Nail care, like hair care, is one of the crossroads where health and beauty meet. There are many different nail treatments and each has its pros and cons. While this list is by no means complete, the most common treatments include traditional polish, Soft and Hard Gel Coats, Dip Powder Coats and Acrylic Coats. Here is a look at each type of treatment, including application, removal, how long the treatment lasts and some of the health and safety concerns of each.
Traditional Nail Polish
The simplest and cheapest nail treatment is a coating of traditional nail polish. This can be done either at home or in a salon. It can last for up to ten days with the proper prep work. Drying time is about ten to fifteen minutes per coat.
This is a good solution for someone who wants to change colors often or who is on a limited budget. One of the downsides is that chips in the polish can occur within a day or two of application.
Traditional nail polish contains limited amounts of some pretty harsh chemicals. Fortunately, there is no clear evidence that such limited exposure is harmful. For those who are concerned, there are special nail polishes known as “five-free” that do not contain the chemicals of greatest concern. These include formaldehyde, toluene, dibuytl phthalate, formaldehyde resin and camphor.
Traditional nail polish air dries on its own in about ten to fifteen minutes depending on the thickness of the coat. It can easily be removed with nail polish removers that may or may not include acetone. Acetone is the chemical most commonly associated with nail polish removal. Some people are sensitive to acetone, so it’s best to keep it on the nails and off the skin as much as possible when removing polish.
Soft Gel Coats
For those who want a slightly longer-lasting nail treatment, soft gel nail coats may be the best option. Like all gel coats, they dry quickly under UV or LED with UV lights. They last between ten days and two weeks and can be applied and removed at home. They can be removed using acetone and do not require any potentially damaging filing of the nail before application. For those who want to change colors a bit less frequently, soft gel coats can be a good solution.
A soft gel coat is…well….softer. It isn’t strong enough to be used to extend the length of the nail and it can’t protect the nail from bending or breaking. It is more porous and thus more vulnerable to exposure to harsh chemicals. This can be an issue for those who work in the beauty or cleaning industries. One advantage of the soft gel coat is that it can be removed with acetone. The removal process may irritate the skin but isn’t likely to cause any damage to the nail. For tips on safe removal, see Dermatologist’s secret for removing gel nail polish at home (aad.org)
Hard Gel Coats
Hard gel coats are much harder than soft gel coats and can last up to three weeks. They also dry quickly under UV or LED with UV lights. As they cure under the lights, however, the curing process can create a “heat spike” that may be somewhat uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, hard gel coats must be filed off, as they are too hard to be removed by simply soaking in acetone. The removal process must be done very carefully in order to avoid damage to the nails. This means that this job is best left to a professional manicurist.
A hard gel coat is strong enough to support extending the nail and it can also help protect the nail from bending or breaking. The coat is so hard that it is impervious to most chemicals and can protect the nail from exposure to harsh cleaning products and other substances.
The Trouble with UV Lights
Both hard and soft gel coats require light to cure, and even LED curing lights give off some UV radiation. With enough exposure, UV radiation can increase the risk of skin cancer and cause premature aging of the skin. These risks can be minimized by protecting your hands while under the light. You can wear fingerless gloves or waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50.
Dip Powder Coats
Dip powder coats last as long as hard nail coats and don’t require any special light to cure. They air dry in fifteen to thirty minutes per coat. They are applied using layers of glue sprinkled with a coating of colored, powdered, acrylic.
Dip powder coats are very hard but can be removed by soaking in acetone after some light filing of the outside of the coat. This means that they can be both applied and removed at home.
When having a dip powder coating done by a professional, be sure that no “double dipping” occurs. In other words, make sure that the manicurist does not dip the brush into a large container of powder that has been used for other customers. Instead, the powder should be poured into a second, smaller container that is thrown away after a single use. “Double-dipping” can cause cross-contamination of bacteria that cause nail infections and warts.
Some people are allergic to dip powders. When trying them for the first time, it’s best to have only one nail that is dip powder coated. The rest of the nails can be treated with regular nail polish. This minimizes the discomfort of any allergic reactions. If no redness, itching, bumps, nail separation or swelling appears within a week, it’s usually safe to have the remaining nails dip powder coated.
Acrylic Nail Coats
Acrylic coats are time-consuming to apply but they last up to six to eight weeks. The nail has to be filed before application in order for acrylics to stick and over time this can damage the nail. They require twenty to thirty minutes of air drying per layer.
Acrylics help protect nails from bending and breaking but they are not so hard that they must be mechanically removed. Instead, they can be removed in the same manner as dip powder coats: with light surface filing followed by soaking in acetone.
After two-to-three weeks, acrylic nail coats begin to show new nail growth below the nail acrylic coating. This area must be filled in in order to preserve the appearance of the coating.
Acrylics are designed for those who prefer low-maintenance, long-lasting nail treatments.
Vetting Your Nail Salon
Professional nail salons have many customers, and each customer has the potential to leave behind bacteria that could infect other customers. This is why reputable professional salons follow very high standards of cleanliness. Unfortunately, not all salons meet these standards. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, all manicure and pedicure customers should ask the following questions:
“Does your nail technician have the necessary experience and/or license, if required?
Are the stations clean?
Does the nail technician wash her hands between clients?
Are there dirty tools lying around?
Have pedicure baths and filters been disinfected?
In addition, do not hesitate to ask how they clean their tools.”