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The Best Barely-There Nail Polishes

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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.

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