Thousands of years ago, ancient Babylonian fighters — the toughest, most tenacious dudes around — prepared for lethal combat by manicuring and coloring their nails with black or green kohl. But somewhere along the line, humans decided that painted nails should be reserved only for women, and that any man sporting a little color, or even just a polish, would be tagged with the dreaded ‘unmanly’ label (*rolls eyes far enough back to be able to look at own brain*).
But in recent times, as we take a harder look at gender and the largely pointless conventions it upholds, men are beginning to take better care of themselves, which hey, sometimes means trying out some polish. “Gender norms in the past have sort of frowned upon men doing anything that would take them out of that macho, male American stereotype,” says Jennifer Harvey, manager at Two Brown Eyed Girls nail salon and nail art studio. “But I definitely think in the last 10 years, a lot of men, manlier men, paint their nails for the benefit of their daughters, or something like that at home.”
Harvey also mentions that professional male athletes often stop into her salon to paint their toenails or a couple fingernails just for fun. For baseballers, painted nails can serve a functional purpose, too — catchers sport bright colors so pitchers can easily see their hand signals, and pitchers have more control over the ball with well-manicured nails. Speaking of which, the act of having your nails manicured, then painted, can help prevent pesky hangnails, ingrowns and other nail-related ailments.
Open-minded dads and practical athletes aside, Harvey says goth and emo dudes have been painting their nails black for some time now, but she adds that, as society has opened up to the idea of gender neutrality, men in general are feeling more comfortable having their nails groomed and painted. “We’re getting a lot more people coming in to get more of a macho, maybe what would be seen as a buffed or shined out nail,” she explains. “We had a gentlemen come in recently, who was very bearded and very mainly … and he got a cow print on his nails.” This acceptance could explain why more and more nail polish brands are beginning to target men.
But despite society (and cosmetic companies) becoming more accepting of a man with painted nails, mobile manicurist Jill Thomas says the number of men who actually sport them regularly remains small. “I think men are doing it, but I don’t think it’s a large percentage,” she explains. “I don’t personally have any clients that are men who polish their nails. But I do have male clients who like to get a nice manicure and pedicure — it looks groomed, it looks nice, it’s professional, it kind of says a lot.” Thomas does note that some men have been known to paint their toenails for a disgustingly strange reason, though: “They’re covering up a fungus,” she emphasizes.
Really, it’s all just a matter of personal preference. “I paint them simply because I like the way it looks, and I’m not afraid to go outside of the social norms,” says model Cole Benedetti, who almost always has his nails painted. “I think more guys should paint their nails because they want to, not because someone else said it was cool.”
If you’re one of those dudes who wants to paint his nails, there are a couple things you should consider first — namely, many nail polishes have toxic ingredients that can, when used on an excessive basis, mess with your hormones. On Sharecare, internal medicine specialist Michael Roizen also suggests some means of keeping your nail polish remover exposure to a minimum:
“Don’t use nail polish remover more than twice a month. Instead, touch up the polish. We know you’ll roll your eyes, but acetone is so toxic to your eyes, nerves, and lungs, that it’s a good idea to go to Home Depot and find one of those filters that will protect your lungs and brain when you use it. When you do need a remover, avoid those that use acetone, which dries nails. Repair splits or tears with nail glue or clear polish.”
But unless you’re changing your nail polish on a daily basis, you should be just fine. Plus, there are less toxic paints and polish removers, and most manicures involve techniques (massages; applying cuticle oils) that do good things for the health of your nails and hands in general.
On a final note, if you do want to paint your nails and feel comfortable giving it a go at home, you can find plenty of helpful instructional videos on YouTube. But if you want little cow prints on your nails, maybe head to the salon for that. Then pick up your spear and shield from the nearest Babylonian armory and run for the battleground. Godspeed, my friend.