Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Lab Muffin guide - how do holo nail polishes work?

How do holographic nail polishes work?

The main types of polishes with holographic effects that I know of are linear holo (e.g. Nubar Reclaim, China Glaze OMG collection, Nfu-Oh 61), scattered holo (China Glaze Kaleidoscope collection, Milani HD) and holo glitter (a lot of glitter polishes have holo bits in them - OPI Teenage Dream is one example). They all work quite similarly.

White light is actually made up of many colours, and can be split - such as in rainbows. Holographic particles do this too - they're silver particles with a coating which splits or diffracts the light into a colour spectrum:

(Note: this is a very simplified diagram. The production of the spectrum is actually a bit more complex and involves patterns of constructive and destructive interference, but  the idea is essentially the same.)

The main thing which changes how "linear" a holo polish will be is how smooth the layer of holo particles is:

Generally, the smaller the particle size and the denser the polish, the smoother the holo layer. If the layer is smooth, then the colours reflected go gradually through the colour spectrum and so you get a linear holo effect. But if the layer is less smooth, then the colour change is less gradual and you end up with a scattered effect. If you have a very smooth holographic surface, such as on the back of a CD or DVD, you will get a perfect uninterrupted rainbow.

I swatched a Spectraflair topcoat over a black creme to show the effect:

From left to right:
1. Incomplete coat - moderately scattered
2. One coat - mostly linear holo
3. Two coats - similar to 2 but more silver due to greater reflectance from more particles
4. Three coats - less linear than the other coats, despite more holo particles - repeated brushing has made the top layer uneven. Very silver.

So application and polish formula is important in determining how scattered a holo is as well.

Hope you enjoyed that explanation!


  1. Love all these science explanations! Thanks for sharing them :)

  2. Thanks Sharon! I'm glad you like them! :D

  3. I love this so much! I always wondered about scattered vs linear.

  4. Very interesting, ooh I like ; )

  5. Oh this is fantastic! Great explanation :)

  6. And now my little brain can finally understand what makes it go "OOOH SHINY!!!"

  7. I know this is old, but I've been wondering.....what do the numbers mean? Example " spectra flair 15". Hope that makes sense!!

    1. Lindsey - with Spectrafair, the numbers refer to the particle size of the pigment if I remember correctly :) xx


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