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“Hot” Science Discovery Lands Chem Prof in Fashion Mag

Turn the pages of Tipsy Magazine’s Summer 2013 edition and you’ll find the latest trends in high-fashion nail and manicure art.

The Summer 2013 cover of Tipsy Magazine (Courtesy: Tipsy Magazine)

Tipsy caters to salon owners, manicure artists and nail divas nationwide who turn to the 9×12 glossy for up-to-the-minute articles and photos on polish products, fingertip designs and the edgy nail jewelry that celebs like Lady Gaga have catapulted to fame. Its touted trends take the traditional acrylic manicure (Only one shade of polish? Puh-lease!) to a color-and-jewel-crazed, punk rock-level.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that Dr. Andrew Robak, associate professor of chemistry, has landed in the pages of a Tipsy article. Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, has self-described “wacky interests” in chemistry or science as art. His expertise was sought by writer Erin Hart, who started her own design business, Nail Pop LLC, just over a year ago, working on location doing photo shoots, nail parties and fashion shows. Hart endured a nasty chemical burn after she tried to mix fake gold leaf, a decorative metallic, with nail glue to create her own quick-dry polish.

“The gold leaf is so popular right now because it just looks so decadent and when you’re having your nails done, you want to go all out,” said Hart, noting the element comes in either sheets or flake form and can be found at craft or art stores. Hart said she was at home with a friend, experimenting with the fake gold leaf by gluing a big piece to the tip of her finger when “decadent” turned into “drama.”

Tipsy illustration by Jennyfer Maria for the original article. (Courtesy: Tipsy Magazine)

“The burning started immediately and as I was trying to peel away the [gold] leaf, my skin blistered and came off. I didn’t lose too much skin, about the size of an eraser head, but boy did it hurt!” Hart said, adding it reminded her of burning her finger on a marshmallow stick when she was a kid.

“It took about a week for it to heal using your standard first aid burn care.”

Hart’s article, “Burn, Baby, Burn” was illustrated with this image by Jennyfer Maria. (Courtesy: Tipsy Magazine)

According to Hart, staying ahead of the trends in nail art happens most often by experimenting with different materials, so to best inform other nail artists of any potentially dangerous combinations, she packed up the gold leaf and glue and shipped them to Robak for a thorough chemical analysis and explanation. The two are cousins and Hart had no problem asking for a family favor, she said.

“He was the first person I thought to call after I burned myself and I knew he’d be able to figure it out, which he did immediately after receiving the samples I sent,” Hart said. “I was really impressed with how quickly he was able to compose an explanation that I could actually understand.”

It turns out the fake gold leaf flakes are essentially a combination of tin, zinc and shiny copper. The tin and zinc prevent the copper from tarnishing, Robak informed Hart. The nail glue, known as ethyl cyanoacrylate, is a polymer that will cure, or dry rapidly, once exposed to small amounts of moisture in the air or on surfaces. What non-scientists like Hart think of as “glue drying” is really the substance changing from liquid to solid form, Robak said.

Dr. Robak

Ordinarily, a tiny, almost imperceptible amount of heat is released as the glue hardens, but when mixed with the fake gold leaf, the tin and zinc become catalysts, speeding up the process such that there is an excess of heat energy, Hart learned. The gold-glue mixture can’t hold as much heat energy as the liquid glue alone, and not only causes chemical burns but can even produce small tufts of smoke, Robak informed Hart.

So what’s a nail artist to do?

Well, one solution would be to use real gold, Robak suggested, noting the pure element is one of the least reactive substances and won’t require tin to protect it from tarnish. According to the New York Mercantile reported on CNNMoney.com, real gold is currently retailing for about $1,391 an ounce.

If you can’t afford that option but seeing a shiny, metallic gleam at the end of your fingertips is still a must-have, then switching to a simple, clear polish and mixing that with the fake gold leaf will produce the same ritzy look without the Ritz-Carlton price tag. The clear nail polish won’t dry as fast as the glue, but it won’t create an exothermic reaction either, Robak advised.

And that was the advice Hart chose to share with fellow Tipsy readers after she came across a call for submissions for upcoming issues. As it turns out, her unexpected science revelation became her first “big” article for a magazine.

“I’m hoping to do more writing in the future, but I think this first attempt went pretty well,” Hart said, noting she called her cousin for permission to include him in the article. “Most of what you mix with nail glue won’t create an exothermic reaction, but I’ve also experienced heat from nail glue when it comes in contact with cotton fibers. It’s something I’ll need Dr. Robak’s expertise to explain further.”

Hart's hand, all-out bedazzled in current nail art trends. (Courtesy: Nail Pop LLC)

 

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