The Science Behind a Great Manicure

sns-nails-finalIt all began when one of our Quality Support Interns, Hannah, came to work with a really nice manicure, I mean really nice. When complimenting her nails I learned that she had them done with a new method that involves a dipping powder system. It was vastly different than any sort of manicure I’ve experienced before, so naturally I became curious. It’s not gels, it’s not fake nails, and it’s not normal nail polish. It also boasts being healthier for finger nails. It didn’t take long to determine that the Polymer Solutions blog team needed to experience this technology in person, to adequately understand it (a good excuse for a manicure, right?). So with that, we headed over to Nail Envy in Christiansburg, VA for a manicure with SNS dipping powder. 

When we arrived we picked out colors from a swatch because the container of powder doesn’t do justice to the final results. Then, the three step process of painting and dipping began. Each nail was first coated with a clear gel base then dipped into the container of powder, within moments it was dry. Each finger was painted and dipped between four and five times. Lastly, a gel top coat was added to finish the process and create the shine. It was a quick process with gorgeous results.

One of the value adds of this process is the claim that it is much healthier for nails than acrylic or gel polish options. From an aesthetic perspective this type of manicure results in a natural feel that has a durable glossy finish. The SNS Nails website boasts that this technology has been around for 20 years; however, this was new to us. At $40 a manicure it was pricier than other options but did last a solid two weeks and deliver on the promise of a healthy nail bed underneath.

I wanted to better understand nail polish technology so I went online and obtained the Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for the powder system components as well as a random acrylic nail polish and a gel nail polish. I asked one of our scientists, Dr. Alan Sentman, to review the SDSs with me and explain the underlying polymer technology.

Let’s start with good old fashioned nail polish, the kind you buy at a department store and apply at home. According to the SDS we reviewed, nitrocellulose is the polymer dissolved in solvent. This particular polish also had a sunscreen and a plasticizer. The plasticizer makes it less brittle and the sunscreen helps protect the color against UV exposure and subsequent fading. When the nail polish is applied the solvent evaporates, leaving behind the polymer layer. This is why it smells so strongly of chemicals when you first apply nail polish but over time the smell goes away. This type of nail polish is fairly low maintenance because it can be applied and removed at home, but it doesn’t have the staying power of the other options. For me, one or two days are all it takes to develop chips and damage.

Next, we reviewed a gel based nail polish. I’ve never had this type of manicure because it requires removal in the nail salon and I just don’t want to make time for that. It is also really harsh on fingernails, which has further deterred me from this style of manicure. From my discussion with Dr. Sentman I learned the particular polish we reviewed contains five different types of monomers, which are small molecules capable of reacting to form polymers. There was also a photoreactant within the mixture, which is the initiator. When the nail polish is painted on and exposed to UV light it cures and forms a polymer. You could describe the initiator as the “spark plug” of this nail polish technology. This is why you must get gel nail polish applied at a nail salon, it requires a UV light. It also requires a special removal process. Online forums suggest it can be done at home but indicate lots of filing and soaking in pure acetone for 30 minutes is required.

Lastly, we reviewed the powder system. There were 3 different SDSs to review because this is a multi-component manicure. The base coat, used prior to dipping, turns out to be a super glue substance with vitamin E and vitamin B5. This clarifies why there was nearly no drying time—super glue is super speedy when it comes to drying. The powder contains poly(methyl methacrylate), pigment, and benzoyl peroxide. The benzoyl peroxide is the initiator, which is a common initiator in many industrial polymer systems. The top coat does not have any polymer in it; it is a solvent and a polymerization accelerator. Therefore, there are two systems used in this type of application. The first is the superglue used to stick the powder to the nail until the second reaction occurs, which is the top coat. Interestingly enough, Dr. Sentman identified that the powder and the top coat contain three chemicals that are also used within bone cement. This type of manicure can be removed at home because although super glue is very strong it does have one weakness (it’s kryptonite, if you will) and that is acetone. Acetone is what is found in normal at-home nail polish remover, making removal hassle free, compared to gel manicures.

While the powder system of a manicure is more expensive than the other options it did last a solid two weeks with no chips, scratches, or dings. My nails were also put through the ringer because I’m the mother of two small children and I do a lot of dishes and hand washing. I also like that my nails were not damaged in the process and it was a low maintenance removal process. It was fascinating to learn more about polymer systems, in the context of nail polish technology. I love the way our everyday lives are impacted by great science.