Nail enamel has been around in one form or another since 3200 BC when Babylonian warriors manicured and colored their nails before heading off to battle. Their ingredient of choice, according to sources, was kohl. Fast forward a couple of hundred years, and Chinese used nail color to distinguish rank and dynasty. Formulas included Arabic gum, beeswax and eggwhites. Up until the 20th Century, consumers around the world continued to color their nails with formulas based on natural materials.
Nail polish as we know it today was born in the 1920s when Michelle Manard, a French makeup artist, decided to apply high-gloss car paint to nails (as wise coatings executives observe, the most expensive paint in the world is nail polish). The first modern nail polish was created by Charles Revson and his team at Revlon. Revson introduced the concept of matching lipstick and nail enamel colors, aka lips and tips, and marketed Revlon color collections with names like Fire and Ice, and Plum Lightning. Today, the US mass market for nail color, including polish, treatments and removers, exceeds $1.3 billion, according to IRIWorldwide. Moreover, Grand View Research, Inc. predicts that the global nail polish category will grow 9.5% a year to reach $15.5 billion by 2024.
Despite a long, successful history, nail enamel formulas can be even better, according to EMU research doctoral fellow Forough Zareanshahraki and her faculty advisor, Vijay Mannari, who are working to make your nails a little greener. The pair’s joint research project was recognized with the University Emerging Technology Award at the Radtech Conference.
The researchers note that conventional nail polishes don't last very long; in even the best cases, they chip or peel usually between two and five days. More durable alternatives for conventional nail polishes are nail gels, which undergo UV-curing, and therefore can last around two weeks without any chipping or peeling. Most of the nail gels out there are petro-based, and not very eco-friendly. Zareanshahraki and Mannari developed nail gels from plant-based materials that are safe, sustainable and durable.
“These ‘green’ nail gels, supplied in VOC-free solvents or in water, contain greater than 50% bio-renewable content and have been designed to cure by low-energy consuming and safe UV-LED light, making them especially sustainable products,” said Gary Cohen, executive director of RadTech International. “Besides being innovative and environmentally responsible, the nail gel technology presented by the EMU team has potential for expanding applications of UV-cure materials into personal care.”
Zareanshahraki is still working on these formulations as part of her dissertation under the supervision of Dr. Mannari. The main source of bio-based materials they used in their earlier work (published in 2018), was soybean oil derivatives. In their ongoing research, they are introducing new sources, such as gum rosin and itaconic acid. The two have started the tech transfer process, that is, disclosing their invention, and in September they filed a patent on their nail gels.
Obviously, while formulators will never return to kohl, interest in eco-friendly cosmetic ingredients and processes has passed the tipping point!