The last 12 months have been a watershed year for nail polish on men. A$AP Rocky has rarely been spotted without some nail art lately; Harry Styles has shown up with a fresh manicure in both paparazzi photos and on the cover of Vogue. Of course, famously well-dressed dudes painting their nails is not a new phenomenon: David Bowie proudly rocked a manicure throughout his Ziggy Stardust phase—ditto, at various points in their careers, Dennis Rodman, Lou Reed, Kurt Cobain, and a whole host of now-iconic arbiters of against-the-grain cool.
What is new, though, is the sheer number of guys who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the move, making a fresh coat of polish yet another asset in the ever-expanding grooming arsenal of the contemporary dude. Imarni, proprietor of a buzzy eponymous salon in London, says guys have been requesting ever-more elaborate work, often on only one or two nails instead of the whole hand. Clients routinely come to her with images they like and ask for them to be recreated on the nail, much the same way you might pull up your your hair goals at the barber.
Now, Imarni is basically the Vermeer of the fingernail, but decking out your own nails doesn’t necessarily call for a visit to a professional, or even a whole lot of financial investment upfront. Many of the nail polish options professional manicurists swear by can be found with a couple of clicks or a trip to the local drugstore. Essie—Harry Styles’ polish of choice—sells a bunch of options for less than ten bucks, but even captial-D designer polish won’t put you in the poorhouse. All that’s involved in becoming the type of guy who consistently rocks a manicure is picking a color, tracking down a few key tools, and a little old-fashioned know-how.
That last part is important: polish won’t hit the same if it’s smudged all over your cuticles. But don’t despair if you didn’t learn the intricacies of the craft at the slumber parties of your youth. GQ spoke to a few of the people behind some of the most mesmerizing digits around—including the artist behind Styles’s Vogue nails—to get the lowdown on what to keep in mind when it comes to making sure your manicure is on point.
First, pick out some polish.
The most important factor is the color, obviously—but there’s a little bit more to it than that.
The Best Drugstore Nail Polish
Essie glossy shine nail polish
For over three decades now, Essie’s been hawking affordable nail polish beloved by salon pros and amateur manicurists alike. All of the brand’s signature range of vivid hues offer a glossy finish and make for the ideal entry-level product into the fun, sometimes freaky, world of nail art.
The Best Designer Nail Polish
Chanel Boy de Chanel nail polish
Ordinarily we’d say there’s no such thing as dedicated nail polish for men—pushing back against that sort of thinking is half the fun of painting your nails! But Chanel’s new Boy de Chanel polish is a fast-drying grail for men with painted nails everywhere, and this jet-black hue is perfect for anyone re-living their teenage emo phase.
The Best 10-Free Nail Polish
Death Valley Nails “Jo Ann’s” red nail polish
A polish that’s 10-free is specially-made absent all the ten common toxic chemicals found in most polish options. Death Valley offers an huge assortment of nontoxic (and proudly vegan!) colors, but we’re partial to this striking shade of fire-engine red.
The Best Nail Polish for Burgeoning Manicure Snobs
J.Hannah “Blue Nudes” nail polish
J.Hannah’s line of carefully designed, made-in-L.A. jewelry has earned it a devoted following, but for our money it’s the brand’s nail polish that’s the real standout. This one was inspired by the inky blue shades of Matisse.
Then prep your canvas.
You’ve got to prime before you paint, right? For Jenny Longworth, the nail artist responsible for Styles’ manicure on his internet-shattering Vogue cover, a full routine involves around half a dozen steps to clean things up. (“There’s nothing nice about a raggy cuticle,” she says cheerily.)
She starts by sanitizing the nails and ending with applying a base coat, color, and top coat of polish. (In between, she also trims, buffs, smoothes, and “squeaks”, degreasing the plate of the nail with a baby wipe or a cotton swab dipped in nail polish remover.) For those following along at home, that sort of thorough pre-manicure regimen is always a solid starting point. But even a few minutes of cuticle upkeep and a base coat will make a huge difference before you reach for the polish.
The Best All-In-One Nail Kit
Czech & Speake leather-bound manicure set
At first glance, does splurging on a leather-bound manicure set seem a little much? Maybe. But if you’re dead set on pulling off a flawless home manicure, you’ll want to make sure the raw materials (that’s your nails) are up to snuff. London company Czech & Speake makes grooming products of the highest order, and its nail maintenance kit includes everything you need to snip, clip, and trim your way to perfect nails—including, among other things: slanted tweezers, nail scissors, nail clippers, a nail file, and a cuticle nipper—and happens to be the sort of item you’d proudly display in a private library filled with rich mahogany and leather-bound books.
The Best Nail Brush
Relaxus bamboo curved nail brush
Like any part of your body particularly prone to dirt build-up and grime accumulation, your nails need a thorough scrubbing down every now and then. Before you slap on a coat or two of polish, treat them to a nice, leisurely rinse and let this brush’s natural boar bristles help with the heavy-duty cleaning.
The Best Beginner’s Base Coat
For veteran at-home manicurists, starting with a base coat of clear polish before adding on a layer of color is a non-negotiable. Not only will a solid base coat seal in color, the best of them are specifically designed to prevent scratching and chipping down the line.
The Best All-Purpose Nail Clippers
Tweezerman combo clipper set
Tweezerman’s combo clipper comes with a curved-blade that allows for precision trimming and boasts a sharp, stainless steel edge to minimize any maintenance in between uses.
The Best Pro-Approved Cuticle Remover
Sally Hansen instant cuticle remover
When it comes to nail care, cuticles are everything. There’s a reason the pros swear by a solid cuticle remover—if you’re in a rush to get those nails painted touching up your cuticles is the easiest way to cut prep time in half. Dab a small amount of remover around the cuticles and under your nail tips, let it sit for 15 seconds, and then gently push them back with a brush or a manicure stick wrapped in cotton. Wash it all off with warm water, and voila: you’re ready to go.
The Best Easy-Application Cuticle Oil
Dr. Hauschka nail and cuticle pen
Dr. Hauschka’s easy-to-use pen dispenses oil via a felt tip to help clean and nourish those all-important clear layers at the bottom of your nails. As an added bonus, a beveled edge does double-duty as a cuticle shaper.
Lastly, paint the things.
There’s not a whole lot to it—go slow, make sure the polish gets on your nails and not your skin, and keep adding coats until the color is as saturated as you want. Afterwards, there’s only one real cardinal rule: don’t touch anything. Air out your nails for at least ten minutes after applying your final coat so your fingers have time to dry, and then proceed with magazine-cover confidence.