The Best Barely-There Nail Polishes


There's an abundance of one kind of polish in the world, and it's of the creamy, sheer, off-white varietal. Nude could mean anything from ballerina pink to a taupey, deep brown depending on skin tone; some have shimmer; some opaque, some barely there, and so on and so on... In the hopes that you will find this useful and not crack under the pressure of your nail salon's polish wall, we tested 45 so-called "nude" or otherwise off-white possibilities so that you don't have to. Our findings below:

The Best Brand:

Ok, yes, we're supposed to break this down to the simplest possible guide, but we're honestly calling this one a tie: Essie delivers with five solid options. 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) are all standouts in their own way.

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 Shell We Dance? (two or three coats) to be great nudes to have in your back pocket (well, not literally—please don't sit on any of these for your sake and the polish's).

The Best Opaque:

The slightly Creamsicle-toned Rococo Nail Apparel’s Playgirl Sheer Gloss, when applied with three to four coats. Though you might feel like you're overdoing it (to the extent that you can overdo it with any of these options), the quick-drying, long-lasting, and formaldehyde-, toluene-, and DBP-free polish has a glossy and smooth finish to keep your nails remarkably refined. If something taupe-ier is more your speed,  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:

If you're looking for shimmer, without overt or even detectable glitter, there's really no contest: Essie’s Nude Beach is it. Either on its own (it's purest after three coats) or on top of any other other polish for an atinge of soft pink, it's a pretty jazzy way to keep your nails low key.

The Best “Are You Really There?” Option:

To maintain the illusion that you're not high maintenance at all and you don't even need nail polish, two barely-perceptible coats of YSL’s Rose Romantique 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—because half the reason to even buy nail polish is to decorate your bathroom vanity.

An unsolicited pro-tip: The trick to choosing a good understated polish comes down to understanding (or, knowing, via a test swipe) the oft-significant difference between how the color appears in the bottle and how it actually looks 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. So speak up in the comments! We can all help each other help our nails. That's the whole point of community, right?

Photos by Elizabeth Brockway.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Alicia Arkell

    Often overlooked, but in my opinion unparalleled is Revlon's nail bright. Best option if all you have time for is one coat. It will also disguise the yellow tinge you get from wearing too much red nail polish. This baby is the only polish coming with me on my three week trip to europe. Keep it simple!!

    • Molly

      I totally need this. So the color is called Bright?

    • Gayle

      This is a color or a top coat or ??

      • Alicia Arkell

        its a clear-ish polish with a slightly cloudy colour and a very subtle blue shimmer.... it makes your nails look super healthy and glow-y ... it's just called Nail Brightener. I put it on top of a strengthening base coat but usually skip the topcoat cause I'm lazy :)

        It's amazing... you should totally get it!!

        • Molly

          I found it, and have it on my toes now. It's seriously the best pale polish I've put on my nails. Thanks so much for the recommendation!!

  • giulia

    I would like to obtain the effect that two/three coats of these shades give, but with just one coat! Is there any nailpolish that works for this??
    Thank you :)

    • Ashley

      try OPI for Sephora in Leotard Optional or OPI Did You Ear About Van Gogh

    • coconut

      I have never discovered one that does 'this magic' just with one coat:( even OPIs, Essie's, Lancome's:(

  • AliciaMathlin

    may I offer Chanel Ballerina to this falls perfectly between the "are you really there?" and opaque options...

    • chicnoir

      I love Chanel's Ballerina. My favorite nude would have to be "Care to Danse"by Opi. I also had a long running thing for Essie's "Sugar Daddy"

      • kerry121209

        maybe try sally hansen 'shell we dance' no.160 it gives the same perfect look as opi, dries really well, lasts over a week and around half the cost :)

    • Nicole Rivera

      Chanel Ballerina is awesome, but I need to also recommend their newest shade-- Secret-- which is absolutely STUNNING. Seriously beautiful nude polish. Just got my nails done in this color over the weekend and I'm in love!

      Thebeautylookbook has some amazing photos of the polish:

  • sashi

    Butter London's Foundation base. It's not quite a color, not a shine - it makes your nail look perfect. ONE COAT!

    • Allegra

      100% agree!

    • Janine

      Kerry Washington's favorite. :)

    • AsphodelJones

      Also completely agree.

  • Haiku Jew

    I love a nude nail
    whispering sheer elegance
    it's "ladies who lunch."

  • Jen

    No swatches? :(

  • njanisch

    Essie 'Sugar Daddy' is the best! Must add to the list haha

  • Victoria

    I picked up Essie Starter Wife because of this post (something similar last year?) and couldn't be happier! Two coats and it's not streaky. Simply perfection on my super fair NW15 skin.

  • Janine

    Ahh my favorite nail color topic. :) I thought I was the only one who loved Essie's "East Hampton Cottage." I would also add Essie "Vanity Fairest." I absolutely "love" that shade. It's perfection.

    Mademoiselle? Meh. It's like clear polish for me.

    I'm also very big on Zoya "Bela" and "Madison" for that perfect pink, not too sheer, not too opaque. (Plus, Zoya never chips; and I type all day for work.)

    One more: I am wearing OPIs "I Love Applause"...omg...I love it. Nude leaning pink. Better than Ballet Slippers. I've had it on all week, no chips. And not thick and chalky.

    • Aparnaa

      Vanity Fairest is pretty much the perfect neutral nail polish, ever.

  • natalie

    I'm really big on "Doll" by RBG. 2 coats. Perfect.

  • Averill B

    OPI Bubble Bath.

  • Sophie Zebell

    I find the (discontinued but readily available on Ebay) Sephora by Opi Nonfat Soy Half Caff to work well in one coat (!) and also be a good option for those of us with medium skin and sort of reddish cuticles, as it is a bit deeper than those mentioned, with a warm undertone. Other nudes tend to clash strangely with my skin, but this one is my perfect match!

  • Clever Girl Reviews

    I need to find a nude that is rose with a little bit of lavender in it too.

    • Nurrah

      OPI Rosy Future (Found on Amazon)

  • kate

    I do like Essie's Minimalistic, but I found a Sinful Colors opaque at Duane Reade that is really great and goes on perfectly in one coat. It's called Easy Going and I'm sure it's a dupe for something.

  • NazNYC

    I also find Essie's shades to be way to sheer and not enough lavender/rose. It makes my hands look life less. I do love the RGB Nudes since they're tailored more or less to skin tones. I think the nicest looking nude by Essie for me is Lady Like but again it's more in a mauve family than nude.

    • Melanie

      Same! Love Lady like though, very beautiful.

  • Olivia

    It definitely goes more into "pinky-taupe" opaque territory, but my one and only forever neutral nail color is OPI Pardon My France-y. It has my heart (or at least my phalanges) forever & ever.

  • Ella

    Nude nail polish is stunning! Definitely going to try out that Rococo brand, it sounds great.

  • Jennifer

    Essie Shop till I drop. One coat. A nice, non-streaky, very sheer, slightly rose color. It looks like you're wearing nothing, just better!

  • phoeb3

    Love Essie's "No baggage please". Sally Hansen's Smooth and Perfect line has a few good choices for a nude...personal fave is "linen" but it does take at least two coats.

  • Emma Hager

    Mmmmm love a nude nail. It says everything and nothing, like a demure glance.

  • elise

    Chanel Inattendu is underrated but delivers!

  • Jaclyn

    Deborah Lippmann in naked, hands down the best.

  • Peaches

    I love nudes! Opi's samoan sand is perfect.

  • Susanna

    Wet & Wild 2% Milk!!!! It is slightly white but not nearly white enough to be called 2% milk, I get compliments every time i wear it and it is only two bucks.

  • mcb1917

    H&M's pink mist is my absolute favorite barely there pinky nude! only $4.95 a bottle.

  • pamb

    I appreciate that you listed the number of coats needed for optimal nudeness. I don't think I've read that anywhere else, and it really makes sense!

  • Guest

    Did anyone mention Jenna Hipp x RGB's excellent nude shades for brown skin, or is this just another pink fest?

  • andee

    The world is divided into those women who love Essie sheers and those who think they streak and don't last. I am in the latter camp. I am currently using the discontinued formula of MAC polish in either Faint of Heart, which is an off-while milky sheer or Delicate, which is a little too grayish on me, but milky sheer enough to work, light pink. MAC seems to have continued to manufacture Delicate in the new formula, but not Faint of Heart, which I really like. MAC's old formula is pretty non-streaky in 2 coats and lasts with a top coat on me reasonably well for 4-5 days.

  • coffeetoo

    essie Sand Tropez, friends!

  • Rosie

    anyone ever try the Hipp x RGB nail foundations and nudes? they have different ones for a range of skintones and they look awesome

  • Anna

    Essie's "Sugar Daddy" is a great one if you like that pink tinge that's still translucent. "Mademoiselle" is awesome too but less pink, so "Sugar Daddy" is more my speed. Sally Hansen's "Almost Almond" is very pretty, but for some reason it never dries all the way for me, even after 12+ hours and just two coats!

  • Sylvie

    Two coats of Julep "Carol" are pale perfection for my super fair skin. They give a tinge of glowy translucent pink.

  • Lelaina

    Chanel's "Tenderesse": beautiful with only one coat, but also two or three will do, depending on how "nude" you wanna get.
    I also LOVE Dior's" Nail Glow", though ist's not nude, just a healthy glow.

  • Dina

    OPI Barefoot in Barcelona or OPI Dulce de leche - gorgeous on olive tones :)

  • renaphuah

    Jin Soon's nudes - Nostalgia!

  • mystilettolife

    I love light pink polishes...always a classic look and you can't tell if they chip!

  • shaina

    Am I the only one who likes to mix and layer to create new colors? I have a hard time finding the right "barely-there" shades so I mix and blend them myself! Some of my favorite combinations are Essie Starter Wife with Sugar Daddy and Essie Sugar Daddy with Vanity Fairest. I also like Deborah Lippmann Naked with Baby Love.

  • Melanie

    I wish I could pull off nudes but they wash me out no matter what..and I find pinks to be too cloying on me. I rather prefer subtle mauve pinks and more purple toned pinks if I'm going to wear them.
    Any suggestions?

  • stonecoldcuddlewhore

    rock candy by Essie and Samoan Sand by OPI. DONE.

  • mariavidel

    i hate nail polish and this is the only color i use.....whenever i have to.

  • Rachel Nabors

    Fair, cool skin tones looking for something with easy upkeep and so subtle nobody knows you're wearing it, but they totally notice you look put together? Essie's Sugar Daddy and All in One base and top coat. Sandwich just one layer of Sugar Daddy between two coats of All in One, and you will have a fully dried, never tacky, lovely boost to your natural nails. It's almost but not quite a french manicure.

  • Lala

    We could never forget about Essie white-but-not-tipex pink on the market.


essie Nail Polish – Pinks
essie Nail Polish – Whites
essie sheers
essie sheers nail color
essie Nail Polish Beiges
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Nail Polish, Almost Almond
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Nail Polish, Sheer Ecstasy
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure
Sally Hansen Nail Polish, Shell We Dance
Rococo Nail Apparel
Rococo Playgirl Sheer Gloss Nail Polish
OPI Classic Collection Nail Lacquer
Yves Saint Laurent Beauty
Yves Saint Laurent 'La Laque Couture' Nail Lacquer