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?
Photos by Elizabeth Brockway.