Nail polish, and my wearing of it
I've been painting my nails since March of 2016.
I'm partial to glittery polishes, blue polishes, and glittery blue polishes. My first polish, back in 2016, was L.A. Colors “Wired”; these days, my favorite is OPI “Do You Sea What I Sea” [sic]. The latter gets the most compliments by far.
Nail polish is not something that most people expect to see on a masculine-looking person such as myself. (I almost always have a full beard and, these days, short hair.) And yet, most people are supportive; I often get compliments. Children stare in wonder. Only rarely do I get a dirty look from some jerk.
I particularly enjoy children seeing my nails. Our biases are learned, and the best time to unlearn them is early; I hope I've helped accomplish that and I hope to continue doing so.
On this page, I'll gather the pictures I've been posting on Twitter (usually with the hashtag #NailPolish), along with identification of what polish I was wearing at the time. I'm also going to document what I've learned about applying and wearing nail polish.
Frequently asked questions
- Who does your nails? / Did you do that yourself?
As of February 2020, I have never had my nails painted by someone else, professionally or otherwise. I've only ever painted them myself.
I am kind of curious to get them professionally painted, but also have no real reason to, since I'm apparently really good at painting my own nails, it saves money, and I find it's a good time to watch TV or “Critical Role” or something, which I wouldn't be able to do at a salon.
- How long do they last?
One to two weeks. (See “What I've learned” for some of my observations of how best to achieve this.)
- Do you use gel polish?
Not so far. As of February 2020, I have never used gel polish (the kind that has to be set using a UV lamp). All my polishes are air-dry.
- Are your nails always painted?
No, not all the time. I may be busy, or lazy, or have enough time to strip a paint job that's fallen to ruin but not to apply a new one. So sometimes I'll go unpainted for a bit. This is OK; turning enjoyments into obligations is bad.
- How long does it take?
About an hour to paint all ten of my nails, including setting times for each coat. Also, it takes half an hour to strip all ten nails, and if I need to trim my nails in between stripping and repainting, there's additional time there. Hence the TV-watching: I can knock out at least a couple of cartoon episodes, one or two hour-long shows, or a movie or MST3K episode, and that's enough time for me to do whatever I'm going to do, and something to do during setting times.
Because I like the colors that I use. I like choosing those colors rather than just leaving my nails at their default appearance.
Because I enjoy the process, the time of focused practice that is sitting down to paint my nails.
Because it occupies my hands while I watch TV (and, inversely, the TV occupies my mind while my nails dry).
And because it challenges expectations and assumptions about what a man looks like, or who wears nail polish. Yes, dudes can wear nail polish, too. This exertion of agency over one's own appearance is something everyone should be able to enjoy.
What I've learned
Base and top coat
- Base coat is essential. It helps keep your nails from getting stained and helps the polish adhere, like a primer.
- Top coat is also essential. It does two things: one is it provides a glossy (or matte) finish, and the other is it's ablative nail armor—the top coat wears down before the paint job does. You can touch up your top coat—that is, apply another coat of it—starting a day or two later, and again at one week, to help keep the paint job protected and looking fresh.
- Base coat doesn't vary too much, but it expires after a year or two. It also often changes color, though the color change depends on the brand: Sally Beauty Supply's store brand “Beauty Secrets” is pink when new, yellow when expired, whereas OPI's “Natural Nail” base coat is clear when new and purple when expired. The more expired a base coat is, the less time a paint job lasts before the polish starts flaking off.
- Sally Hansen “Dries Instantly” (not to be confused with “Insta-Dri” by the same company) is my current favorite top coat. It dries in about 15 minutes. OPI “RapiDry” is also good.
- Thin coats—of base coat, polish, and top coat—are best. Thick coats won't set properly. Pressing lightly into the brush will splay out the bristles and spread out whatever's on the brush over a wider area (and thus more thinly).
- Nail polish thinner is a thing you can buy. Nasty stuff, so don't spill it on anything or breathe too close to it. Pour a small amount into an eyedropper bottle from the Container Store, then add a drop or two of thinner to a bottle of any polish that's too thick.
- Always do multiple coats of color polishes. One coat is never enough. Two coats often isn't, either. I usually do three.
- Always do one coat at a time of top coat. Let it set for at least a day before you apply another coat.
- I used to wait ten minutes after each coat of color polish. Then I cut back to five minutes. Now I do three minutes. I probably only need two minutes, but my Watch's timer app doesn't have a preset for that. (That's two minutes after the last nail—each nail that you paint will be setting while you paint other nails, in addition to the two minutes of doing nothing.)
Protecting your paint job
- You have to baby your paint job for at least several hours before you can trust it to survive casual contact with the edge of a drawer or something. This is why I apply my polish (and wait out the final 15-minute setting period on my top coat) shortly before bed. Once I wake up, it'll survive most things that aren't solvent or abrasive.
- Zippers, cellophane wrapping, and vinyl are among the enemies of a fresh paint job.
- Soap and water won't hurt a paint job, but alcohol (including hand sanitizer) will. Try to keep any sort of chemical product (that isn't made to go on nails) off of your nails if at all possible. Same goes for all-purpose cleaner, vinegar, etc.
- Have some reusable rubber gloves for cleaning, and disposable latex or nitrile gloves for other tasks where something might spill on your hands that might mess up your nails—e.g., working with alcohol or acetone.
- Longer nails flex more, which is one cause of cracking and flaking. Short nails last longer. (I suspect this is the point of “nail hardening” base coats and other products, though I've never used them.)
- Nail polish has four basic failure modes: Smudging, which is only possible before the polish and top coat have fully set; ablation, which happens over time with normal wear-and-tear; cracking; and de-adhesion. The last two together are a fifth, flaking: a section of the paint job detaches from the rest of it and from the nail. But they don't necessarily go together: polish can crack while it's still on your nails, with either age or exposure to chemicals such as alcohol; and it can fall off all in one piece (especially if your nails get long enough that they can flex, and the adhesion breaks before the paint job itself does).
Nail polish remover
- Daiso sells good cotton squares—in two-packs of boxes of 90—and nail polish remover. 99¢ Only also sells good cotton squares. Dollar Tree sells good dispenser bottles for the remover. I pour some of the remover from the original bottle into the dispenser bottle, then press a cotton square to the dispenser's fountain multiple times to soak a section of it with remover.
- If you mess up your paint job (e.g., by bumping something while it's fresh, or getting alcohol or something on it), apply a remover-soaked cotton square very briefly/gently to remove only the top coat, as best you can. Doing this successfully will have the color and/or glitter polishes intact, but with a dull rather than glossy luster. Then, paint a new layer of the color and/or glitter polishes, then apply a fresh layer of top coat over it, with the usual wait times.
- There are several kinds of nail polish remover. The kind that isn't some specific variety is yellow and is somewhat gentler on your nails and hands than 100% acetone, and is the kind I use.
- Glitter polish lasts longer—and is harder to remove—than solid-color polish. The glitter acts as a binder. The same goes for paint jobs where you added a clear glitter polish overtop.
- There are glitter-enhanced nail polishes, and then there are glitter polishes are just glitter in a clear or very transparent liquid base. The latter won't necessarily look like much if applied directly to a (base-coated) nail; a solid-color or metallic polish can give the glitter a backdrop, a ground in art terms, to shine against.
- You can apply clear glitter polishes using a makeup sponge to soak up the liquid base. Paint the polish onto the sponge in the shape of your nail, then press the sponge to your nail. You'll get way better and more consistent coverage this way, without stacking up layer after layer of clear polish.
- On the flip side, a fun trick is to apply glitter polish (or maybe other nail art) on top of one layer of top coat. You can set up some extremely minimal parallax this way.
- Photographing glitter polishes is tricky. It's best done with a good camera in broad daylight.
- Painting your nails goes really well with watching TV (or movies, longplays, “Critical Role”, etc.), especially in this wondrous era of the pause button. I pause whenever I'm actually painting, and watch whenever I'm waiting for a coat to set. An hour or so of watching is a good amount to pair with a nail-painting session.
- I try to keep all the polish on my nails and off of my cuticles, but it's not the end of the world when I color outside the lines a little bit. Don't do it intentionally, since it dries your skin out, but also you don't need to worry about trying to clean it off; without base coat and a nail to stick to, the excess polish will fall off in a day or two. Be bold and go to the edge.
- It's often hard to tell from looking at the bottle's contents what it's going to look like on your nails. (Glitter polishes especially; they look like solid patterns of rainbow points but often are mostly clear.) What you saw on the shelf will not always be what you get on your nails. You'll just have to improvise when that happens.
- Metallic nail polish exists, but no-one's perfected a chrome finish just yet, so expect it to have a somewhat powdery pattern to it. Figure out how to work with that—it can be a good ground for glitter polishes, or an ingredient in nail art (e.g., gold metallic over solid green ground for a circuit-board look).
- Green polishes are, for some reason, rarer than hen's teeth. Neon green is a thing. Bluish greens are a thing. Bad greens are a thing. I've seen an olive drab and a couple of light greens. And there's plenty of blue and every imaginable variation on red. But a good forest green? Haven't seen it yet.
- I made a work surface out of a couple of place-mat-sized rectangles of corrugated cardboard that I cut out of a box and taped over the edges with blue tape. (I cut the second rectangle at 90° to the first, so the rectangles' corrugations are perpendicular to each other, creating a rigid but lightweight object.) Drips are rare, but this catches them—and it has caught a couple.
- The base coat, polish, and top coat each come in a glass bottle with a screw top on it. The top has a brush inside; no additional brushes are required unless you're doing nail art that might require pointed or smaller brushes.
- I've used OPI “Natural Nail” and Seche Vite “Seche Clear” base coats, and Sally Hansen “Dries Instantly” top coat.
- Makeup sponges for glitter polish.
- Cotton squares/rectangles from Daiso; nail polish remover from basically anywhere (but usually Daiso or Dollar Tree); remover dispenser bottles from Dollar Tree.
- A work lamp, on a gooseneck or something like one, that enables me to direct light on my nails.
- A back scratcher, so I can scratch that random itch that so often arises while a coat of polish or the final top coat is setting without using my nails to do it and messing them up.
Places to buy nail polish and other related supplies
- Dollar stores (particularly Dollar Tree and Daiso)
- Beauty supply shops
- Grocery stores (very limited selection)
Step-by-step, how I paint my nails
- I get out my work surface first. Don't want any drips on anything important.
- If my polish needs thinning, that happens before I get started. Apply one or two drops into the bottle of polish, then put the cap back on—tightly—and swirl the bottle around. By the time you're ready to apply it, it should be suitably thinned.
- Apply the base coat to all nails.
- Immediately after that, apply the first coat of color polish. Then wait three minutes.
- Apply the second coat of color polish. Then wait three minutes.
- Apply the third coat of color polish. Then wait three minutes.
- If applying glitter overtop: Paint the glitter polish onto a makeup sponge, then press the sponge to the nail. Repeat for each nail. Wait three minutes.
- If applying glitter overtop: Do another layer of glitter if necessary.
- Apply top coat. Wait 15 minutes.
- Go to bed.
2016-03-19: My first polish, L.A. Colors “Wired”, bought at Dollar Tree along with cheap base coat and top coat. This picture is of my very first nail polish job, back in 2016—a little messy round the edges, but still a really promising start.
When I tweeted out this pic, the text was “I did something different.”
2016-11-04: I think this is the only one I've photographed myself wearing that I don't actually own—this is from a tester at Sephora. It's called “Centigrade”, though I don't know who the manufacturer was/is.
2017-01-01: The accessories store chain Claire's, a fixture at many malls, has its own house brand of nail polishes, including glow-in-the-darks and—seen here—metallic.
As I noted on Twitter, this bottle advised the wearer to “shake well”, and they aren't kidding about that. The second picture shows off some of the streaks that resulted from failing to keep the polish well-shaken.
2017-08-06: OPI's “Do You Sea What I Sea” quickly became my permanent favorite. It's still my favorite to this day, and it's the one that gets the most compliments by far.
2017-10-08: This one is “Northern Lights” by Target's “Defy & Inspire” brand. Sadly, I don't think Defy & Inspire has a stable roster; everything is seasonal, which means this polish is long gone.
2018-05-14: L.A. Colors “Twilight”. Possibly the darkest polish I've worn.
2018-05-23: L.A. Colors “Unicorn Magic” glitter polish. This was my first usage, without any sort of ground, which is why the pink base liquid is visible. You can also see the base coat and top coat I was using at the time; the former is no longer sold AFAICT.
2018-06-10: Comparison between two glitter polishes by L.A. Colors. There's basically no difference visible from outside the bottle, but the one on the left, “Unicorn Magic”, has a pink base liquid rather than clear. Applying over a metallic ground helps eliminate the difference between them on your nails; I hadn't learned the makeup-sponge trick yet when I took this pic, but I imagine it would completely erase any remaining difference.
2018-07-14: OPI “Do You Sea What I Sea” again. “One of my favorite things about #nailpolish has been matching my dress shirts to it.” Here I was going to the SF Symphony for one of a three-night series; I wore green to one, blue to another, and red to another. (I've also worn a white shirt and matched my nails to my tie.)
2018-07-28: “Symphony selfie #2”, I described this one. I'm pretty sure this is Essie #528, a basic red polish I'd previously used for Christmas red-and-green.
2018-08-03: It's hard to tell by the nail color (thanks to being in shadow) but my nails are green here, same as my shirt. This was the third symphony performance in the series. I don't actually remember which of my handful of green polishes I used here; possibly one that I'd gotten at Daiso that they no longer sell.
2018-11-03: One of L.A. Colors's other lines is some solid-color metallics. Gray and gold are represented, of course, but they also have a pastel purple and a teal. This is the teal one. This is one of the few times I've worn metallic polish without adding glitter over it.
2018-12-23: Mineral Fusion red and green solid-color polishes, bought at Sprouts. As usual, I'm not happy with this green—I wanted a forest green, and this is lighter than that. As you might guess, this was for Christmas.
2019-01-13: Remember “Unicorn Magic”, the glitter polish shown above? This is the other one, “Glitter Bomb”. Even the glitter itself is less colorful. Moreover, as I noted on Twitter (with this photo), it “contains some larger glitter flakes that, whenever they don’t catch the light, just look like holes in the paint job”.
2019-02-08: An L.A. Colors polish named “Mermaid”. Confusingly, they also have one by the same name under their “Mermaid Magic” line; that one is darker.
2019-02-19: This one by L.A. Colors is called “Island Dream”. Most of my color polishes that aren't straight-up blue are this kind of thing.
2019-04-01: This picture was from after an event that had a pastel theme, as demonstrated by the Caboodle box I'm holding. Accordingly, I wore my suit with a pastel purple dress shirt, a pastel blue tie, and a matching pastel blue nail polish: L.A. Colors “Sea Life”, in their “Mermaid Magic” line.
2020-01-20: This one's from after I'd learned the makeup-sponge trick. Here I used a solid-color polish—which, as you'll have noticed by this point, I practically never wear by itself—with a glitter polish applied overtop. I had wished that I'd gotten more glitter coverage (I probably could have applied more coats of it); as it is, the result was a sort of robin's-egg look (notwithstanding the base color being a different blue).
2020-02-14: “Cobalt” by L.A. Colors.
2020-07-19: Sassy+Chic #903 (unnamed), with Sinful Colors “Teal Midnight” glitter polish over it.
2020-10-08: Essie #1659 “Once in a Blue Moon”. This is a 2020 seasonal color.
2020-10-22: Essie #1657 “Broom with a View”. This is another 2020 seasonal color.
2020-11-03: KleanColor #47 “Gold Bright”. I don't normally wear yellow (as you'll have gathered) but I was volunteering with Election Defenders, and their color scheme for volunteers is to wear yellow/gold. I actually bought this for nail art (to draw circuit boards on my nails—part of why I want a decent green) but haven't gotten around to it. I think I bought this at Daiso, which no longer sells this brand.