protection and shine.

All nail coatings — whether they are base coats, colored polishes, or top coats — contain many of the same ingredients. Manufacturers may exchange one chemical for a similar one or vary the ratio of the same ingredients. Some may add property-enhancing ingredients such as plasticizers or yellowing inhibitors. But as with acrylic systems and many other nail products, most top coats contain the same basic ingredients.

The three basic ingredients in a top coat are polymers, a plasticizer, and solvents.

A film-forming polymer is a fancy way of saying "this will level to form a film coating that will be one con­tinuous piece." The polymer film is what's left on the nail after all the solvents evaporate. The more poly­mers, the more durable the top coat. Mixtures containing copoly­mers (two or more polymers) tend to be more durable top coats than homopolymers (only one polymer).

Additional polymers affect the strength, adhesion, and gloss of a top coat. Polymers absorb everyday shocks and improve the durability of the topcoat.

Plasticizers add flexibility, and solvents affect the spread-ability and drying time. A top coat may contain 50%-75% solvents. A mix­ture of several solvents can he used in a single top coat to control flow and drying time. At the same time, different solvents evaporate at dif­ferent rates. If a top coat contains more than one solvent, the manu­facturer has to ensure the different rates of evaporation between sol­vents don't cause the polish to wrinkle or bubble as it dries.

Additives Help Prevent Yellowing

Other top coat additives may in­clude pigments, thickeners, preservatives, stabilizers, and fra­grances. Some solvents and chem­icals in heat-cured and light-cured top coats have an unpleasant odor. Xylene and naptha are solvents added to minimize odors.

Nitrocellulose is a good resin, and most manufacturers use it in their top coats. Still, nitrocellulose, which is chemically related to paper, yellows over time when ex­posed to sunlight. Accordingly, benzophenone may be added to absorb UV light and stave off yel­lowing; pigments also may be added to counteract yellowing.

Seche Vite, one of the newer generation of quick-drying top coats, contains cellulose acetate butyrate resin ((JAB), a synthetic rel­ative of nitrocellulose, which the company says won't yellow. In fact, Seche received a U.S. patent on its top coat in July 1992. Since Seche . Vite has a different chemical composition from polish, the selling fea­ture of the product is that it can be applied over wet polish without dragging. Bill Martens, president of Seche International, Inc. (Laguna Beach. Calif.) explains:  "Most top coats are clear, fast-drying polish. Seche Vite is totally different. Ap­plying other top coats over polish is like brushing glue on top of glue — it'll drag. Seche Vite won't do that."

What Makes a True Top Coat?

A top coat, as its name implies, is the final coat of product you apply on the nails. The most basic top coat is nail polish without pig­ments (which arc what give polish color). Nail polish, whether clear or colored, contains solvents. As the solvents evaporate from clear polish, the clear film remains. When all the solvents have evapo­rated, the polish is dry enough to withstand abrasion and rubbing. Colored polish can take hours to dry completely, while clear polish can dry in just minutes.

A "true" top coat seals polish and helps prevent it from chipping, wearing, and yellowing. It also adds gloss and durability. How fast it dries is a different matter, and is the factor that spurred manufacturers to refine their top coat formula­tions. For example, explains Jan Arnold, president, Creative Nail Design Systems (Vista, Calif.) Speedey top coat sets polish in about two minutes because the top coat contains a high proportion of sol­vents. The company's other top coat, Super Shiney; takes longer to dry be­cause it contains a higher percent­age of solids. Its virtue, she says, is that it lasts longer on the nail and has a higher gloss. "We recommend that technicians use Super Shiney during the service and retail Speedey to clients to use every few days to give their manicure a lift. Speedey is so thin and last-setting it won't soften the layers of polish," explains Arnold.

As technology has advanced, many marketers have reformulated their top coats altogether to do more than just dry the polish and add shine. According to their man­ufacturers, these products actually leave the polish harder and significantly increase wearability.

These top coats are also chemi­cally different. While early top coats were clear polish, the new genera­tion of top coats contain monomers that polymerize, says Debra Mar-Leisy, Ph.D., director of research and development (or International Beauty Design (Gardena, Calif.). Polymerization creates a harder, more durable finish, says Mar-Leisy.

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A professional who practices nail care; in most U.S. states there are educational and licensing requirements to become a nail technician.
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