Nail mechanics

Interested in the mechanics and some chemistry of nail-painting?  Possibly not!  Feel free to move on.  BUT if you are interested, here are some deets of how it all works!  Actually, all the deets.  Good grief.  Deets are long

Polarity!  Broadly, liquids come in polar (molecules have a magnetic positive and negative), and non-polar (they don’t).  Water is polar; acetone and other nail polish solvents are non-polar.  Nail polish floats on water like oil.  This will matter.

Three peel-off base coats, a regular base coat, and two fast-dry top coats.  In
general, for any given painting of my nails, I will use one from each category.
(PS: augh augh now I’m noticing the numbers don’t line up augh)

So the nitty gritty!

First step, for me, is always a peel-off base coat.  They don’t last anywhere near as long, and the failure mode is looking down and discovering a whole nail is missing – “Now where did I leave that?” But I’d (much) rather paint my nails a new color than fuss with nail polish remover.  Also, glitter tends to mechanically block the action of remover, so glitters are a damned nightmare to remove otherwise.

The players.  I start with:

1: Nail Pattern Boldness‘ Glitter A-peel.  This is the only one that is regular, non-polar nail polish chemicals.  I used to use this a lot, but the solvents in nail polish eat your nails, and I’d prefer to avoid that – I only get chipping, peeling nails when I’m putting non-polar solvents on them regularly.  Including this.  So I moved on to…

2: Homemade PVA base coat.  PVA (polyvinyl acetate) is Elmer’s glue (or tacky glue, outside the US), which peels off nails exactly the same as it peels off skin.  Lab Muffin is generally credited for working this out, although others have too.  It is water-soluble and polar!  So this is a bottle of Elmer’s wood glue mixed with water.  It doesn’t eat my nails, and it works.  Also, no fumes.

3: OPI Glitter Off.  Also PVA, and brand new to the market.  OPI is best known for their formulas, because they are amazing, so when I found out that this existed got some immediately.  This is my new best friend.  All the advantages of #2, plus it lasts about 2x as long as my homemade stuff, dries a bit faster, and really only needs one coat.

Next is a regular base coat!  This is important!  Polar base coats (PVA) don’t block the sort of pigments found in non-polar solvents (all nail polish), so after either #2 or #3 I need a regular base coat to do that.  If those pigments aren’t blocked, they (occasionally) soak into your nails and take up permanent residence.  Eeeww.

In case you thought the “interview nails” was entirely a problem
in my head, I’ve been asked about this nonsense.  I failed to use a
non-polar base coat one time.  That polish is already hall-of-shamed. 🙁

4: Orly Rubberized Bonder.  This is a very popular base coat for holding polish without chipping, and it prevents the horribleness of figure 2 there.  Always use base coat, kids.  If you don’t want to go peel-off, this is actually the first step.

Next is some kind of attractive polish!

You cannot tell me this is not wizardry.

Finally, a coat of fast-dry top coat.  Fast-dry top coat is the difference between bothering to paint my nails, and not.  About a minute, maybe two after application, your nails are bomb-proof and you can go about your life.  I love you chemistry!

5: Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat.  Probably the fastest-drying, and very thick, so one coat can even out glitter roughness and so on.  Magical clear nail armor.  I heart this very much.  It chips quickly, but not as quickly as the peel-off peels off, so for me it’s excellent.

6: Sally Hansen Dries Instantly Top Coat.  (SH Insta-Dry, red bottle, is also good.)  Dries reasonably fast, a bit thinner than Seche Vite, but less chippy.  I use this for interview nails, which are not peel-off.

And that’s it!  Glue, a regular base coat, fast-dry top coat, plus something pretty, and you’re good to go.  It sounds like a lot of coats, but since the world dries faster these days, it doesn’t correspond to taking forever (much less time than typing up this monstrosity!).  All you really need is base coat and color, if you’re feeling minimalist.

5 thoughts on “Nail mechanics

  1. What’s your glue:water ratio for your peel-off coat? And how do you keep it from settling, or do you just shake the bejeezus out of it every time? Do you add ball bearings or something to help it mix? I am excited to see whether I can paint my nails, then put them aside so BabyJ doesn’t eat them, then put them back on to go out! After you peel them off, how do you stick them back on? –Mama T

  2. I’ll be honest, I have no idea what my ratio is. I add water by drops and shake it together until it has the consistency of slightly-too-goopy nail polish. But I’ma be straight: buy the OPI thing. Totally worth it.

    It doesn’t settle! Tacky Glue or Elmers are already PVA in a water suspension. You’re just increasing the amount of water in the suspension, and it behaves! I might give it, like, one or two shakes.

    They don’t always peel off in one piece! If you want to try that, you want as thick a cake as possible–like three layers of gloopy glitter or something. Then they have enough solidity not to tear. I will totally advise on specifics! BUT, they also have to be quite dry (or they stretch like taffy which is bizarre). I would guess: put BabyJ to bed; paint; hit with top coat; peel off first thing in the morning. Guessing!

    With elmers! 😀 I just paint a damp layer of my PVA base coat and stick’er back on. The glue binds to itself very well, and will peel off again later. ^_^

    I might also suggest playing with fake nails. You can paint them, let them dry, and stick them on with peel-off, and you get something much sturdier than just the nail polish. To be honest I haven’t yet tried this, but now I will!


  3. My understanding is that acetone is semi-polar/amphiphilic: its C=O bond is very polar (making it water soluble) BUT its -CH3 makes it very nonpolar, which gives the ability to dissolve nail polish. You mention above that–like nail polish–it is nonpolar, but maybe it would be more accurate to mention that one end of the acetone molecule is non-polar? But overall, I’ve loved this article. I was just looking at Labmuffin’s nail staining series and I’ve loved reading both of your findings. However, it looks like O.P.I. Glitter Off has been discontinued, renamed “Natural Nail”, and is now nonpolar (it’s been a while since studying organic chemistry but Tosylamide/Epoxy Resin seems a dead-giveaway ingredient). I panicked for a second when I saw it specified in your article as polar (as I am still struggling with mild staining), but a quick investigation of the current product suggests my base coat is a completely different product from yours. It was great to discover the benefit of using two layers of nonpolar base coat. I was still experiencing some staining, so I’m hoping this will help. Loving the science behind this!

  4. Yes, you’re right, of course. I don’t honestly remember if I was simplifying for the sake of readability or whether I spaced, but acetone, like ethanol, is complex.

    As for staining, the more non-pigmented layers the better, but I do find two layers helpful. That said, I’ve been meaning to write about staining in general. The “general wisdom” is that some pigments and/or dyes soak into the nail and stain, but I actually wonder if that’s accurate, or if it’s actually a reaction between the solvents and nail proteins. Maybe I will write that up.

    Thank you for the great comment. I’ve been considering starting up writing in this blog again. Maybe this will be the useful kick.

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