Right now, beauty falls into two main trend camps that happily coexist (and often overlap). There’s the maximalist movement, encouraging expressive creation—whether with more ‘done’ hairstyles, artistic make up, or intricately designed nails. Then there’s the minimalist aesthetic that's pared-back but polished; think glowy skin with fresh-faced make-up, healthy high-shine hair and natural-looking manicures.
Of course, a lot of this is dictated by lifestyle and personal taste. But, broadly speaking, much of it can still be credited to aftereffects of the pandemic. The events of the last few years meant beauty became about joy-seeking (see also: dopamine dressing), and a tool used for celebrating our freedom. But beauty also fed into health signalling, wanting to feel—and look—well in all aspects of our life. The desire for your-nails-but-better is symbolic of the latter. After collectively compromising our hand health thanks to repeated cleansing there became a greater want to nurture our skin and nails that's stuck. A natural-looking manicure has become a status symbol expressing healthy beauty at large.
“I’ve definitely noticed a trend for more clean, natural looking nails amongst my clients—new and existing,” leading nail technician Metta Francis tells Bazaar. “More people want to achieve this 'perfect' hand and nail look—and much like skin, have a desire for healthy, glowy nails,” she says of the appeal.
On the one hand some have opted to go polish-free with manicures, though their naked nails are still highly buffed and maintained. On the other, a highly perfected exaggeration of ‘natural’ nails, lacquered in neutral-toned semi-transparent polish, have filled our feeds (think: Hailey Bieber's nail equivalent of her signature dewy ‘glazed donut skin’, the creamier 'milky manicure', and ultra-plump 'lip gloss nails'—which have all been trending on social media).
But lots of us—A-listers included—sit somewhere in the middle this season. Already in 2023 we've seen the likes of Cate Blanchett, Hoyeon Jung, Jodie Comer and Anya Taylor-Joy go colour-free with polished manis. As they demonstrate, the look is never incompatible with an outfit or event. “A clean, natural nail compliments everything; it’s a classic look that won’t look out of place at work or for a special occasion,” Francis adds. Of course, it's a mainstay trend for brides, too—the simplicity and elegance serves to enhance any wedding dress and theme.
What defines the your-nails-but-better manicure trend?
Unlike the block colour of a traditional ‘nude’ nail polish, for this trend nail colours—matching the wearers’ skin tone—are semi-transparent or super-sheer. The opacity should show the contrast between your nail plate and the tips, but in a subtler way than if your nails were naked or painted with whiter tips a la a French manicure. The polish tends to have a high-shine, glossy finish. In line, “hydrated hands, including the skin around the nails and cuticle are key,” says Francis.
In terms of shape, "a short-medium soft ‘squoval’ or rounded nail defines this look," Francis adds. “When trying to decide on which shape to go for, mimic the shape of your cuticle area,” she advises. “The intention is for the nail to look natural and effortless”—although as with most seemingly low maintenance beauty trends, it’s not.
The best nail polishes for the your-nails-but-better look
If you opt for a gel formula, which will last up to three weeks, Francis favours the CND Shellac nail polishes. “Bouquet is a gorgeous shade on lighter skin tones. It has a cool undertone so if you’re after a slightly warmer shade, Satin Slippers is perfect.
“Veiled is also a gorgeous shade with warm undertones and would suit those with a darker skin tone.”
She explains that “one coat of these will create a gorgeous, sheer clean, natural look while two coats will provide a slightly more semi-opaque look” – as used in her work, pictured above.
In addition, “CND Plexigel in Oatmilk is an incredible shade for darker skin tones, as is Porcelain, which has cool undertones.”
A benefit of seeing a professional like Francis is that they can create custom shades to suit your skin tone, by layering polishes.
If you prefer regular nail polish over gel, Francis recommends looking at the following brands and shades to find one that mirrors your skin tone. “CND Vinylux in Bouquet and Satin Slippers, OPI in Bubble Bath, Nails Inc in Get Discovered and Knightsbridge Nights Out, Hermès Nail Enamel in Rose Coquille, and Essie in Ballet Slippers.”
How to maintain your-nails-but-better
Francis schools us that you can best maintain your mani “by applying cuticle oil twice daily and moisturising your hands regularly, especially if washing and using hand sanitiser frequently”.
At least once a week, “use a hand scrub and mask to keep hands looking and feeling smooth and plump.” This will help to reduce dead skin build-up, she says.
“You can also gently push back the skin at the cuticle area after a bath or shower, when the skin is softest, keeping this area nice and clean-looking.”
Inspiration for the polished 'natural' nail trend
Below, see some of Bazaar’s favourite takes on the trend to try yourself or to show to a pro:
This piece originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar UK.