Nail polish is essentially a lacquer that is applied to human finger nails or toe nails to protect them from breaking or chipping or to make the nails more decorative. A lacquer is a clear or coloured finish that dries by solvent evaporation. Lacquers have sheen levels that range from matte to high gloss.
The art of dressing up the finger and toe nails with colour originated in China in 3000 BC. By 600 BC, the royals of the Zhou Dynasty were using gold and silver to colour their nails. Later they switched to red and black.
In Egypt the lower classes wore pale colours while the higher classes wore a reddish brown colour on their nails. Even mummified Pharaohs had their nails painted with henna.
During the Ming Dynasty in China, nail polish was made of beeswax, egg whites, gelatine, vegetable dyes and gum Arabia.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the use of nail polish became very popular. Buffing polished nails to produce a highly shiny effect became the fashion. Nail polish had by then evolved into a basically film forming polymer dissolved in a volatile organic solvent.
The 21st century has elevated nail polishing to art, known as nail art. There are nail therapists and nail art studios offering various different techniques and types of polish as well as a variety of unique designs and effects.
The basic technique of nail polishing consists of applying three coats of polish to the nail. The base coat is clear or milky or an opaque pink. It is applied first. It strengthens the nail and restores the moisture. It makes the surface smooth by filling up the ridges. It helps the next coat, the polish, to stick. The nail polish coat is the main coat. It gives the desired colour to the nail. The last coat is the top coat. It is a clear polish used over the nail polish. It is quick drying and gives the nail a sophisticated sheen. It also forms a barrier that protects the coat of nail polish.
Gel is a long lasting variety of nail polish. It is a type of methacrylate polymer. It is painted on the same way as a regular polish, with both the regular and top coat. However, each coat is not left to dry by solvent evaporation. Each coat is cured under an ultra violet lamp or ultraviolet LED for two to three minutes, creating an artificial nail. Gel nails last for over two week if properly applied and cared for. Regular nail polish last for only one or two days.
Gel nails also look very natural and cure fairly fast.
Gel nail colour cannot be removed with the regular nail polish remover. The nails have to be soaked in acetone (the active ingredient in nail polish remover) for 8 to 15 minutes. After this the polish has to be gently pushed off the nail using a wooden stick.
Acrylic nails are a very popular artificial nail. A liquid monomer and a powdered polymer are first applied to the nail. This creates a hard protective layer over the natural nail. The layer hardens when exposed to air and his becomes the canvas for the nail art.
Acrylic nails are very long lasing. If breakages occur they can easily be fixed at home. They are more easily removed but this is best done by a professional. They are soaked off rather than flaked off.
Acrylic nails are more common as they are less expensive. However the fumes released during application could be harmful. In addition acrylic nails may harm the nail bed, making it a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria.
Both acrylic and gel nails undergo a chemical process to bond with the natural nail. Both can be used to lengthen short nails, strengthen nails and make the fingers look longer.