The Ultimate Guide to Gorgeous Nails

There’s news in the nail world: Salons are offering more services than ever before, polishes are getting cleaner—and French manicures are getting dirtier. Let us bring you up to speed.

In this Article:
What's New on the Spa Menu
Is Your Manicurist Being Treated Fairly?
The "Clean" Polish Guide
Nail Rehab: How to Fix Damaged Nails
How to Speed Up Your Manicure


(Image credit: Marie Claire)

Your local salon’s offerings can be confusing if you don’t know the lingo. Essie global lead educator Rita Remark explains each service.

Polish Manicure

Made primarily of pigments and flexible polymers, traditional enamel air-dries and lasts about a week.


The Dirty French
The spring runways offered lots of subversive twists on the classic French manicure: unexpected hues, off-kilter stripes, and glitter gone rogue. Here, Essie’ Rita Remark created several versions of the trend. Pick one and paint it on all 10 digits, or wear several designs at once. It’s rebellious—yet still refined.

(Image credit: Future)

Gel Manicure

Applied from a bottle, soft gels are a blend of acrylic oligomers and pigment that needs to be “cured” with a LED or UV light. Gels look plump on your nails, and results usually last up to 14 days. FYI: If a salon manicure or at-home product is labeled “gel” but doesn’t require curing, it’s something different. “Companies may use the term gel to describe a product that is thicker in texture or lasts slightly longer,” says Remark, but they’re basically just long-wear polishes.

Acrylic Manicure or Acrylic Set

When you hear the word acrylics, here’s what manicurists are usually talking about: acrylic powder that’s been applied to nails using a brush with a liquid monomer (which helps the powder bind), then shaped over the nails—or beyond—to elongate them. The mixture hardens on contact with the air, and then you can brush on polish or gel if the acrylic isn’t pigmented. “They’re the strongest nail coating,” says Remark, and they potentially last up to three weeks. However, your nails will grow, exposing new (bare) nail and inviting damage. That’s why manicurists recommend refills every two weeks.

Dip Manicure

Dips are made of an acrylic powder and a liquid activating agent. The technician applies a bonding base to your nail, dips your fingertip into the acrylic mixture, then coats it with an activator. Some people believe dips last longer than standard acrylics, but there’s no evidence, says Remark. Plus, she raises a hygienic flag: “If your manicurist isn’t taking powder out of its pot and putting it in a new dish, it’s kind of like double-dipping with your waxing stick.” So make sure you’re getting fresh materials.


These clear plastic pieces are glued to nails to make them look longer. Your manicurist will apply acrylic over the tips for a realistic look, then follow with colored polish if the acrylic was clear.


(Image credit: Future)

Have you ever thought that $10 seems awfully cheap for a manicure or wondered how nail technicians can stand the smell of salon chemicals all day long? You should be concerned: Improper compensation and unsanitary conditions are common abuses in the salon industry, and a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (among others) shows that technicians can develop health problems due to prolonged exposure to chemicals and materials in unsafe doses. In order to be an ethical patron, it’s important to take your business to a salon that cares for its workers. Here are some ways to tell if your go-to spot is treating its employees right:

There are visible trash receptacles.

“Look for covered garbage cans next to every station,” says Amy Lin, founder of the New York City salon chain Sundays. This means technicians are disposing of used materials properly and the lids trap any fumes that could cause dizziness or headaches.

The tools are squeaky clean.

With fresh tools, your technician won’t be exposing herself (and you) to bacteria. Nail tools should be taken from a sanitizing box with bacteria-killing UV light that’s clearly on and lit. (You can’t always trust tools in a sealed package; some proprietors seal used tools to make them appear clean.)

Ventilation is visible and effective.

“Fans aren’t enough to keep fresh air circulating throughout the salon,” says Lin. Keep your eyes peeled for vents that are noticeably circulating air throughout the space.

Rates aren’t extremely low.

“If the salon sits on prime real estate and the prices seem low, there’s
a chance the technicians aren’t being compensated fairly,” says Lin. For example, as of 2019, New York City’s minimum wage for tipped workers is $10.20 an hour, and a manicure takes at least 30 minutes. While the fee you pay compensates the worker, there’s also the cost of products, tools, and rent. Generally, that means a manicure should cost at least $15. And Lin recommends you tip the technician in cash directly.

Clean polish

(Image credit: Future)

“‘Natural’ or ‘clean’ polish is somewhat of a misnomer, as nail polish is not something that grows or can be found in nature,” explains New York City– based dermatologist Dana Stern, who specializes in nail health. But as consumers become more conscious about what they’re putting on their bodies, companies are taking certain ingredients out of their formulas and calling them “clean.” But there is no government standard for what this term means. (Companies and retailers can have their own definitions and lists of no-no ingredients.) In the nail world, most brands label their polishes by the number of “non-clean” ingredients left out (“3-Free,” “5-Free,” etc.). Here’s what those categorizations mean and why some of the omitted ingredients may have a bad rap.

3-Free: This baseline for healthy polish omits these three ingredients, which are universally shunned by the modern nail industry.


Still used as a preservative in cosmetics, this known carcinogen is also linked to asthma.

Phthalates (like DBP)

This class of plasticizing chemicals, used to make products more pliable, can disrupt the reproductive system and may cause birth defects.


The toxic ingredient, which helps to suspend pigment evenly
in a formula, can damage the nervous system and cause birth defects.

5-Free: These two additional chemicals may cause concerns, so they’re sometimes removed as well.

Formaldehyde resin

Often used to add shine and durability to a polish, the substance has been shown to cause allergic reactions for some people.


This compound may be used to keep polishes from cracking, but inhaling it has been shown to cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea.

7-Free, 8-Free, 10-Free, and Beyond

Brands may remove additional materials, such as the plasticizer ethyl tosylamide, which can cause antibiotic resistance, or others irritants or ingredients rumored to cause disruptions to the body. But many companies ditch ingredients simply because of negative consumer perceptions (often fueled by online rumors or a general assumption that chemicals are “bad”) rather than scientific evidence.

The Clean Crew: Health-conscious polish brands are cropping up everywhere. Here, the best formulas of the bunch.

nail fix

(Image credit: Future)

Hangnails. Bleeding cuticles. Tips with the pliability of papier-mâché. Reader, you have trash nails, and you’re not alone. Here’s how to bring beaten-down nails back to their former glory, according to manicurist Miss Pop.

speed up your manicure

(Image credit: Future)

If you just don’t have the time to spare—or you can’t trust yourself to let all 10 digits set without smudging—try these solutions.

This story appears in the February 2020 issue of Marie Claire.

Photographer: Kathryn Wirsing.
Manicurist: Rita Remark.

Third section image via Stocksy.

Taylore  Glynn

Taylore Glynn is the Beauty and Health Editor at Marie Claire, covering skincare, makeup, fragrance, wellness, and more. If you need her, she’s probably roasting a chicken, flying solo at the movies, or drinking a bad Negroni at JFK.