The Understated Manicure

Rococo's Playgirl Sheer Gloss & OPI’s Samoan Sand
Essie’s Nude Beach
YSL’s Rose Romantique

Sometimes you’re just not up for color. Maybe you're taking a breather from runway inspired nails and other intricate nail art. Perhaps you’ve been feeling bored. Maybe you’re a mom (and if I know anything about my mother, it's that she finds anything more than Essie’s Mademoiselle "inappropriate"). Maybe, like Leandra Medine, you've decided to give your stacked rings the spotlight, rather than have your accessories compete with bright polish. Or maybe you’ve just rediscovered the beauty—the joy, really—of a simple, off-white manicure.

So, now you've set your sights on neutral/minimalist/subtle nail polishes—but a barely-there manicure isn't as straightforward as it seems! There's the question of shade (and when it comes to "nude," that really depends on your own shade in the buff); the options of opacity; shimmer or no shimmer??! Don't freak out.

Instead of leaving you to play polish roulette at your local nail salon, I took it upon myself to test 45 so-called "nude" or otherwise off-white possibilities for you all. My findings below:

The Best Brand:

There are two real contenders for this title, so I'm calling a tie. Essie, the nail care company that just gets me, delivers with five solid options. Though The Devil Wears Prada says that Ballet Slippers and Marshmallow are the brand's most fashionable shades, I found (listed here from most sheer to opaque) Mademoiselle (three coats), Starter Wife (two coats), Nude Beach (three coats; has shimmer), Sandy Beach (two coats), and East Hampton Cottage (two coats; has shimmer) to be the true standouts [shown, from left to right, in slide 2].

Challenging Essie for the subtle-polish throne is good ole Sally Hansen—specifically a quintet of shades from the Complete Salon Manicure line. (FYI: The curved brush head, and the not-too-thick/not-too-thin, and fast-drying formula makes these ideal at-home application.) Also ranging in hue and opacity [listed from opaque to sheer, and shown, from left to right, in slide 3], I found Almost Almond (two coats), Sheer Ecstasy (two coats), Arm Candy (three coats), Sweet Talker (two coats), and Shall We Dance? (two or three coats) to be great nudes to have in your back pocket (well, not literally, that would be radically uncomfortable).

The Best Opaque:

Your best (slightly Creamsicle-toned) bet is Rococo Nail Apparel’s Playgirl Sheer Gloss, with three to four coats. Quick-drying, long-lasting, and formaldehyde-, toluene-, and DBP-free, Rococo’s polish has a glossy and smooth finish to keep your nails remarkably refined. But let’s say you’re hunting for a taupe-ier look: OPI’s Samoan Sand is the answer. The beige polish is best with three coats, making your nails all but disappear (in a totally not-gross way).

The Best Shimmer:

There’s really no contest here—Essie’s Nude Beach takes the cake [slide 5]. Perfectly shimmered without any detectible glitter, it’s an easy way to jazz up even the faintest manicure. As a stand-alone polish, I found it best at three coats; however, because it has only a tinge of soft-pink color, it also works as a top coat for any other nude (or color) polish.

The Best “Are You Really There?” Option:

To maintain the illusion of going au naturel, two barely-perceptible coats of YSL’s Rose Romantique [slide 6] is just a bit more powerful than the finish of a plain base/top coat combo.  As an added bonus, it looks really beautiful in the bottle—the perfect baby-girl pink (not to promote gender stereotypes…).

I found that the trick to choosing a good understated polish comes down to understanding (or, knowing, via a test swipe) the often-significant difference between the color in the bottle and the color on your nails. While many seem like real contenders on the shelf, they turn out to be total flops on your fingers, and vice versa. Keep in mind, when it comes to nudes, just as Crayola has a “Large Multicultural” set to better represent the skin-tone spectrum, your best option depends on you. The aforementioned polishes worked for my almost-ghostly complexion, but everyone should speak up in the comments, so we can all help each other help our nails. Feels good, don't it?

—Elizabeth Brockway

Photos by Elizabeth Brockway.


Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Samantha

    I used to be loyal to Samoan Sand but switched my allegiance to Deborah Lippmann's Naked. It's impossible to beat.

  • Allison

    I'm all about the Essie Mademoiselle, still super sheer in two coats, super classy and stays AGES on my nails, I am wearing it right now going on a week and a half and tonight I need to change it because it is growing out

  • Ingvild

    I find the best nude/pink/beige to be "Jolis Matins" from Lancôme! So so beautiful

  • Amy

    yess!!! finally someone acknowledges how clean and polished a nude/sheer nail can be. i love Essie marshmallow on my toes but agree, its not a front runner for fingers. I can't wait to try these other ones!

  • Dana

    I bought all of the nude to pink Sally Hansen Complete Manicure polishes. They were 75% off at Rite Aid and the best investments ever. $20 nail polish my arse ;)

  • Nicole

    This is me, all day, everyday.

  • lollies

    Why not do a sister post for other skin tones, or at least include a wider range of options that work with a larger spectrum of skin color?

    • ITGElizabeth

      Hi Lollies,

      These are the ones that worked for my skin tone and while the OPI and Rococo shades might not be ideal for people with a darker complexion, most of the other shades are fairly sheer and would work on anyone. That said, we want to hear from everyone about the "nudes" that work for them--we'll compile the responses into a post if we get enough!


      • kaouchips

        actually I am olive-toned skin and the OPI samoan sands was the graal in my quest of a NUDE color that would hide the entire nail and still not be too light compared to my skin (like most colors called "nude" by our "worldwide" beauty industry). It is just perfection and blends with my skin. So while more fair complexioned persons can find it a bit "taupe", for those (like me) with darker complexion, it is one of the best nude shade I've ever tried.

    • ITGNick

      We're on it!

  • Danni

    Best opaque nude laquer for deep skin tones: Butter London's Tea and Toast. It's the perfect golden caramel color with no chalky or pink undertones.

    • Leetoki

      Agreed! It looks god awful on my pale skin but it's such a gorgeous colour.

    • ikillplants

      YES. Butter's Yummy Mummy is a magical neutral for everyone.

  • Michelle

    Love this! My fave is Essie Topless & Barefoot.

  • kathS

    Yes, I find all Essie polishes to be thin and streaky and not worth it :(

    • Gigi

      i agree, i used to have an essie polish named Waltz that was amazing and streak free sheer white, even with one coat. I ran out of it a year or so ago and havent been able to find it, every other essie sheer streaks on my nails except for Mademoiselle. so frustrating!

      after throwing away alot of polish, i just had amazing luck with the Revlon new Brilliant Strength line, has a built in topcoat like the Sally hansen complete. There is a sheer creamy shady called Embody that amazingly does not streak. Got it at CVS!

  • Guest

    No, thanks. When I left the practice of law I vowed that I would NEVER wear another boring, beige (not "nude" because nude for me is caramel colored), pink, or skim-milk white nail polish again. Ever. Bring on the blue, the bling, the purple, the glitter, the polka-dots, the fuchsias, the greens, and all the whore-tastic reds you can find. You can keep the Essie and the OPI. I'll take the Butter London, the China Glaze, the Lynderellas and the A-Englands, with a side order of Hare and Rescue Beauty Lounge.

    And yes, I'm also a mom. What's that got to do with it?

    • Violeta Marniku

      Your comment just made me make an appointment for a mani :)

  • Maquillage Magic

    such a good post! I just bought a nude nail varnish from Maybelline and was slightly disappointed. Will have to try one of your recommendations! L xxx

  • Chantel

    I love OPI I have Samoan Sand in my collection, it's so pretty!

  • heather adair

    YES TO NUDES. I can't get on board with garish nail art (for mostly work-related reasons), but I LOVE the sophistication of a barely-there nude.

    Along those lines: Tom Ford's "Toasted Sugar," "Pink Crush," and "Mink Brulee" are GREAT options, too (and those bottles last f-o-r-e-v-e-r).

  • Katherine Clow

    I absolutely love nude or light polish. I think it's a nice understatement for fall and is a great way to play up accessories. Plus, I'm a neutral lover at heart anyway. I've tried a couple of these, but maybe I'll have to switch it up and try a few new ones. Great suggestions!

  • Kavi

    I have South Indian skin (warm brown?) and really like Butter London's Tea with the Queen, Loreal's Versailles (pale pink with a hint of gold shimmer) and also NARS Arabesque (kind of a clearish pale pink with pink sparkly bits). Lately though, I have been wearing nothing but Chanel's Pirate (which I call Pirate's Booty!).

    • murt

      Interesting - I'm South Indian too and normally hate 'nude' nail polish - I just don't see the point - I'll check out the Butter London shade though - thx!

    • babs

      Thanks for the Tea with the Queen recommendation! I'm North Indian and that shade looks perfect for my skin tone.

  • Sharon

    dior glow is the best!

  • Sharon F

    I'm so glad this has come up! Normally, if I paint my fingernails at all, it's with a bright colour. But never have I marvelled at my nails so much since I painted them with Essie in Mademoiselle this weekend! Originally I was going to buy Ballet Slippers because everyone says it's THE best nude, but I have dark brown skin and Mademoiselle has just a hint of beige in the colour that fits much better with my skin tone than Ballet Slippers looked like it would. I used two coats, and although it doesn't look like I've got nothing on my nails (that's not the point is it?!) they look healthy and polished. I really feel like it's nice to take a break from the over-saturation of nail art - as good as so much of it is - with a bit of nude. A palette cleanser if you will.

  • Jessica

    Chanel Ballerina is very a barely there soft pink thats quite pretty if you want something low-key yet still 'done'.

    • Babsg00

      Yes, I couldn't believe this one wasn't's the only I've tried that comes out streak free with very little effort. Love this one.

  • Ali

    Essie's Sandy Beach is by far my favourite. I've gone through countless bottles and even relied on this colour as my sole choice for a 5 week euro-trip.

  • Genevieve

    OK I am embarrassed to say this but I would love a post on just minimal steps to make your nails look nice at home. Like, what are the essential tools to have on hand and must-do steps and techniques to make them look basically groomed (with our without some understated (or not) polish) without a ton of time or, honestly, skill. I like manicures but if I'm honest I rarely have time and/or money for them. I don't really feel like a know a failsafe routine that I could do regularly on my own so sometimes I wing it, and sometimes my nails just look bad. Anyway, I don't know if anyone else would be interested in this; maybe it's too basic for everyone else here! And I could probably look it up elsewhere and get a million different bits of advice...but I trust Into the Gloss and would enjoy seeing your take on it.

  • Alexandria Jasmine

    Essie Sugar Daddy is the best barely there manicure of all time

  • lynn.h

    Love the idea, but I wish the color of the polishes were easier to see in the photos. I know overexposed photos are ITG's thing, but it makes seeing all the pretty colors you describe really difficult

  • Leetoki

    I adore Sally Hansen and currently have their "Griege" on my nails (Complete Salon honest to god makes them grow longer!) but they cannot do a sheer worth a damn. As I typed this though, I went to look up the two soft pinks I have and they are gone! Redo for a better formula? I hope so...

  • Thalia –

    I love that you wrote about neutral shades in this post! I feel like everything nowadays is centered around nail art or bold colors, but sometimes a simple mani can look just as chic and elegant!

  • Lou Ann B Brown

    Butter's Hen Party-- looks like a perfect nude on my fair complexion, but has the added oomph of a faint iridescence when the light hits it just right.

  • Brielle Pinkross

    Yes I love Essie collections. I usually go with dark colors but I must try nude shades too!

  • Behind the Mirror

    I can not begin to tell you how over nail art I am! I was just planning my NYFW mani and it is going to be pale pale pale.... thanks for reassuring me I am not the only one!!!

  • chicnoir

    I love Essie for nudes. Medium complected Black woman here Nc45/nw50 Bobbi Beown 6.5 stick foundation. Essie's "Sugar Daddy" is a very nude natural shade.Essie's Limoscence is a pinkish nude with a bit of white. I also wear "Ballet Slippers" which is a visable light soft pink against my skin. OPI's "Care To Danse" is perhaps the best nude I've worn.

    Sorry for the typos. I am typing on my iPhone.

  • Jacqueline Jax

    I love these ideas. It's "Be Good To Yourself Day" with Blondi Beachwear so to celebrate come answer the question to WIN this Hawaiian Green print coverups set.

  • Bella

    I don't do "nude" nails, but I love the contrast of all these pale colours to my tanned coffee coloured skin.
    I work in a hospital and therefore never paint my fingernails, so on my toes I go for the contrast of either super pale or pretty bright polishes.
    Where Essie is concerned I always feel I must have done something wrong: I once bulk-bought 9 colours and threw them all away, since they are streaky and separate when stored. Or is it really just me?
    I stick to Chanel. (No, it never chips on me!!!).

  • therealblonde

    Essie Sugar Daddy is everything.
    Right now, I'm giving Chanel Frenzy a try, an opaque pale greige that's a bit more daring than a nude manicure.

  • andyp

    After trying and ultimately rejecting over the years, tons of sheers from OPI, Essie, Sephora, Lippmann, Chanel, and Rescue Beauty Lounge, I've been using MAC Faint of Heart all summer. I too am ghostly pale and hardly tan. The shade is off white, not too white, pink, beige, yellow or gray. Not too sheer or too creamy. Great lasting power for me. My manicurist who is really great at application, gets it on without streaks, but it does streak a tiny bit with a less skilled operator. BTW, I find that most Essie sheers streak like crazy.

  • Georgina Walsh

    I've been feeling nude nails lately, currently wearing a gorgeous OPI shade from their Oz the Great and Powerful collection :)

  • Diana

    Ballet Slippers on as we speak.

  • lucinda veen

    My favorite nude (well, nude-ish) nail polish is Revlon Elegant, a pale taupey greige that's supposed to be a dupe for Chanel Frenzy. Butter London Yummy Mummy is similar, but with very understated shimmer.

  • KhalesiCeylan

    I like nude nails so much. It look so soft and elegant. :)

    please look sometimes to my blog

  • modestglamamor

    Great post!! I love nude shades

    Please feel free to check out my Fashion and Beauty blog

  • Sarah Moran

    I'm a mom as well and I typically wear colors on my nails. I'm not supposed to wear any nail polish while I work so I find myself going all out when I do wear it. I need color on my nails. That being said, I'm currently in Maui on vacation & got a gel manicure before I left. What color? A nude pink.

  • hollygoeslightly22

    I've found that nail art can come off as tacky. It always reminded me of the women who get the acrylics and choose colors/themes based on the season (October = orange nails!). I love a short & well manicured nail in a neutral color or red, burgundy, etc. It's chic and simple.

    • Erin

      I agree... to me, nail art is so juvenile. Leave the rhinestones and leopard print to the middle schoolers.

  • Emily Knott

    Im a huge fan of Essie polish but then who isn't?!


  • YoungMild&Free

    I will always be an Essie lover! In fact, I currently have Ballet Slippers on my toes right now. Which sounds strange, but it's true. Thank you for sharing!


  • murt

    huh? As far as I know Essie, Sally Hansen and OPI are three free. Not sure about YSL though, but most of the other high end nail polishes, like Chanel, have also now gone three free.

  • Chloe

    The best opaque right now is Maybelline's Limited Edition "Sandstorm" colour. It's a pale beige that looks amazing on tanned hands. They also have a pale grey called "Bare Escape". Revlon's Pale Cashmere from the Colorstay line is great in 3 coats, and let's not forget about Essie's Topless and Barefoot!

  • Del2d

    Essie Au Natural, 1 coat, no competition here...

  • Lilly

    Lately I have been loving pale nails and I have been using Sheswai nail lacquer in the shade For Real. It's a very unique shade of beige with a pink tone to it, and it is completely opaque. I have light/medium skin with yellow undertones and love the way it looks on my hands, but my friend who has a deeper complexion than mine loves it too. Next, I plan to try RGB Nail Sheer, they look absolutely perfect for an understated mani. Did anyone tried those?
    Lilly @GenuineGlow

  • Michelle Lee
  • Ashleigh

    OPI's "My Vampire is Buff" is great. Its a light whitish-beige with a a slight hint of pink. Perfect for someone (like me) who is pretty pale but doesn't want her skin color to exactly match her nails.

  • k311y

    OPI Coney Island Cotton Candy gets my vote

  • Madeline

    Thank you for this post! Something about the shape of my nails or my olive-toned skin makes most polishes look terrible on me (finding foundation is a similar nightmare). Lately I've been obsessed with Butter London's Nail Foundation worn alone. Even just one or two coats of this very sheer, matte polish make my hands look so pretty. I'm very grateful for the discussion about using "nude" to refer to light-beige (ick), and the acknowledgement of the existence of people of color - definitely second the request for a sister post about nude polishes that work for darker skin tones!

  • Isabel

    I usually use Essie Mademoiselle, but I was running low and needed a new nude, so after seeing this post I thought I'd try out Ballet Slippers; love it! Two coats is perfect for me. Very similar to Mademoiselle, just slightly whiter rather than pinky (though still in no way white, its still a nude).

  • Isabel

    Oh and would also like to add; I work part time on a bar, and between tapping our touch screen tills and generally trying to get several drinks orders made as quickly as possible and hitting my nails on EVERTHING (at least that's what it feels like), I get chips very quickly. So far, Essie holds up the best, though its still not perfect. But another benefit of nude shades, a chip isn't as noticeable.

  • joannanyc

    My skintone is various describe as light olive or pale medium. My favorite nude is Essie Like Linen, which is basically the same tone as my skin but a few shades lighter. Very nice :-)

  • Chloé

    As a fellow pale lady, I can tell you the secret to matching the polish IN the bottle to the way you want it to look on your nails. Start with a thin (READ: VERY THIN) coat of sheer white polish first. Think, Essie Waltz - I use it as a base for almost all of my sheer nudes and pale pinks - and voila! The color you bought is the color you'll get. You'll still want to go with two coats of the polish in question on top of that, so you're committing to 3 coats in total, but hey - for perfect pointers? I'll take it.

  • Chloé

    Hey Nina! If the polish is thin and streaky, it may actually be a bit old (even if you just purchased it - it could have been sitting for a while). If it's a bit thick/sticky and streaky however, a $5 bottle of polish thinner in your closet will work WONDERS. I use that puppy all the time whenever my polish starts acting up. But remember - polish thinner and not polish remover. The former will be your best friend, the latter is a b*tch and will ruin whatever polish is left in the bottle and keep it from going on glossy. Try Seche Restore - it's a cult fav.
    You'll also notice that your sheers/light polishes might start to fade (the worst!). I actually find that almost all retailers will take the polish back, even if you don't have a receipt anymore. For instance, CVS is great like that - the reality is, you just never know the age of the polish when you buy it.

  • Emily Baer

    What about Jin Soon Nostalgia?

  • islandfeversisters

    Sheswai just came out with a brand new beautiful pale pink called Whisper. It's beautiful! Here's my photo of it.

  • Pinni

    Ok - so I finally found the perfect soft ballarina pink that's NOT sheer OR shimmery! It used to be Sweetheart by OPI but they have now changed their formulation and it's a yucky pink. Then I discovered Pink Panties by Rococo - perfect and Such a long lasting safe varnish - then they've discontinued that colour

  • Tammy

    I'm looking for a whitish nail polish. Not too pinky not too white By opi or Essie. Thanks!

  • Joy O

    Just tried Samoan Sand by Opi and it is absolutely PERFECT for my pale olive skin tone. I've been searching for such a non-pinky shade forever....thanks for your recommendation!


Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Almost Almond
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Sheer Ecstasy
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Arm Candy
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Sweet Talker
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Shall We Dance?
OPI Classic Shades
OPI Samoan Sand
Saint Laurent
YSL Rose Romantique