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What is Nail Varnish?

By Erica Stratton
Updated May 21, 2024
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Nail varnish is almost any type of paint applied to the fingernails for cosmetic purposes. Other names include nail polish, nail lacquer, nail enamel and fingernail polish. "Nail varnish" is the preferred term when used in the United Kingdom. It usually comes in a small bottle with an attached brush for application.

Today's nail varnish was first formulated in the 1920s by the American Revlon company. Brothers Charles Revson and Martin Revson, chemist Charles Lachman and French make-up artist Michelle Menard worked together to create a nail polish that wouldn't chip easily and could be stored for years. They were inspired by the newly formulated types of car paint and thought it had cross-applications for the beauty industry.

Originally, nail polish only came in red. It was released at roughly the same time as Technicolor films came out, and female movie stars began wearing the new cosmetic. This was quite a change from the previous era, when only "loose" women wore makeup. The new popularity of nail varnish launched the Revlon cosmetics company.

Since its inception, many details of nail polish have been improved while the basic formula remains the same. It now comes in a range of thousands of colors. Chips of mica are often suspended in it to provide sparkle. The greatest challenge is having the paint elements separate after several years, which many manufacturers still view as a hurdle to overcome.

There has been some concern over the most common ingredients in nail varnish. Formaldehyde, toulene and dibutyl phthalate may cause birth defects for pregnant women. In response, nail varnishes using milder chemicals, such as acetate or acetone, have been developed. Nail polish made with these chemicals wears at a slightly faster rate, but otherwise, it acts like a traditional nail polish.

So-called "organic" nail polishes have been manufactured in response to health concerns. "Organic" is a misnomer, since there are no organic standards for nail polish set forth by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Nevertheless, many "organic" nail polishes describe their products as non-toxic and water-based. Due to the lack of harsh chemicals, water-based nail polishes do not have the strong scent that is usually associated with nail varnish, and they wear off more quickly.

The cosmetic tradition of decorating the nails did not begin with Revlon's invention in the 1920s. Henna, gold leaf and silver leaf have been applied to the nails by fashionistas in many different cultures throughout history. In Victorian times, women would apply a paste to their nails and buff them to a shine. Clear lacquer was also used. Before Revlon's new formula, a type of nail polish was brewed from leftover cellulite scraps. Color and scent were added before it was bottled for nail application.

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Discussion Comments
By Heavanet — On Aug 30, 2014

@spotiche5- I love nude nail polish because it goes with everything and doesn't show chips like darker colors do. It can look a bit boring though, but there are ways to avoid this.

Using a nude color that has a pinkish hue to it gives the polish a little more pizzazz than beige nude colors. It also looks great for daily wear or special occasions.

Another way to add more life to a nude nail polish is to add a top coat with glitter. This adds more depth to the color, and also makes your nails look extra shiny.

You can also turn nude nail polish into a classic French manicure by using a white nail polish on your nail tips. This look is anything but boring, and gives your hands a very pretty and professional look.

By Spotiche5 — On Aug 29, 2014

I've heard that nude nail varnish or polish is in style. Does anyone have some tips for wearing this color without turning out too dull or boring?

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