What's a French manicure?

The classic French manicure
The classic French manicure has produced spinoffs like the French pedicure, pictured here, the colored or "funky" French, and the reverse French.

Legend has it, Cleopatra wore red nail polish.

Color can say so much. Red lips say "daring," a black gown "timeless," white sundress "fresh." Neon anything says "I wasn't around in the '80s." And a French manicure? Neutral, understated, and goes with absolutely anything.


You see it almost as much today as you did in the '30s. Whether the "Frenchie" truly is French is up for debate -- some say the ever-stylish Parisians were the first to wear the nude base with crisp, white tips; others say Max Factor invented it and the "French" label is there for effect. Stylistas do love Paris.

Wherever it came from, the French manicure has remarkable staying power. Some fashion experts say it's very "last decade," but women all over the world still walk into salons and request the elegant standby: pink, beige or nude base tipped with pure white. It goes easily from work to drinks to red carpet, and if you dress like you're over 20 you won't find much it doesn't match. Thus its popularity: French nails are versatile. They can also be one of those makeup tricks that make you look naturally, effortlessly perfect. People standing 10 feet away may wonder if your beautiful nails are polished at all.

Truly effortless, though, they are not. French manicures require a steady hand and real precision if they're going to look good.

It's not a quick paint-and-go manicure, but it's very doable with some practice. Here, we'll go through the steps of achieving great French-manicured nails with those perfect, white tips.

And really, the tip does need to be perfect.


How to Apply It

A French manicure has to be perfect to look right -- no bumps, wavy lines or steaks.
A French manicure has to be perfect to look right -- no bumps, wavy lines or steaks.

Some stylists will tell you it's elegant; others will say it's outdated. Everyone, however, agrees that when it's sloppily executed, it's kind of sad.

A French manicure falls into the "if you're not going to do it right, don't do it at all" category. Thick, pasty tips with smudgy edges do not an elegant statement make.


If you're going to do it at home, set aside a bit of time. It'll take more than five minutes. How much more depends on whether it's your first time or your fiftieth, but the steps you'll follow are the same either way.

You'll need:

  • Cotton balls
  • Nail polish remover
  • Hand moisturizer (optional)
  • Nail file
  • Buffer (optional)
  • Cuticle pusher
  • Clear, base-coat polish
  • Sheer, neutral-color polish
  • Opaque, white polish
  • Clear, top-coat polish

Step 1: Out with the Old

Start with a clean slate. Using cotton balls and nail polish remover, take off all traces of previous polish.

Step 2: Prep Your Hands

Using a nail-healthy moisturizer (something with vitamin E works nicely), slather your hands and forearms with softness. You can give yourself a little massage while you're at it.

Step 3: Prep Your Nails

Wipe off all excess moisturizer, and then push the cuticles back gently with a cuticle pusher, until they only slightly frame the nail. Take your nail file and shape the tips, (round, square, or somewhere in between). Finish off with a quick buffing over the surface of the nails to make a smooth canvas.

Next, apply your base coat. One coat of clear will do. If you like, you can precede that by a ridge filler to create an extra-even surface.

Step 4: Color Your Nails

The order in which you apply your color and your white depends on the look you're going for. For a stark-white tip, you'll apply the neutral first -- three strokes, sides and center. Don't apply more than one coat. The streakiness will even out as it dries.

Then you'll apply the white tip. You can do this using tiny, sticky stencils included in a kit, free-hand (one smooth stroke width-wise), or with a white nail crayon (less common). You only want to color the part of the nail with no skin underneath.

If you want to soften the white, reverse those steps so you're painting the neutral over the white tip.

Step 6: Finish It Off

A quick top coat will give the manicure a finished look. DO NOT do anything with your hands until the polish is completely dry. You'll just mess up your hard work.

This home manicure will probably save you money. You can buy a kit for under $10, and you may be able to put together your own for even less (but if you can avoid it, don't go with the cheapest nail polish -- it's not going to look as nice). But if it's not a choice between feeding your kids and getting your nails done, you might want to splurge on a pro job. A French manicure at a salon, which typically runs between $15 and $25, won't result in polish all over your fingers.

Plus, you'll get a hand massage from someone else, which is so much nicer.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Fierro, Dina. "French Manicures - Perennial or Passe?" Beauty News NYC.http://www.beautynewsnyc.com/beauty/french-manicures-%E2%80%93-perennial-or-passebn-asks-the-eternal-question/
  • The French Manicure. BBC. June 29, 2004.http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2622845
  • French Manicure. Elegant Nails.http://www.elegantnails.com/frenchmanicure.html
  • French Manicure. Manicure.com.http://www.manicure.com/articles/Types-of-Manicures/French-Manicure/2?aid=5
  • The History of the Manicure. CareFair.http://www.carefair.com/beauty/nails/History_of_the_Manicure_4997.html
  • Rukavishnikova, Irina. Manicure History. LuxeMag. December 4, 2008.http://www.luxemag.org/skin-body/manicure-history.html