The Future Of Nail Polish Is Water-Based

Here is a strange thought I keep having recently: between giving myself a manicure on an airplane and the simple fact of being on an airplane, right now, the latter sounds crazier. Do you take your mask off when you go through security? What if someone on the plane takes theirs off? What if you get hungry? With an in-flight manicure on the other hand, all there is to worry about is the acrid stink of nail polish. And a new generation of nail polishes make that fear completely unfounded. They smell like nothing.

I'm talking about water nail polishes. They're just like any other polish, except made with up to 75-percent water and they don't stink. Water-based nail polish has been on the market since the early aughts, but its first iteration didn’t really catch on—with good reason. Those were made with streaky, watery formulas, and their short-lived wear couldn’t stand up to traditional lacquer. After their mainstream flop, brands like Piggy Paint, Snails, and Nailmatic repackaged the formulas in colorful shades and miniature, cartoon-laden bottles for kids. They appealed to wary parents of early-onset beauty aficionados, who were more concerned with potentially harmful chemicals than giving their six-year-old a high-performance mani. And as nontoxic polish became more and more ubiquitous in the adult market (the first 3-free polish, Butter London, came out in 2005), everyone just kind of stopped talking about the water-based stuff.

Now, it’s making the kind of comeback last successfully accomplished by Winona Ryder. It’s had a lot of time to work on itself! First of all, the new crop of water-based polishes are just easier to use. They course corrected for streaky results by updating to wider brushes and creamier shades. Bottles became sleeker and more vanity-worthy, and shade ranges expanded: around 24 options is pretty much the norm, and you’re just as likely to find pinks and reds as blues, purples, and greens. (Don't be fooled by the brands you find on Amazon, however. Those are old-gen water polishes, and are likely to have long-expired.) Sophi, the adult line from the makers of Piggy Paint, makes a sheer pink shade called French Latte that gives classic Mademoiselle a run for its money. Canadian brand Suncoat has an opaque white that’s perfect for DIY nail art. But my favorite water-based line is Germany-based Gitti—their minimalist rectangular bottles and curated, unexpected shade range reminds me of the water-based answer to J. Hannah. I’ve had Sage on my toes for about three weeks now, and it hasn’t chipped at all. Of course, when I do want to take it off I won’t be using a regular remover—those do diddly squat for water-based formulas. Instead, natural removers gently dissolve the hardened bonds so polish can peel or scrape right off. Each brand makes their own version to best suit their lacquer formulas, and after removing my cuticles still feel hydrated and healthy.