The Life of a Bottle of Polish, from Manufacturer to Your Salon

Over the years NAILS has examined the chemistry of polish and its ingredients, how colors are chosen, and even how polish is bottled. Here we cover it all—the life of a bottle of polish beginning to end.

Offered in thousands of colors, hundreds of brands, and dozens of bottle styles, nail polish is the finishing touch to a woman’s fashion statement. From the clean, natural look of a French manicure to the subtle femininity of a pale pink or coral to the playfulness of a metallic blue or pastel hue, polish finishes the look.


As the finishing touch to 99% of all nail services and the No. 1 nail retail item for salons, nail polish is arguably the salon’s top “outside salesperson.” It grabs attention, conveys moods and attitudes, and can be changed at almost a moments notice. Yet how well do you really know this industry spokesperson? Ever wondered how polish is made? What stages it passes through or how old it is before it reaches the salon shelf? What the difference between a 49¢ and a $20 bottle of polish?


We talked to the people involved in each stage of a polish bottle’s “life” for the answers to these questions and more. As you follow a bottle through it lifespan, consider the different steps that add value (and cost) to the end product: all the time and research that goes into developing new color collections; research and development of optimal polish formulations; the cost of the packaging (bottles, caps, labels, etc.); and advertising and marketing. That 49¢ bottle of polish may seem to be a great value, and perhaps it is to you. However, just remember what it probably doesn’t contain: the optimal mix of ingredients to deliver the right viscosity, coverage, and wear; the latest, hottest fashion colors; the support that comes from trade and consumer advertising to heighten brand awareness and demand; and packaging chosen for both its durability and ergonomic friendliness.


Spinning the Color Wheel

Just like the old riddle, “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” the same can be asked of polish manufacturing. Color selection is generally accepted as the first step in manufacturing a polish, and that step can be done either by the raw materials manufacturer or the packaging manufacturer. For the purpose of this article, we followed the path used by our example, Orly International.


For a manufacturer and brand marketer such as Orly, introducing a new polish color collection begins 18-24 months before the actual release date. For example, Myriam Clifford, president of Orly International, began working on this spring’s six-color collection in 1998 by previewing the colors and textures being shown by the textile industry for the same season. (As of presstime, Clifford had resigned her position at Orly.)


“I look at both the color and texture trends—whether it’s velvets, satins, metallics, etc.—because many of the polish trends are a direct result of what’s happening in fashion,” Clifford days. “Several years ago people started viewing polish as a fashion accessory and it got somewhat separated from the color/cosmetic category. It became a way for people to be trendy without making large investments in fashion fads.”


Of course, a lot can happen in 18-24 months, and Clifford says at those early stages she’s just tracking the larger trends and formulating her thoughts on which colors and textures might dominate. “Once I’ve established the broader textile trends, then I look at the fashion trends in Paris, Italy, and the United States. The seasonal color palette often has 50-60 colors in all ranges. Narrowing that down to six colors is based on experience, knowing the market and, ultimately, instinct.”


Because of the long lead times, Clifford usually works on several collections at once. For example, when we spoke in early November, she was finalizing this spring’s collection, narrowing the choices for this coming fall, and was starting to look at the larger trends for the following spring.


When a particular color is dominant, Clifford says Orly may base a collection on its different tones. “When we don’t see one dominant color, we try to get an assortment that ranges from light to dark, from cream to shimmering.”


Because Orly formulates its own colors rather than selecting from a raw material manufacturer’s palette, Clifford says it’s much easier to change a color selection at the last minute because of a change in, say, a fashion trend. “For example, for out fall ’99 collection early in the year we saw true reds coming back. But as the season approached, we saw those true reds change to berry and wine colors.”


Once a color is finalized, Orly mixes the color in its in-house lab and tests it for color, wear, thickness, and viscosity. “Every company has a unique formulation, and with any new color we test it with our formulation because different pigments and their quantity can affect viscosity, wearability, and coverage,” she continues. “For example, we have had to reformulate polish colors because they didn’t cover in two coats bit we didn’t want to market them as sheers.”


Once the formulation passes the quality tests, samples are sent to the bulk manufacturing vendor that mixes the polish in large quantities to Orly’s specifications.


Even as the colors are being tested, Orly’s marketing department sets to work on the images to surround them. “We immediately start thinking about what they mean and what would be a theme or concept that captures the meaning,” adds marketing manager Ellen Jenko. “Sometimes that’s really easy. For example, last spring’s collection was all pinks, so we called it ‘Pink Madness.’”


Next they create the image to appear on the display header card and in the trade advertising. From there, they create the ads and distributor sell sheets; the first ad is scheduled to coincide with the shipping of the polishes to the distributors. “Marketing and advertising are an integral part because you have to catch the imaginations of salons and distributors,” Jenko says. “There are so many polish options that you need the right presentation with the right color.”


A Little Bit of This, a Little of That

Because nail polish contains nitrocellulose, which is highly explosive in its raw state, polish manufacturers are bound by very strict regulations to protect both workers and the environment. For example, the facility must be explosion-proof, kept at a constant temperature, and equipped with generators in case of a power failure. For these reasons of cost and commitment, there are only a very few bulk manufacturers of nail polish in the U.S. these companies only accept orders from polish packaging manufacturers who create unique colors and purchase polish by the thousands of gallons. The relationship between “primary manufacturer” and “secondary manufacturer” or “marketer” is a close one, because the process is started not with a simple “order” for polish, but the development of colors, chemistry, and containers. Just as many companies use an outside contractor to fill orders to their individual specifications, so too do the major marketers, in both the professional industry and the retail market.


The actual process of making nail polish is fairly simple. The complexity of the process is in selecting and perfecting color and viscosity, among other traits. The base ingredients of an individual polish formulation are added to a large covered tank and mixed for about 15 minutes with a 3-to 6—inch rotary blade that stirs at a speed of around 500 rpm. Colored pigments and any other “texture” components (such as mica, for example, which adds shimmer) are added, followed by another 15 minutes of mixing. A sample of the mixture is then placed on a draw-down card to check the color. A draw-down card looks like an ordinary white index card, but it is designed to allow “true color” to be detected. The white side of the draw-down card shows what the polish will look like on the nail; the black side indicates the color’s appearance in a bottle. A “color eye” expert (someone who possesses the rare ability to match colors more precisely than even sophisticated computer equipment) checks to make sure the color is just right. This process can take several tries to get it just right.


Once the color is set, a sample is provided to the brand marketer, who then tests the color again for the match, viscosity, wear, coverage, etc. Ideally the polish is approved the first time, but the brand marketer may request changes based on its findings. In that case, this back-and-forth process repeats until the brand signs off on a sample and authorizes release or production of the batch.

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