Show of Hands

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Manicured hands date back to ancient Babylonian and Egyptian cultures, where kohl, gold, and henna stains were the polish of choice for the upper echelons. Today, spa-goers have a much wider variety of colors, textures, and manicure methods from which to choose, particularly when it comes to the persistent trend of soak-off gel manicures and pedicures. Such professional services are among the hottest nailcare offerings in spas these days, because they provide a lasting, cost-effective way for clients to maintain polished nails and an opportunity for them to get creative with nailcare. They are proving beneficial for spas, as well, as they encourage clients to schedule frequent visits. “Because gel and 14-plus-day nail color are professional-only services, they drive consumers into the spa on a more regular basis,” says Jan Arnold, cofounder of CND, which offers Shellac, a soak-off gel polish, and Brisa Lite, a removable nail enhancement.

Though early gels first appeared on the market in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s and 2000s that manufacturers introduced improved formulas and corresponding curing lamps that made gel manicures and pedicures a spa and salon mainstay. Manufacturers realized that different gel formulas require a light that precisely matches the proprietary ingredients to properly cure the polish and offer a comfortable experience for clients. CND’s Shellac and Gelish were among the pioneers with soak-off gels that combined the best features of a  polish with those of a hard gel in a removable form. Relatively new to the gel market is EssieGel, which launched last fall with a full system focused on maintaining the strength and health of the natural nail. In this offering, all products that come in contact with the nail are fortified with the proprietary Keratin-Care Technology—pro-vitamin B5 and vitamin E—and the LED lamp accommodates hands and feet with nine targeted lights and a mirror finish to streamline curing. Though less abundant than traditional lacquer, the range of colors available in gel has grown exponentially and provides enough variety to please every client. In fact, some companies, such as Essie, OPI, and Orly, make it easy to find favorites by matching gel hues with popular traditional shades.

For all of these reasons and more, the popularity of gels is exploding. According to 2012-2013 The Big Book, a nail industry research report, gels are now one of the most frequently added services with nearly 50 brands from which to choose. Years after gels first debuted, they are still celebrated for their ability to solve the normal polish inconveniences, such as chipping and fading, that frustrate clients who aren’t interested in committing to permanent acrylic services. The gel manicure can also provide protection for the natural nail to help it grow stronger and longer without enhancements.

Gels also appeal to clients who have a flair for the dramatic when it comes to nail art. “With the introduction of soakable gel polish, the market has been reinvigorated and reinvented,” says Danielle Candido, northeast regional manager of education at Gelish. “The ease of use and longevity of wear make this a perfect medium for art.” For particularly creative technicians who use nails as their canvases, this trend introduces a thriving business opportunity. They aren’t limited to the flat surface of the nail anymore, either, with the introduction of sculpting gels. “I’m seeing sculpting gel already,” says Julie Kandalec, creative director at Paintbox Nail Studio (New York City). “You can sculpt in 3-D on the nail and create bows and flowers and more.” For Kandalec, it’s hard to say what’s next, but she believes the nail industry is ripe for fun and innovation.

Still, creativity can only go so far, and education for nail technicians is vital for spas to provide the best results for clients, from straightforward gel applications to more exotic nail art. “At the core of all this is a great education team,” says Jerry Densk, general manager of professional product at Essie. “It provides the tools to help nail technicians learn how to use the system and treat nails.” In addition to teaching your team the basic protocol of using new systems, proper education helps technicians understand new ways to enhance the products. The secret, according to most experts, is cuticle oil. “Properly moisturized nails will hold gel polish better, so it’s critical to continue to apply oil when gel is on the nails,” says Candido.

Still, there are some potential drawbacks when it comes to gels. For example, gel services have come under fire for the use of ultraviolet (UV) curing lights, which some critics claim may cause damage to skin on the hands. However there are straightforward ways your spa can put those concerns to rest. Recent research has made great strides in proving the safety of such lamps. According to data collected by Doug Schoon, president of Schoon Scientific and co-chair of the Nail Manufacturers Council (NMC), nail lamps emit relatively low levels of UV rays, and exposure levels are considered well within the safe range when used to perform nail services. Additional studies confirmed his findings, and a comprehensive report published in Photochemistry and Photobiology demonstrates the vast difference between nail lamps and tanning beds and the safety of nail lamp use. “With any sun or UV exposure, excess is not recommended,” says Marcy Shade, category manager for EzFlow, IBD, and SuperNail. “Hands are under a UV light about seven minutes during a service, and with the invention of LED lights, it is reduced to only two minutes. Even if a gel polish service is done every two weeks, it is minimal UV exposure.” To ease any lingering worries, Arnold recommends applying a full-spectrum sunscreen on clients’ hands after washing and before curing polish to shield against UV light. The bulbs used for nail services primarily emit UVA, which is safer, and contain special internal filters that remove almost all UVB.

Another fear is damage caused by the harsher removal process. “There’s always concern that polish damages the nails,” says Kandalec. “I compare the natural nail to the hair, because it’s something that clients know about. You should never highlight or lighten 10 times in a row without giving hair a break or without conditioning and trimming it. It’s a matter of taking care of it properly to maintain strength and health.” Ensuring the gel system—removal included—protects the integrity of clients’ nails also makes your spa’s offerings stand out. “Technicians should take care to not rough the nails or scrape and peel the coating from the nails,” says Arnold. Such mechanical force can damage them. Candido agrees, adding, “The truth of the matter is that gel polish itself is not damaging, but applying it or removing it improperly can be.” Your spa’s own pricing policies can encourage clients to return for proper removal, as well. “We don’t charge to take gel polish off if clients are getting another service,” says Kandalec. “We’re not tempting the client to save $10 and peel it off themselves. It makes a difference.”

Just like the enduring manicures and pedicures they create, gel services are here to stay. When done right, they can make a lasting impression on clients’ hands and your spa’s bottom line, so be sure to add them to your menu, and an excellent revenue opportunity will be well in hand.