Nail Polishes/Enamels

Until the 1930s, polishing powders were the main preparations used to shine the nail plate. They came in many forms – sticks, blocks, pastes, loose powder and even liquids – but all contained fine abrasives that were buffed to make the nail shine.

See also: Nail Powder Polishes

These powder polishes were superseded by liquids that were painted on the nails to produce a more or less instant shine. Early formulations of these liquid instant polishes used a variety of materials – waxes, shellac and gum benzoin – but eventually most were made with nitrocellulose.

Wax polishes

Many paste polishing powders used waxes to help suspend the powder, thicken the paste and add shine. If the abrasive was left out then any shine produced would be due solely to the wax, which polished the nail plate in the same way that a polishing wax makes wood furniture shine. As with wood polishes, a shine was produced by gently buffing the nail plate with a chamois or something similar after the wax was applied.

Wax nail polishes without abrasives were made as pastes or liquids and what they lacked in effectiveness they made up for in simplicity of manufacture. Paste wax polishes were simple mixtures of substances like beeswax, ceresine, spermaceti and soft paraffin, melted together and poured into small pots.

100    White beeswax.
100    Ceresine—white—high M. P.
800    Soft paraffin—white.

(Poucher, 1932, p. 480)

Liquid wax polishes were made by dissolving the wax in a suitable solvent, either cold or gently warmed in a steam-heated mixing bowl. When applied to the nail plate the solvent evapourated leaving a thin layer of wax behind. As the solvent used was highly volatile, these liquid polishes had to be sold in sealed stoppered bottles to stop them drying out.

Chloroform150 grams
Paraffin wax15 grams

Perfume with a little essence of rose or geranium.

(Durvelle, 1923, p. 264)

25    White wax.
50    Hard paraffin.
1000    Chloroform.

(Poucher, 1932, p. 481)

Solvents and films

Liquid wax polishes were the first nail polishes that used a solvent to deposit a film on the nail plate. The film helped protect the nail and maintain the shine for a longer period of time, thereby reducing the need to rebuff the nail. Liquid wax polishes were often applied over a nail that had first been buffed with a polishing powder – so they simply helped to preserve the polished surface – but they could also be subjected to further buffing after the wax polish had dried.

When nitrocellulose polishes appeared, the need for buffing was reduced and eventually disappeared. However, old habits died hard and references to buffing – either before or after applying a nitrocellulose polish – were still occurring up until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Before applying varnish, if it is to be used, the nails must be well polished with the buffer and one of the various preparations now in favour, which are generally made in stone, powder, or cream form. … Never apply varnish to a nail that has not been burnished in this way; otherwise the natural gloss of the nail will eventually disappear. … Care must be taken in its application to obtain an even surface. Work is always from the lunule down towards the finger-tips.
Many French women to-day varnish from the entire base right over the nail. This is not really very becoming. The half moon showing is always rather intriguing. Dip the brush in the varnish and then press against the bottle so that only a portion remains on it; this guards against and excess of varnish, which usually results in a blob on the nail. Make an even sweep with the brush from the half-moon down to within ½ in. from the edge, or where it can bee seen that the nail ceases to adhere to the flesh. The amount on the brush is usually sufficient for two lengths of the nail. Be careful not to allow the varnish to contact with the edges of the cuticle, as this spoils the effect. Allow to dry and apply a second coat, and once again when the enamel has completely dried use the buffer.

(Hanckel, 1937, pp. 137-138)

Varnishes and lacquers

Once the idea of applying a film of polish to the nail with a suitable solvent was developed, cosmetic chemists experimented with other varnishes and lacquers – such as shellac, gum benzoin and cellulose nitrate (nitrocellulose) – many of which had been developed in the nineteenth century. Liquid nail polishes using these vanishes and lacquers began yo appear early in the twentieth century but it took a while for serviceable polishes to be developed and for the idea to spread.

Nail polishes made with industrial lacquers and varnishes were usually sourced from lacquer firms that had the technical knowledge to deal with these dangerous materials and the capacity to produce polish in bulk. This left nail polish companies with the relatively simple tasks of bottling and packaging the polish making it easier to start a new business. A number of nail polish companies began this way including Revlon.

The wise manufacturer selects one of the private label houses to make his enamel. Elaborations and special effects can be worked out.
The danger from fire—perhaps even explosions—is so great that the risk isn’t worth the result. Private label houses in many cases have spent years in perfecting their clear lacquer. They have studied every conceivable coloring material and know its behavior in nail lacquer. Most of all they know the dangers of the business and are adequately protected.
Many successful businesses have been built in this field by delegating the manufacture of nail lacquer to the private label house.

(deNavarre, 1941, p. 577)

1938 Lacquers Inc

Above: 1938 Lacquers, Inc., an American private label company, advertising new shades of nail enamel.

See also: Revlon

Given the relationshipsß with the varnish and lacquer industry, it is understandable that many early liquid nail polishes were known as varnishes or lacquers. However, they were also referred to as polishes or enamels by cosmetic companies and beauty writers of the time. Unfortunately, the story of nail polish in the early twentieth century is muddied by the fact that the terms polish, lacquer, varnish and enamel were used haphazardly and covered a wide range of nail product types.

Benzoin polishes

Benzoin-based nail polishes provided a reasonably good shine to the nail but were slow to dry, required buffing to bring out the gloss, and had a tendency to become brownish in colour. This meant they could not compete with cellulose nitrate polishes in the long run.

Poucher (1932) includes a formulation for a gum benzoin polish, tinted pink with a small amount of eosin – perhaps to hide the brown – but a similar product could be made that was clear.

Benzoin Nail Enamel is conveniently prepared from the resinodor as follows:—

200    Benzoin R.
400    Alcohol.
400    Ether meth. .753.
1    Methyl acetophenone.
0.2    5 per cent solution of eosin.

Mix the liquids and apply to the nail with a camel’s-hair brush. Allow the first coating to dry three minutes, then apply a second one. Dry for 10 minutes, and then polish with a silk handkerchief.
A perfect result is obtained and the nails will remain brilliant for several days.

(Poucher, 1932, p. 481)

Nitrocellulose polishes

Nitrocellulose – also known as cellulose nitrate – is produced by immersing cellulose in nitric acid, or a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acids, for a short time. A common source for the cellulose in the United States was cotton and when this was nitrated it was known there by such names as pyroxylin, nitrocellulose, nitrocotton, soluble cotton or guncotton, in part depending on the composition of the cellulose nitrate which varied according to how much the cotton had been acted on by the nitric acid.

A number of uses were found for cellulose nitrate in the nineteenth century including the manufacture of explosives, celluloid (an early plastic), nitrate film stock, varnishes and artificial silk. Some of these technologies relied on the fact that partially nitrated cellulose could be dissolved in organic solvents – like alcohol, ether and acetone – and when these evaporated a clear film was left behind.

Collodion and liquid court plasters

Collodion was first produced in 1846 when Louis-Nicolas Ménard [1822-1901] and Florès Domonte produced a clear gelatinous liquid by dissolving pyroxylin (a partially nitrated cotton) in a mixture of ethyl alcohol and ether. The following year, its discovery was put to good use when John Parker Maynard [1817-1898], a Boston physician, discovered that dried collodion formed a clear, waterproof, protective film over a wound. Maynard’s discovery gained wide medical acceptance and led to a number of commercial forms of this liquid medical dressing being put on the market, generally badged as liquid court plasters.

Early liquid court plasters tended to contract and crack on drying but a flexible form was later developed; an important advance. It used plasticisers like Canada balsam and castor oil to produce a film that could bend and flex with the skin.

In 1882, John H. Stevens [1853-1932] patented the use of amyl acetate as a solvent for pyroxylin. It produced a more durable, transparent film than one generated from using ethyl alcohol and ether and it found a number of industrial uses including the development of nitrocellulose-based wood and metal lacquers.

Liquid court plasters were also formulated using amyl acetate rather than ethyl alcohol and ether.

Liquid Court Plaster …
The following formula is also used to a considerable extent:

Pyroxylin1 ounce.
Amyl acetate6 fluidounces.
Acetone5 fluidounces.
Camphor2 drachms.
Fir balsam2 fluidrachms.
Castor oil8 fluidrachms.
Oil of cloves15 minims.

Dissolve the pyroxylin in the amyl acetate and the acetone, and add the other ingredients. Keep the mixture away from fire. It is essential that a good grade of pyroxylin be used.

(Bulletin of Pharmacy, 1916, p. 214)

Given the developments in nitrocellulose-based medical dressings, and industrial varnishes and lacquers, it was almost inevitable that someone would produce a nitrocellulose-based nail polish. Exactly when the crossover happened is open to question, with most cosmetic chemists placing this landmark event in the history of nail polish in the late 1910s or early 1920s. However, evidence suggests that it took place a good deal earlier than this. For example, the Bijou Chemical Company of New York was putting their Bijou Fluid into a nail polish/enamel as early as 1903. Given that this preparation also formed the basis for their liquid court plaster, a metal lacquer, an adhesive, and a leather waterproofer, there seems little doubt that Bijou Fluid was a flexible collodion containing nitrocellulose, and that their nail polish was nitrocellulose-based.

Unfortunately, the situation regarding liquid nail polishes produced before 1920 is far from clear. As I have already noted, there were numerous liquid nail polishes on the market before 1919, but it is difficult to know whether they were made as liquid abrasive powders, liquid waxes, liquid benzoin polishes or liquid nitrocellulose polishes, without access to their original formulation.

Nail polish and automobile paint

One reason why some have suggested that nitrocellulose nail polishes were developed in the 1920s is the belief that they were inspired by developments in glossy car paint, specifically the Duco Paint that E. I. du Pont de Nemours developed for General Motors in 1923. This seems unlikely. Although it is true that Duco Paint is based on nitrocellulose, came in a wide range of colours, and was advertised as having a fast-drying, tough, durable, waterproof finish, Duco was designed to be sprayed not painted on, required at least twelve hours, not minutes, to dry, and only had a satin sheen so required further polishing to develop a high gloss (E. I. du Pont de Nemours, 1925). This, and the 1923 date, suggests that the development of Duco Paint coincided with a greater use of nitrocellulose in nail polish but was not directly responsible for it; both products evolved from developments in the varnish and lacquer industries.

Celluloid film stock and nail polish

Nitrate (celluloid) film was patented by Hannibal Williston Goodwin [1822-1900] in 1898. It was later reinvented by the Eastman Kodak Company – which started a legal dispute that was not settled until 1914. Eastman Kodak reportedly made their celluloid film stock by dissolving pyroxylin in a mixture of methyl alcohol, amyl alcohol and amyl acetate (Sabin, 1904, p. 113). Camphor was added as a plasticiser and the resulting film was then coated with a photosensitive gelatine emulsion.

Given that nitrate film was liable to catch fire, it was dangerous to store and was often sold as scrap after a movie had played out in the theatres. A nail polish could be made from this film scrap by stripping off the gelatine and then dissolving the remaining film in amyl acetate and acetone, or with other solvents.

The preparation used by photographers which consists of celluloid obtained from scrap sources and dissolved in amyl acetate is widely employed.
The work consists of cutting up the scrap and charging into a comparatively large mixing pan, because of the space occupied. Amyl acetate and acetone are poured into the pan, and heat gently applied.
The consistency of the product can be varied by the amount of scrap added, and should be reduced to a syrupy condition. some selected perfume is then added in the usual manner, and the charge emptied.

(Arend, 1935, p. 123)

Scrap celluloid was widely used to make nail polish early on but the practice began to disappear in the 1930s. Using scrap celluloid film was cheaper but any presence of synthetic camphor adversely affected the brightness of the finished nail polish so its use had declined by the time the Second World War broke out. When nitrocellulose supplies were diverted for the war effort there was a renewed interest in using celluloid film stock but this faded when normal supplies resumed after 1945.

A British wartime recipe:

The following formula has been devised with the idea of getting a reasonable result when using scrap film, and it is left to individual initiative to replace any items in it with anything similar which may be more readily available.

 Parts by weight
Industrial methylated spirits70        
Butyl acetate70        
Castor oil1        
Scrap (nitro) film14        
Water white rosin7        

(Holmes, 1942, p. 118)


The first nitrocellulose nail polishes were generally made in a clear ‘Colourless’ or pink ‘Natural’ shades. The pink colour was produced with dyes like carmoisine, safranine, erythrosine or phloxine. By the end of the 1920s nail colour had become more obvious, with many companies making enough shades to enable nail polish to match the colour of the clothing a woman was wearing. Mother of pearl polishes, made by adding in fish-scale essence, also made an appearance then.

Although companies like Glazo made nail polishes in a wide range of colours, manicurists could also mix up shades to meet the needs of individual clients. Unfortunately, it is not clear how manicurists accomplished this for their society clients. Some materials such as gold, silver or pearl powder could be mixed directly into a clear polish as could some colours. It is also possible that manicurists first applied colour to the nail and then covered this with a clear nail polish. Clients could return the following day to have it replaced with something more suitable or use a remover.

Very pink finger nails and sometimes blood red nails have been popular for some time with women in London. The latest idea, however, is to have finger-nails to match dresses. At a recent function a lady was observed in a Parma violet chiffon frock, and Parma violet finger-nails to tone exactly. The idea is an off-shoot of the matching craze which is sweeping over London and Paris just now.
A well-known London beauty specialist is pushing the craze, and her clients arrive with samples of the frocks they will wear in the evening to have their nails “done!”. Mauve, violet, blues, greens, orange, yellows and reds are used. One girl wearing a pearl-colored satin frock had her fingertips enameled a loverly pearly tint, which looked really pretty. The enamel comes off quite easily with a special preparation used for the purpose, so that there is no fear of one’s blue or green fingers clashing next morning with one’s favourite orange jumper suit.

(AP&EOR, 1929)

Some nail polish firms used this idea as well. Cutex, for example, sold a clear nail polish in the 1920s that came with a separate tint to be used to produce a polish with varying degrees of colour.

In the more sombre depression years of the 1930s, bright colours went out of fashion and were replaced by subdued reds and smokey-reds.

Lately the cult of the coloured fingernail—gold, mother of pearl, blood red, or tinted to match the gown—marks us as too hand conscious. Pointed fingers with nails trained like pencil-tips, and coloured in unnatural tones, makes loverly hands look like the claws of some exotic bird and not the warm and human hands that have charmed lovers down the ages.

(Harper’s Bazaar, 1930)

Transparent polish

With the exception of pearl and metallic types, most nail polishes used in the 1920s were transparent, either clear or coloured with dissolved dyes. They were generally applied across the centre of the nail, leaving the lunula (half moon) and free edge visible as this was believed to make the fingers look long and elegant. The free edge was either kept clear of polish or coloured underneath with a nail white to make it stand out. The half moon was similarly treated and if a woman did not have one, a skilled manicurist could paint one in.

[O]ne often finds clients with little or no half-moon showing, and it is not always possible to reveal the half-moon or lunular without a lengthy treatment. But in order to create the necessary effect, one can use a slightly deeper liquid polish, leaving a suitable unpolished curved base. This resembles the natural lunular so closely that the difference will hardly be noticed.

(Nail Culture, 1934, p. 12)

Carol Lombard

Above: Carol Lombard in the 1930s showing a set of polished nails with a distinctive half moon and free edge.

Opaque polish

By 1930, opaque (cream) nail polishes were becoming fashionable in Europe. Initially, these cream polishes were made by European companies or smaller American firms that had a presence in Europe. They only became more common in the United States after Revlon started up in 1932 and Cutex began selling them in 1934.


Above: 1935 Some nail polish colours from France. Most of these are from the American company Peggy Sage, who had a bigger colour range than either Cutex or Revlon at the time. Most of these opaque polishes cover the entire nail but some do not.

See also: Northam Warren (Cutex)

Cream polishes were made by adding titanium dioxide and coloured pigments like iron oxides into the polish mix. As well as being opaque, cream nail polishes redefined the way the polish was applied to the nail. Revlon recommended applying them over the entire nail plate from the base of the nail to the free edge. This required less skill, covered nail defects and made the polish more striking.

Although Revlon was not the first to sell opaque polish, they pushed the idea that nail polish colours were a fashion item and, like clothing, needed changing each spring and autumn. This meant that nail polish companies began to launch new colours on a seasonal basis, requiring fashion conscious women to purchase new shades before older ones were used up.

1939 Assorted nail polish bottles

Above: 1939 Nail polishes, enamels and varnishes from Revlon, Amani, Manex, Keene’s and Cutex.

In 1939, when Revlon began to make lipsticks, they heavily promoted the notion that nail polish and lipstick should match, a fashionable French trend that had first appeared in the 1920s. Cutex had previously pushed this idea when it introduced its own line of lipsticks in in 1935.

Even earlier, two other American companies, Peggy Sage and Glazo, were producing nail polish shades to match lipsticks no later than 1930, even though neither firm made a lipstick at that date. Peggy Sage matched their nail polishes with lipsticks from other companies and when Revlon became a much bigger threat in the late 1930s, Peggy Sage entered into an agreement with seven cosmetic companies operating in the United States – Schiaparelli, Lelong, Lentheric, Charles of the Ritz, Du Barry, Dorothy Gray and Coty – to match Peggy Sage nail polishes with their lipsticks. This was a stop-gap solution with most of these lipstick manufacturers soon making their own nail polishes.

Other cosmetic companies had also adopted this idea earlier in the decade. For example, in 1931, Helen Rubinstein sold lipsticks, rouge and nail groom (her nail polish) in matching Red Geranium, Red Raspberry and Coral shades.

See also: Helena Rubinstein (1930-1950)

‘Modern’ nail polish

By 1930, there was a general agreement about the characteristics of an ideal liquid nail polish. It should be harmless, easy to apply, dry quickly and evenly, harden well, resist chipping and abrasion, be waterproof, have an even colour that did not stain the nail, be stable in the bottle, and have a pleasant smell. Unfortunately, early nitrocellulose nail polish formulations did not have all of these qualities. Their adhesion was poor, if coloured they often stained the nail, and they took a relatively long time to dry. Many early nail polishes did not even have a dedicated nail polish remover, and were taken off by applying another layer of polish or by using neat acetone.

The use of nail enamel is now almost universal. It is a rapid means of acquiring a brilliant lustrous finish and may, if desired, be applied without previously burnishing the nails. The only disadvantage it possesses is that of coming off in streaks after a few days. This is not very noticeable when a colourless enamel is applied, but if a tinted one has been used the effect is grotesque. Before applying a second coating of enamel, the remains of the first must be removed. This may be done by painting on the enamel itself and then rubbing off with a cloth, or better still, by using Acetone in the same way.

(Poucher, 1926. p. 71)

However, by the end of the 1930s, dedicated nail polish removers had been added to most manicure lines.

1936-manicure sets

Above: 1936 Manicure sets of polish and remover from Revlon, Northam Warren (Cutex) and Peggy Sage.

As liquid nail polish became increasingly fashionable in the 1930s and competition in that market increased, the product began to be better understood and formulations improved considerably.


All modern nail polishes have four main components: a film former, solvents, resins and plasticisers. Coloured nail enamels also contain pigments and pearlescent materials and may also include suspension agents to help stop the pigments from settling out. Other ingredients such as U.V. filters and proteins were later added.

Film formers

The film-former is the glossy coat that is left on the surface of the nail after the solvents have evaporated. As previously noted, before the Second World War a range of substances were used to generate the film – including gum benzoin, shellac and waxes – until nitrocellulose became the film-former of choice. Since then, other film-forming substances have been proposed as substitutes for nitrocellulose – one of the earliest being cellulose acetate, also used in ‘safety film’. Although there are nitrocellulose free nail polishes on the market today, nitrocellulose is still the commonest film-former used; it has a low solvent retention and dries quickly to form a waterproof, tough film.

Nitrocellulose is outstanding for its hardness, toughness, resistance to abrasion, and excellent solvent release. It is interesting to note that nitrocellulose is also the oldest man-made substance among the film-forming agents which dry solely by evaporation and without any subsequent oxidation or polymerization.

(Peirano, 1957, p. 678)

As noted earlier, nitrocellulose comes in a range of grades depending on its level of nitration. This affects its volatility and solubility; highly nitrated nitrocellulose being more volatile and less soluble, lower nitrated forms being less volatile and more soluble.

A second characteristic of nitrocellulose that affects its use in nail polish is the length of the polymer chains that make it up. Shorter chains result in a more brittle film that has a lower viscosity, while longer chains make it softer and more viscous. Polishes that have a low viscosity will not adhere well to the brush and will not give a thick enough coat, while those that are very viscous will not flow easily and leave a coat that is too thick and streaky. Nitrocelluloses with medium length polymer chains are the types most commonly used in nail polishes, identified as E27 and E32 in Europe or ¼ and ½ RS grades in the United States.


Nitrocellulose produces a tough transparent film but as it is also brittle, the polish will crack and flake if it is used in isolation. To make the polish more flexible, solid and liquid plasticisers are used. Liquid plasticisers, such as castor oil, produce a soft flexible polish, while solid plasticisers, such as camphor, generate a harder film. To get the best of both worlds both types were used. Camphor and castor oil were two of the commonest plasticisers used in early nail polishes. Castor oil is no longer used and although camphor is still found occasionally in some polishes, both of these early plasticisers have been largely replaced by better substitutes.


Resins are added to nail polish to help it adhere to the nail plate so that chipping or peeling are reduced. They can also make the polish tougher and improve gloss. Two main forms are used: natural resins – like benzoin, de-waxed dammar, mastic sandarac, shellac and benzoin – and synthetic forms.

Until the 1930s, most of resins used were natural and they suffered from a number of drawbacks. Some, like benzoin, darkened when exposed to light and most required some burnishing of the nail plate after the polish had dried to bring out the full gloss. Being natural products there was also the issues of batch uniformity and rising costs.

In 1938, the synthetic resin, tolulene-sulphonamide-formaldehyde (TSFR or TSAfr), was introduced into nail polishes and gained wide use. As well as being colorless and transparent it made the nitrocellulose film tougher and improved its adhesion. Unfortunately, in 1943, TSFR was identified as a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. Symptoms could appear around the nail but a common site of an allergic reaction was the eyelids, due to users rubbing their fingers against their eyelids when their eyes were sore or ‘tired’.

TSFR is still found in nail polishes today, generally listed ether as tosylamide/formaldehyde resin or toluenesulfonamide/formaldehyde resin, but some manufacturers avoid it. Some go even further and along with camphor and dibutyl phthalate (DBP) – an early plasticiser banned by the European Union in 1976 – specifically list TSFR as being absent.


A large number of solvents can be used in nitrocellulose-based nail polish. Selecting which to use and in what proportion depends on a number of factors including drying time, cost and odour. It might be thought that fast-drying solvents would be ideal but this is not necessarily the case. If the nail polish dries too quickly the film may be streaky and the rapid evapouration can cool the polish below the dew-point causing clouding (blushing), particularly on humid days when the water content of the air is high. Best results were therefore obtained by including a range of solvents, some of which have a slower rate of evapouration.

1939 Bette Davis blowing on a Revlon nail enamel

Above: 1939 Bette Davis blowing on a Revlon nail enamel to speed up the drying time.


As mentioned previously, until the 1930s nail polishes were largely coloured with soluble dyes like carmoisine, safranine, erythrosine and phloxine. These were easy to incorporate into nail polish, the only major problem being that they often stained the nail.

The first nail polishes that included suspended particles appeared in the 1920s. These were the pearl polishes – made with fish essence from fish scales – and metallic polishes – that used bronze, silver or gold metallic pigments. The use of other suspended pigments such as titanium dioxide and iron oxides occurred in the late 1920s when opaque cream polishes were developed. In the United States, these became more common a few years before the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and the introduction by the American Food and Drug Authority (FDA) of an approved list of colours that could be used in cosmetics. By this time, the fashion for matching nail polish and lipstick had taken hold in the United States and similar pigments began to be used in both lines.

The early pearl and metallic polishes experienced a degree of sedimentation – settling out of the solid particles – but the problem became more acute when cream polishes replaced transparent forms. The issue was made more difficult by the fact that particulate sedimentation rates differed. For example, pearlessences made from fish scales settled more slowly that those made from bismuth oxychloride.

Of particular concern was the white pigment, titanium dioxide. Being heavier than iron oxides it settled first. Once settled it was difficult to get it to back into the mixture so a white residue developed on the bottom of the bottle. A number of solutions to the problem were tried over the years including: adding a stirring stick to mix the polish before use; deliberately coarse-grinding the iron oxides so that they would settle with the titanium dioxide to produce a residue that was reddish rather than stark white; dying the titanium dioxide so that it was not as noticeable when it settled out; designing bottles to hide any sediment that might appear; and adding instructions to shake the bottle vigorously before use.

The ultimate solution to the problem was to develop a nail polish that was highly thixotropic; i.e., was thick and viscous when still but thin and less viscous when applied. A number of compounds were tried over the years but synthetic bentonite and hectorite clays proved to be the most effective and, although not without their problems, many nail polishes still contain stearalkonium hectorite or stearalkonium bentonite to this day.

Base coats and top coats

One way to achieve good adherence, reduce staining and improve hardness, colour and gloss was to use a base coat before applying the polish and then follow that with a top coat. The three products contained similar ingredients but differed in the amounts used. A base coat has more resin to help it adhere to the nail and reduce chipping, while the top coat contains less resin but more plasticiser and nitrocellulose to improve gloss and resistance to wear. In between these two, the layer of colour was applied, although top coats often contained colour as well.

 (parts by weight)
Nitrocellulose (dry) RS 1/2 sec1015.0016
Sanolite resin107.504
Dibutyl phthalate23.755
Butyl acetate-29.3510
Ethyl acetate34-10
Ethyl alcohol56.4010
Butyl alcohol-1.10-

(Wing, 1941, p. 1005)

Base coats appeared before the Second World War but were often also sold as nail protectors to help stop the nail from splitting or breaking. Examples included Nail-O-Wax (Juliette Marglen), Nail Protecta (Elizabeth Arden), Stazon (La Cross), Prolon (Revlon), and Nail Creme (Barbara Bates).

1938 Revlon Prolon

Above: 1938 Revlon Prolon.

New formulations, such as Perma-Nail (Perma-Nail, 1946), Everon (Revlon, 1946), Fulpruf Undercoat (Elizabeth Arden, 1947) were developed after the war. A number of these contained formaldehyde resins and were associated with reports of allergic contact dermatitis.

Top coats were also produced in the 1930s, one of the first being Juliette Marglen’s Seal-O-Wax (1938). Despite the name it did not contain any wax.

1938 Julia Marglen Seal-O-Wax

Above: 1938 Julia Marglen Seal-O-Wax.

Base coats and top coats formed a part of many professional manicures well up to the end of the twentieth century but for the average consumer they were too much trouble. In the 1950s many manufacturers made much of the fact that their polishes did not require either, Charles of the Ritz being one of the first to do so with their Fresh Paint polishes.


No discussion of nail polish can be complete without mentioning their bottles. Early nail polishes bottles were generally sealed with a cork and had a brush included as a separate item in the box.

Glazo Liquid Nail Polish

Above: An early Glazo Liquid Nail Polish and Remover typically found around 1930. The bottles are stoppered with corks rather than a screw-top lid, are sealed with a latex-like material to reduce evapouration while waiting to be sold and came with a brush that was separate from the bottle. The brushes were generally of poor quality.

Later versions, as now, have bottles capped with a screw-top lid – to help reduce solvent evaporation – with a brush attached to the cap.

With the introduction of titanium dioxide and iron oxide pigments in the 1930s, triangular-shaped bottles became more common for a number of reasons: it ensured that pigments settled on the bottom rather than on the sides of the glass bottles; it minimised any signs of floating artifacts or streaks that might appear on the top of the polish; and it gave the bottle a low center of gravity that helped stop it tipping over and spilling.

The introduction of thixotropic nail polishes made the use of triangular bottles largely redundant, enabling nail polish manufacturers to experiment producing the wide variety of bottle shapes we see today.

Updated: 3rd December 2017


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