Fact-check Friday: How do quick-dry products work?

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Today’s Fact-check Friday is on nail polish, keeping in theme with the Nail Blogger Secrets series. In particular, how can adding something on top of your mani make it dry faster? Science knows the answer. Science always knows. (Not really, otherwise science would stop.) Don’t forget – send me your beauty science questions and I’ll answer them if I can!

How does quick dry top coat work?

This one’s a bit boring unfortunately, for such a revolutionary product. It’s simply a top coat that’s formulated to solidify on the surface quicker, giving it a firmer, less smudge-prone surface. The ingredients in quick dry top coat and regular top coat are quite similar (although most quick dry top coats tend to use cellulose acetate butyrate as the main clear “polish” component) – the proportions are just carefully adjusted.

How do quick dry drops work?

As I’ve written many times on this blog, one of the most important basic principles in chemistry is that like dissolves like – fatty, non-charged (neutral), hydrophobic things like to dissolve other fatty neutral hydrophobic things, while watery, charged, hydrophilic things like to dissolve other watery, changed hydrophilic things.

The main solvents that usually need to come out of your nail polish mixture for it to dry are ethyl acetate, butyl acetate and isopropyl alcohol. These are all fatty, hydrophobic molecules. Quick dry drops contain silicones, which are fatty but don’t dissolve the drying polish. These draw out the solvents to the surface of the polish, where they can evaporate faster, although it won’t be able to do much if the solvent is too far away (i.e. at the bottom of the mani layer cake), so you still have to be careful.

Tip: Many spray-on comb-through hair conditioners also contain these silicones as their main ingredients, so those will work too! Cooking oil will work too.

But then how does the ice water trick work?

The ice water trick is where you immerse your fingertips in iced water for a few minutes to help wet polish dry faster (ouch).

The way this works is that semi-wet nail polish is very similar to some plastics, in that it’s soft and pliable when warm, and hardens when it’s cold (kind of like Blu-tack). So the polish hardens when it’s cooled, making it harder to dent when it comes out. However, the solvents are hydrophobic – they’re repelled by water, so almost all of it is still there when you take your hand out, and it still all needs to evaporate for your nails to be done.

Are you in the mood for manis and mental masturbation? Click here for more nail polish science. If you want to improve the condition of your nails, you can learn how in this installment of the Nail Blogger Secrets series.

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20 thoughts on “Fact-check Friday: How do quick-dry products work?”

  1. Thanks! Your infos are always so interesting :-))

    I’ve thought about this for a while and think, to dry faster, the mani should be first warmed -solvents evaporate faster, but polish gets soft. To harden it, it can be then dipped in cold water. Never really tried it yet, but worth a try?

    Acetone, which is to my knowledge in some polishes, mixes with water (as in removers) and would go from the polish into the water when dipped in cold water …?
    As far as I remember from my science lessons, some solvents/evaporating liquids “pull” others, slower evaporating ones, along and I thought that this was part of the fast drying polishes/drops.

    Am I on the wrong road with this?

    Reply
    • Warming with a hairdryer or similar would definitely work! Some of the solvent would still be trapped at the bottom of the lacquered nail though, unless you heated it for ages, and I’m not sure that would work without a fair bit of pain.

      Acetone is actually not in many polishes (though it’s in most removers). The main solvents in polish (ethyl acetate, butyl acetate) don’t mix with water though – another solvent in polish (isopropyl alcohol) does, but it’s in polish in far lesser quantities, so that could be drawn off.

      You’re right that some solvents combine with other solvents to make a mixture that evaporates at a lower temperature (the mixture’s called an azeotrope) – that could definitely be happening (I can’t find any info on whether ethyl/butyl acetate forms an azeotrope with siloxanes), but the ethyl and butyl acetates wouldn’t be able to mix with the quick dry drops without the drawing out action occurring first, so I think the drawing out is the main part (though it’s still largely speculation from me!).

      Reply
    • Lipophilic is a pretty awesome word too!

      I’ve never tried the ice water trick myself – knowing me, I’d knock my nails on the bowl or a piece of ice or something -_-

      Reply
  2. Thank you for explaining that! I’d wondered how quick dry top coats worked, since, as you say, the solvents need to get out. Makes sense now.

    Reply
  3. Aamh, yes, butyl and ethyl acetate don’t mix with water. I would rather think of a long low heat, so the solvent can “travel” trough? Or with breaks, so it can evenly spread out again (it does, doesn’t it? My science year is so long ago…)

    Polishes are always good for surprises… thanks, Michelle! 🙂

    Reply
  4. hey, I need the answer to this one, I use mascara every day and yesterday my eyelashes felt so heavy and stiff when I went to bed. what’s in the mascara that makes it like that?

    Reply

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