The Truth Behind MMA
Acrylic nails were an accidental discovery.
Maybe you knew that, but many people don’t. Even fewer people know that the accidental discovery happened in the world of dentistry. While at work in the 1950’s, a dentist by the name Fred Slack broke his thumb nail and sculpted an artificial replacement using aluminum foil and dental acrylic. At that time, dental acrylic monomer was predominantly methyl methacrylate (MMA) due to its incredible ability to simulate enamel of a tooth when cured and quickly became the top choice for nail technicians as well.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration received numerous complaints of fingernail damage and deformity, as well as contact dermatitis associated with the use of artificial nails specifically containing methyl methacrylate monomer. After investigating the injuries and consulting with respected dermatologists, the FDA concluded that MMA is “a poisonous and deleterious substance” and should not be used in liquid acrylic monomer for nail products. Cosmetic supply manufacturers voluntarily removed MMA from their chemical formulations and products containing MMA monomer were soon removed from the market. A specific federal law barring the use of MMA in nail formulations was never established and newer manufacturers in the ever-growing industry decided to use it in their new products. Purely looking at the minimal costs associated with MMA against other chemicals, it is easy to see why – at about 1/3 of the cost of the much safer alternative ethyl methacrylate (EMA), MMA is just downright cheap. Shops with lower profit margins preferred using MMA to keep their costs down, and generate more profitability regardless of the long-term effects on their clients. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but one very important thing was forgotten too often: poor experiences with MMA may be turn a client away from the beauty industry forever. Well, that’s certainly never good for business.
There are several misconceptions that are spread across the industry that have unfortunately gotten some attention. Some arguments seem believable and even sound scientific so they must be true!
Spoiler alert: They’re not.
The FDA corroborated some strong claims against using MMA while others began explaining it as dangerous, potentially even carcinogenic. MMA is not a cancer-causing agent. It has been used very successfully within the human body in the field of dentistry and for mending broken bones. Dental prosthetics are also cured outside of the body because MMA is not intended to come in contact with soft tissue. Methyl methacrylate is not an evil substance; however, when applying and working with acrylic nails the recognized dangers largely overshadow any potential benefits. Unfortunately, one of the most hazardous effects of MMA is still considered a selling point for acrylic nails today: It seldom breaks or chips.
Methyl methacrylate enhancements are extraordinarily durable. Too durable, actually. The same properties that make MMA a functional bone cement, also make it a terrible nail enhancement product. When the enhancement is stronger than the natural nail itself, you run the risk of damaging your natural nail instead of the acrylic. Banging or jamming an MMA enhancement rarely ends up cracking the product, which from a customer’s perspective can seem like the perfect nail. If the enhancement doesn’t flex or crack when jammed hard enough, something else will instead – the natural nail. OUCH! Ideally, any nail enhancement product should be weaker than the natural nail to prevent such a possibility. However, getting the MMA to stick to the natural nail involves some serious etching, weakening the natural nail plate only exaggerating the differences in strength between the natural nail and an MMA enhancement.
Many believe that MMA adheres better to a natural nail because it cures so hard, and appears to bond exceedingly well. To make MMA adhere well, the nail plate needs to be overly etched with a coarse or electric file giving the MMA something to grab on to. This process thins and weakens the nail plate allowing the tiny molecules of the MMA to be absorbed through pores in the nail plate during application and curing time. As the molecules get into the nail bed, they also attach to the molecules left above, essentially sandwiching the nail plate and encasing the natural nail in acrylic. If/when this acrylic lifts or comes off, it can also take the natural nail with it. This also sets up the customer to have future problems with their natural nail like Onycholysis. It is important to note here, MMA is approved for use in polymers because the molecules have already polymerized and are thousands of times larger and therefore does not penetrate the natural nail as an MMA monomer can and will. Any product will stick well if you tear up the nail plate, but why would you want to do that?
Enhancements using MMA monomers do not come off easily, either. Taking 1 ½-2 hours to try soaking off an MMA acrylic enhancement is normally not an option. Soaking in acetone for upwards of 2 hours generally isn’t recommended for the fingertips anyways. Removal and maintenance of an MMA enhancement requires a different technique, sometimes using a drill file similar to a Dremel tool. The electric file is harmless by itself, but can lead to burning through the natural nail into the nail bed causing significant damage if filed down too far. Some salons will resort to ripping or prying the acrylic enhancements off, causing extreme damage to the natural nail plate. If a nail plate is already overly weakened or damaged, even from the excessive filing during application the painfully ill effects of ripping off the enhancements can lead to permanent nail loss.
Since the FDA declared MMA to be a “poisonous and deleterious substance” as a liquid monomer, salons needed an alternative. The market for acrylic nails wasn’t going away just because MMA monomers could no longer be morally or legally used. Salon owners and technicians alike needed a substance free of the hazards associated with MMA. Enter, ethyl methacrylate (EMA). EMA is one of the most researched monomers on earth. It can be found in household plastics and medical devices that can be placed in the body, but most importantly the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel (CIR) declared that EMA can be safely used in retail nail products. Application of EMA still requires filing the natural nail, but nowhere near the detrimental amount of filing required for MMA. EMA also has a considerably larger molecular structure than MMA and is less able to penetrate the nails. EMA monomer is formulated to be flexible. If it needs to, the enhancement will crack or sometimes even break off, but usually damage to the nail plate is avoided. EMA should never require prying off and takes only about 20 minutes to remove by soaking in acetone.
Clients trust you with their health and well-being. We can all agree, keeping them safe every time they sit in your chair is a priority. Of course, that includes using appropriate sanitation procedures, but it also involves choosing products that aren’t harmful. It should be every professional nail technician’s responsibility to rid the industry of using MMA. Unfortunately for the industry, some salons still use liquid monomers containing MMA. Not everyone (clients, friends, and co-workers alike) wants to heed the warnings and abide by the regulations, but they need to. All the major relevant regulatory authorities agree, ethyl methacrylate is what we should all be using. If you know of anyone engaged in selling or using liquid monomers formulated with MMA, please report that information to the appropriate State Cosmetology Board.
At DeEnterprises Inc., we stand behind our products and guarantee none of our liquid monomers contain MMA. Nomma Plus® and Nomma Lite® are safe EMA monomers that do not contain any MMA. Their names actually say “No MMA.”
By Joe Pedersen, Content Strategist at DeEnterprises Inc., a Chemical Manufacturer of Manicure and Pedicure Products.