Nail Powder Polishes

When the well groomed woman of the late nineteenth century removed her gloves, she was expected to display a set of suitably manicured, shaped and polished nails.

Rosy finger-tips and pink nails are things of beauty, and if Nature is stubborn and refuses to lend her aid to their attainment, then art must be called upon. …
After the fingers have been well lathered and washed rub the nails with equal parts of cinnabar and emery, and then with the oil of bitter almonds. The chamois or polisher may then be applied to each nail separately until a fine polish is obtained; but it must be remembered that too high a polish is considered vulgar. To be typical of refinement it should be a soft shining luster.

(Butterick Publishing Company, 1892, pp. 321-322)

Powder polishes

Powder polishes (buffing powders) were commonly used in conjunction with a shaped, chamois leather buffer to mildly abrade (burnish) the nail plate so that a smooth, shiny surface was produced.

Nail buffer

Above: Using a nail buffer.

A variety of abrasives – including pumice powder, zinc oxide, precipitated chalk, tin oleate and stannic oxide – were mixed into a base containing suitable lubricants such as paraffin wax and/or beeswax which suspended the powder and added shine. Although it was more expensive, stannic oxide (tin oxide, putty powder, oxide of tin) was generally considered to be the best abrasive as it created the highest gloss. Victorian and Edwardian women were well acquainted with it as it was also used in polishes made for household objects made from tortoise shell or horn.


Above: Early manicure preparations from the Mutual Manufacturing Company, New York, including a powder and a paste along with a nail bleach, orange stick, emery boards and instructions.

Although still around, buffing powders are not commonly used today, being superseded by nail buffing files with their varying grades of coarseness. Current buffing powders are generally sold as pastes (creams) but in the past they were also produced as sticks, blocks, powders and liquids.

Requas Rose Nail Polish

Above: Requa’s Rose Nail Polish.

The products were advertised as polishes or enamels but if made in liquid form they could be referred to as liquid nail polishes, liquid nail enamels or both.

The following formulae show the nature of the variations to be introduced to make an effective wax polish in three forms.

Block or
Rosin160 gm.160 gm.160 gm.
Yellow wax60 gm.60 gm.60 gm.
Soft paraffin80 gm.300 gm.300 gm.
White ceresine500 gm.200 gm.500 gm.
Kieselguhr630 gm.270 gm.70 gm.
Zinc oxide370 gm.170 gm.170 gm.

To prepare the powder form, the wax, rosin, and ceresine are melted together, and the soft paraffin added stirring well until the mixture is uniform. It is then allowed to cool and set solid, after which it is broken up, finely powdered, and sifted. For the paste the ingredients are treated in the same manner, when a stiffish paste will result. For the block the same procedure is adopted, but the melted mass is poured into a mould of a suitable shape.

(Silman, 1935, p. 223)

1935 Cutex Nail Polishes

Above: 1935 Cutex Nail Polishes in cake, paste and powder form with associated packaging.

Pigments like carmine or dyes like Bengal Red were often included in these abrasive polishes to make them look more appealing. However, some manufacturers included a larger amounts of dye so that they would stain the nail plate a delicate pink. More adventurous women could dye the nails separately before polishing them.

Polishing may be effected by lightly rubbing the nails across the insides of the hand to which has been applied one or other … [polishing] products or better still by applying the polish on a chamois pad or burnisher.
Some ladies, at this stage, dye the nails a delicate shell-pink or red color. This is a matter of taste, but generally the nails look more attractive with their natural pinkish hue.

(Poucher, 1926, p. 71)


Above: 1897 Bourjois Emailline. Beauté des Ongles. Bourjois started out providing cosmetics for the theatre trade. This product was most likely used to stain the nail a light shell-pink. However, it may have included compounds to give the nail a slight shine. Bourjois also sold Poudre Emailline for polishing the nails.

Liquid powder polishes were made by suspending the powder in gums and glycerine. The mixture was applied to the nail with a brush before being buffed in the usual way. The suspension had to be as perfect as possible to stop the powder from settling in the bottle. This was usually accomplished by adding additional powders like talc and clay but shaking the bottle before use was also an option.

300    Stannic oxide.
300    Talcum.
100    Osmose kaolin.
2    Tragacanth.
50    Glycerine.
1    Citral.
q.s.    Water.
1000    Total.

(Poucher, 1932, p. 480)

Nail polish liquids are essentially of the same composition [as nail polish powders], plus water and glycerin. The abrasive is kept uniformly suspended in the liquid by a colloidal agent such as china clay. The following is a typical formula:

Stannic Oxide450 g.
Talc450 g.
Glycerin75 cc.
Colloidal China Clay150 g.
Gum Tragacanth or Gum Arabic3 g.
Water1000 cc.

(Bennett, 1935, p. 167)

Powder polishes were not without their problems. As well as requiring a considerable amount of effort to produce an effect that was relatively short-lived, they could also thin the nail plate if over-used or the particulate matter was too abrasive. It is not surprising then that from the 1920s onwards they began to be replaced by liquid forms.

See also: Liquid Nail Polishes

Updated: 23rd September 2014


Arend, A. G. (1935). Nail polishes and enamels. Perfumery and Essential Oil Record. April, 122-124.

Bennett, H. (Ed.). (1935). The chemical formulary. A condensed collection of valuable, timely, practical formulae for making thousands of products in all fields of industry (Vol. 2). New York: Chemical Publishing Co., Inc.

British pharmacopœia. (1885). London: Spottiswoode & Co.

Butterick Publishing Company. (1892). Beauty its attainment and preservation (2nd ed.). New York: Author.

deNavarre, M. G. (1941). The chemistry and manufacture of cosmetics. Boston: D. Van Nostrand Company.

Durvelle, J.-P. (1923). The preparation of perfumes and cosmetics. (E. J. Parry, Trans.). New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.

Gattefossé, R. M. (1959). Formulary of perfumes and cosmetics. (Trans.). New York: Chemical Publishing Co., Inc.

Hanckel, A. E. (1937). The beauty culture handbook: A modern textbook of beauty culture and hairdressing for beauty parlour assistants and ladies desirous of practising self-treatment. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd.

Poucher, W. A. (1926). Eve’s beauty secrets. London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd.

Poucher, W. A. (1932). Perfumes, cosmetics and soaps (4th ed., Vol 2). London: Chapman & Hall Ltd.

Silman, H. (1935). Nail polishes. The Manufacturing Chemist. July, 223-227.