Is This the End of the Manicure?

As our socially distant way of life begins to feel normal, so, too, do naked nails.

By Jessica DeFino

It felt frantic. Fevered. From beneath the stockpiles of hand sanitizer and shelf-stable food, an urgent, existential question emerged: What will become of our fingernails?

“People were in panic mode,” Mazz Hanna, a celebrity manicurist and founder of a namesake beauty brand, said of the pandemic-related salon closures mandated in March — panic fueled by a subsequent flurry of at-home tutorials. How to give yourself a manicure. How to polish your toes to perfection. How to remove gels and acrylics, but also, how to apply them again. How to buff, file, shape and shine.

The D.I.Y. content kept coming, constant and crazed — did we do anything other than our nails before the coronavirus? — and then, it calmed.

“I think people went through another phase,” Ms. Hanna said. Isolation inspired introspection. Anxiety gave way to acceptance. As life in quasi-quarantine began to feel normal, naked nails did, too. Now, salons are back in (socially distanced) business, but some former polish devotees are opting to go without, and noticing naturally beautiful nails as a result.

Mallika Kalwani, 25, a founder of Avvai Beauty, used to get a manicure every two weeks. Always the same salon, always the same shade of red. “I haven’t got my nails done since March,” she said. “After a while, I got used to the idea of not having manicured nails, especially when I noticed they were looking much healthier.”

The makeup artist Khira Karam, 41, hasn’t had a pedicure since February. “I like the way my actual nails look now,” she said.

It’s a trend that surprises Suzanne Shade, although it shouldn’t. Ms. Shade is the founder of Bare Hands, which introduced its Dry Gloss Manicure Kit in May, just months into the pandemic. The kit made quick fans of minimalist-minded beauty influencers like Neada Deters and Taylr Anne Castor since it involves no polish, just a polishera blend of glass and minerals that binds to keratin protein as it buffs and leaves nails shiny — and cuticle oil.

It is, in essence, the anti-manicure.

When Ms. Shade conceived the manicure set two years ago, she imagined customers would use it for upkeep between appointments. “I never thought that people would say, ‘I’m totally giving up nail polish,’” she said. Market research opened her eyes to a different possibility.

“I sat down and talked to subjects about how they felt about their nails, and there was this emotional connection that I wasn’t expecting,” she said. “The percentage of people that really, really enjoyed going to the salon and getting a manicure wasn’t that high.” For many, regular mani-pedis were more about “compliance to beauty,” Ms. Shade found, and the long pause of the pandemic gave them “permission to not have to comply with the standard.”

Ms. Hanna noted that if she didn’t work as a manicurist, it’s likely she would not wear nail polish again. “Women have kind of relaxed the beauty standards society’s been forcing on them for so long,” she said.

Others echo the sentiment. “I’ve been doing my nails less often, and focused more on natural nail health,” Rachel James, the chief executive of the polish brand Pear Nova, said of her lockdown routine.

An interest in health is perhaps an obvious outcome of a pandemic, but it’s still a novel interest in the nail care space. The typical manicure, even one that uses so-called clean and free-from formulas, harms the health of the nail and the health of the whole.

First, cuticles are pushed back and, in some salons, clipped — a process the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions salon goers to avoid since cuticles act as “barriers to prevent infection.”

Next, the shape is refined or faked. Long nails are preferred, and sometimes acrylic nails are glued on top of natural nails to achieve this effect, despite the fact that “longer fingernails can harbor more dirt and bacteria than short nails, thus potentially contributing to the spread of infection,” according to the C.D.C.

Then comes the polish, a mixture of chemical film formers, plasticizers, solvents, suspension agents and colorants, some of which have been linked to cancer, abnormal fetal development, miscarriages and other reproductive harm in salon workers. Since nail color and texture can often signal deeper health issues, polish also serves to silence potential communications from the body.

These formulas, particularly those of the gel and powder variety, damage and weaken the nail plate. “I felt self-conscious of the wreckage left behind by gel manicures and I felt I had to paint my nails to cover it up,” said Jessica Ourisman, 33, a beauty editor. “It was a completely toxic spiral. I have been seriously hoping that a ‘bare nail trend’ would pick up steam.”

(Ironically, the trendy French manicure does mimic the look of natural, bare nails — or rather, what natural, bare nails would look like if not for the damage and discoloration caused by the trendy French manicure.)

In place of nail polish, consumers are turning toward a new category: nail wellness.

“Hand health and hand hygiene are being pushed to the forefront,” said Shel Pink, the founder of the vegan beauty brand Sparitual. Sales of its Hand Serum and Hand Salve are soaring, she said.

Mazz Hanna Cuticle Oil also experienced a spike in sales between March and April of 2020, Ms. Hanna said. At OPI, Emi Moreno, the senior marketing director, said that “the most dramatic shift we saw with lockdown was strong growth in OPI’s Treatment line — that is, its Nail Envy base coats and topcoats and Pro Spa Cuticle Oil.”

The trend tracks for Orly, as well. “We’ve seen a huge spike in interest for nail treatment products which reflect an emphasis on keeping natural nails looking healthy at home,” said Tal Pink, the company’s vice president for business development. Does this mark the end of the manicure?

“There is an end in a sense,” said Ms. Pink, of Sparitual, “but I think we’re beginning again.” Salons and spas continue to serve a sociocultural purpose. They create community and foster connection, and people will be eager to experience that post-pandemic.

Ms. Hanna was of a similar mind. “Those same women who are feeling empowered to just not do anything anymore also want to support the nail artist they’ve worked with for a long time,” she said. “It will be interesting to see if people are still going in for nail services but are just getting a buff and shine.”

Ms. Kalwani and Ms. Karam both anticipate going back to their pre-pandemic routines eventually; Ms. Ourisman and Ms. Deters do not.

Ms. Deters, the founder of the minimalist beauty brand Lesse, explained her motivation. “As more people become aware of how little they need and how wasteful this industry can be, I believe people will also limit their consumption of beauty in support of the planet,” she said. “Or at least, I hope so.”

Today, nearly eight months into the pandemic, there’s no urgent need to decide what will become of our nails. Maybe the manicure meets its natural end, a relic of Before Time beauty standards. Maybe it’s eclipsed by nail wellness and replaced with cuticle oils and hand creams. Maybe it returns, exactly as it was.

We will wait — unpanicked, with nails unpainted — and see.

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