Nail polish

Nail polish or nail varnish is a lacquer that is applied to the nails of both the fingers and toes, usually cosmetically, but also as protection for the nails. The act of simply polishing the nails without applying a chemical layer afterwards is called nail buffing.


Nail polish seems to have been originated by the Chinese around 3000 B.C. The Japanese and Italians are thought to have been the first ones to actually use nail polish. The Chinese used a colored lacquer, made from a combination of arabic gum, egg whites, gelatin and beeswax. They also used a mixture consisting of mashed rose, orchid and impatien petals combined with alum. This mixture, when applied to nails for a few hours or overnight, leaves a color ranging from pink to red. The Egyptians used reddish-brown stains derived from the henna plant to color their nails as well as the tips of their fingers. Today, some people still use henna dyes to draw intricate, temporary designs on their hands in a practice known as Mehndi. Chou Dynasty of 600 B.C., Chinese royalty often chose gold and silver to enhance their nails. A fifteenth-century Ming manuscript cites red and black as the colors chosen by royalty for centuries previous. The Egyptians also used nail color to signify social order, with shades of red at the top. Queen Nefertiti, wife of the king Akhenaton, colored her finger and toe nails ruby red; Cleopatra favored a deep rust red. Women of lower rank who colored their nails were permitted only pale hues. Incas were known for decorating their fingernails with pictures of eagles. It is unclear how the practice of coloring nails progressed following these ancient beginnings. Portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries include shiny nails.. By the turn of the 19th century, nails were tinted with scented red oils and polished or buffed with a chamois cloth, rather than simply painted. In addition, English and US 19th century cookbooks contained directions for making nail paints. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women still pursued a polished, rather than painted, look by massaging tinted powders and creams into their nails, then buffing them shiny. One such polishing product sold around this time was Graf’s Hyglo nail polish paste. Some women during this period painted their nails using a clear, glossy varnish applied with camel-hair brushes. When automobile paint was created around 1920, it inspired the introduction of colored nail enamels. Michelle Ménard is credited with inventing the beginnings of our present colored nail lacquers.


Most nail polishes are made of nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent (e.g. butyl acetate or ethyl acetate) and either left clear or colored with various pigments. Basic components included are: film forming agents, resins and plasticizers, solvents, and coloring agents. Adhesive polymers (e.g. tosylamide-formaldehyde resin) ensure the nitrocellulose adheres to the nail's surface. Plasticizers (e.g. camphor) are chemicals that link between polymer chains, spacing them to make the film sufficiently flexible after drying. Pigments and sparkling particles (e.g. mica) add desired color and reflecting characteristics. Thickening agents (e.g. stearalkonium hectorite) are added to maintain the sparkling particles in suspension while in the bottle. Ultraviolet stabilizers (e.g. benzophenone-1) resist color changes when the dry film is exposed to direct sunlight.

Nail polish makers have been under pressure to reduce or eliminate potentially toxic ingredients, including phthalates, toluene, and formaldehyde, from their nail polish. In September 2006, several makers agreed to phase out dibutyl phthalate, which has been linked to testicular problems in lab animals and humans, in updated formulations. Though some makers recently agreed to eliminate formaldehyde from their products, others still use the chemical.

A recent (ca. 2003) development is water-based nail polish, which is based on an acrylic polymer emulsion (e.g. styrene-acrylate copolymer), and pigments similar to those used in watercolor paints. This is marketed as a more environmentally-conscious product, since nail polish is considered a hazardous waste by some regulatory bodies (e.g. Los Angeles Department of Public Works) In this application, the solvent (water) does not completely evaporate as in the case of the traditional nail polish; part of the water is absorbed through the fingernail.

Nail polish in fashion

Nail polish is traditionally worn by women, but it is gaining popularity with men as well, who may apply it to their fingernails, toenails, or both.

Traditional colors for nail polish are red, all types of pink and flesh-colored shades, although more unusual shades are also available, such as yellow, orange, black and even green. French manicures traditionally mimic the colors of natural nails, with flesh tones on most of the nail and white at the tips. Today, nail polish can be found in nearly every color and shade desired. It is believed that the film Pulp Fiction started a trend for a shade of dark red nail polish during the mid-1990s, after Uma Thurman's character wore Chanel's "Rouge Noir" (known as "Vamp" in the USA) throughout. Black or other very dark nail polish has been popular with goths and punks of both genders since the 1970s, however it has now gained popularity in the mainstream fashion world. Nail polish may also be used to complete an outfit. In this case, women, and occasionally men, match the color of the nail polish to the colors of the clothing.

Some men also wear nail polish (typically fingernail polish). Musicians, particularly of the rock & metal genres, such as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Richard Kruspe, Dave Navarro, Marilyn Manson, Steven Tyler, Kirk Hammett, Brian Molko, Lou Reed, Martin Gore, Davey Havok, Gerard Way, Pete Wentz, Bill Kaulitz, Lauri Ylönen, Jonne Aaron & Sir Christus, Ville Valo, Tuomas Holopainen and Alexi Laiho have been known to wear nail polish - most notably black colored polish. In 1997, the cosmetic company Hard Candy released Candy Man, a nail polish brand aimed specifically at men. It featured colors such as Testosterone (gunmetal grey), Gigolo (silver-specked black), Superman (midnight blue), and Dog (deep purple). Many professional men will choose to follow a pedicure with clear nail polish, although black and other darker colors are gaining popularity with more men.

Some types of polish are advertised to cause nail growth, make nails stronger, prevent nails from breaking, cracking and splitting and stop nail biting. Nail polish may be applied as one of several components in a manicure. However, some kinds of nail treatments contain ingredients such as ammonium hexafluorophosphate.

Nail polish remover

Nail polish is easily removed with nail polish remover, which is basically an organic solvent but may also include oils, scents and coloring. Nail polish remover comes in a variety of different packages including individual felt pads soaked in remover, a bottle of liquid remover that can be used with a cotton ball and even containers filled with foam and remover that can be used by inserting a finger into the container and twisting until the polish comes off.

The base solvent in nail polish remover is usually acetone or ethyl acetate. Acetonitrile has also been used in the past, but is more toxic: two cases have been reported of accidental poisoning of young children by acetonitrile-based nail polish remover, one of which was fatal. Acetonitrile has been banned in cosmetics (including nail polish removers) in the European Economic Area since 2000-03-17.

The remover used with water-based polish is a plant-derived emulsion, and is considered non-toxic and non-hazardous-waste.

See also


  • Charles Panati , Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things Harper & Row Copyright 1987
  • Vanni Contingo, Article published in COSMO Magazine, copyright 2007

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