Acetone 101: Everything You Need to Know About the Go-To Polish Remover

Go on a deep dive into acetone and learn how it works.

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Ever since modern nail polish came to market, there has been a need to remove it. Pure acetone was used as far back as 1926, and formulated polish removers were launched in the late 1920s and early ’30s. It’s difficult to find ingredient information on these early removers, but the marketing of “oily” polish removers in the 1930s suggests that they were acetone-based and, therefore, there was a need to counteract acetone’s drying effect. Having overcome this drawback, acetone-based removers have dominated the market ever since.

Liquid-and-powder acrylics emerged in 1957 when a dentist repaired his injured thumbnail with denture acrylic. Later, UV-cured dental acrylic gels were adapted for the nail industry. These products also needed removal, and, again, acetone was the remover of choice, as it’s able to dissolve acrylic resins.

What is Acetone?

Acetone is a small molecule composed of a three-carbon chain. The end carbons each link to three hydrogen atoms. The middle carbon is linked to an oxygen atom by a “double bond” (they share two pairs of electrons, not just one); this combination is called a “carbonyl” group. A carbonyl flanked by other carbons is called a “ketone,” and acetone is the smallest of all ketones. (There’ll be a quiz on Friday.)

Plainly speaking, acetone is a chemical that nail professionals rely on in their business to remove everything from lacquer to gel polish to acrylic. But interestingly enough, acetone is also produced in your body whenever you burn fat—during sleep, fasting, endurance exercise or ketogenic dieting. Since acetone is a normal part of your biochemistry, exposure to small amounts of it does no harm.

Acetone in Nail Services

Nail polish is made primarily of resins dissolved in solvents (along with colorants and other modifiers), so they can be spread as liquids onto the nail. After the product is applied, the solvents evaporate, leaving the tough resin coating behind. So, to remove the nail lacquer, it’s only necessary to redissolve the resins, which is how acetone works.

Unlike polish, liquid-and-powder systems, UV gels and dipping powder systems don’t simply deposit pre-existing resins on the nail. Instead, a curing (“polymerization”) reaction creates new, much larger resin molecules. In most cases, the reaction causes chemical cross-linking, resulting in a molecular “mesh” or “network.” Crosslinking impacts acetone’s efficacy. For example, soft gel color can be soaked off in 5-10 minutes because it’s not highly crosslinked. But hard sculpting gels are more crosslinked to retain their structure, so it takes longer for acetone to penetrate the tight mesh of cross-linked polymer and soften the enhancement.

Non-Acetone Removers

Acetone-based removers are a “mature” technology. In other words, they’ve been around for a very long time, so adding moisturizers, color, herbal essences and various fragrances to make the product more attractive has already been introduced. As a result, there’s little room to truly innovate. However, there is one innovation that everyone seems to want: To replicate acetone’s efficacy without using acetone. Unfortunately, that product does not yet exist. The closest thing we have are called “non-acetone” removers.

Non-acetone removers fall into two categories: solvent-based and nonvolatile. Solvent-based non-acetone removers include ethyl acetate and methyl ethyl ketone (MEK). They’re more effective on polish than on acrylics—which makes non-acetone remover ideal for changing the polish color on enhancements. In the short time it takes to remove the polish,the sculpted acrylic underneath is little affected.

For the full article (and must-have removal products!) check out Nailpro's January/February digital magazine. 

Author bio: Paul Bryson is a principal scientist at OPI and a NAILPRO advisory board member.

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