The practice of adding color to fingernails appears to have begun with the Japanese and Italians around 3000 B.C. The Chinese used a colored lacquer, made from a combination of gum Arabic, 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.
It is unclear exactly how the practice of coloring nails progressed following these ancient beginnings. 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. Even a century later, 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 modern day colored nail lacquers.
The color and condition of a person’s nails has long been an indication of social status. In ancient times women were identified and separated from men by the color of their nails. Different tribes had different nail art; for example the Incas were well known for the eagles decorated on their fingernails.
Nail condition also identified common laborers, as they worked with their hands, having a finely manicured set of nails was not only impractical for them; it was an extravagance they couldn’t afford. Thus, only wealthy aristocrats from ancient times were seen with finely trimmed and decorated nails. During the Chou Dynasty of 600 B.C., Chinese royalty often choose 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 fingers and toes nails ruby red and Cleopatra favored a deep rust red. Women of lower rank who colored their nails were permitted only pale hues, and no woman dared to flaunt the color worn by the queen – or king, as Egyptian men, too, sported painted nails.
Most nail polishes are made of nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent and either left clear or colored with various pigments. Basic components included are: film forming agents, resins and plasticizers, solvents, and coloring agents.
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.
Nail polish is traditionally worn by women, who may apply it to their fingernails, toenails, or both.
Traditional colors for nail polish are red, pink and flesh-colored shades, although more unusual shades are also available. 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.
Colors with glitter and a metallic sheen have also become popular among the teens of today. With the intial red losing its fame, metallic purple and colors with a shade of pearl are gaining the spotlight of the teen’s cosmetic world. Clear nail polish is also a great favorite.
Some men also use nail polish (typically fingernail polish). Rock stars such as Marilyn Manson, Placebo’s Brian Molko, Lou Reed, Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, AFI’s Davey Havok, My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, The Rasmus’ Lauri Ylönen, Negative‘s Jonne Aaron and Sir Christus, HIM’s Ville Valo, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett NOFX‘s Fat Mike (for toenail polish) and Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho have been known to wear nail polish.
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.