This "Ugly" Nail Color Is Surprisingly Sophisticated

Move over, glazed donut nails.

Brown nails manicure


Not unlike a trusted pair of combat boots and a chunky knit sweater, chocolate brown nail polish is one of those fall staples that, while not being entirely groundbreaking, feels all the more welcome once that certain chill sets into the air. The shade was popular in the '90s before dipping out of fashion in favor of true blacks and oxbloods, but after years of being thought of as ugly or reserved for "grandma nails," the neutral is back in a big way.

"The chocolate nail trend is a '90s revival mani meets the on-trend color of the season," says Olivia Van Iderstine, vice president of content and creative for Olive & June. "Chocolate brown is a trendy shade, and it's a super wearable way to wear a darker mani for fall and winter." Sure, oxblood, navy, black, and taupe are among some of the usual suspects in the autumnal nail color realm, but thanks in part to stars like Hailey Bieber (of course) and Lily James, chocolate nails are giving our go-to lacquers a run for their money, while simultaneously challenging the glazed donut finish that everyone—and we mean everyone—wore all summer long.

Bieber's chocolate glazed donut nails were created by her manicurist Zola Ganzorigt, who is also the brainchild behind the previous pearly-chrome effect that launched a thousand nail appointments in its wake. Just as she did with the previous viral trend, Ganzorigt used a handful of gel formulas to create the chromed-out brown tone, mixing the Coffee Bean and Spiced Brown gel colors from Daisy Nail Designs over a base layer of OPI's Stay Strong Gel Base Coat. After rubbing the OPI Chrome Effects Powder in Tin Man Can over the color, she sealed her work into place with the OPI Stay Shiny Gel Top Coat.

If an opaque chocolate tone is more your speed, follow in the lead of Lily James, who wore a deep, shiny brown lacquer to the 2022 Emmys, playing off the metallic chocolate tones in her Versace gown. Her manicurist Bettina Goldstein used two coats of the Chanel Le Vernis Longwear Nail Color in 957 Impulsion ($30) to create the effect, serving up a more classic, chrome-free take on the trend. While no LED curing lights were required to nail this finish, Goldstein topped off the color with Chanel's Le Gel Longwear Top Coat ($30), which created the mirror-like shine.

Ready to nail the trend for yourself? Keep reading to find out what the chocolate nail look entails, what to ask for at the salon, and how to DIY the effect yourself.

The Trend

As the name suggests, the chocolate nail trend is a manicure decked out in a rich, chocolate-y shade of brown. "Every shade of chocolate is in," says Donna Charloff, director of service operations for MiniLuxe nails. "Whether it be a rusty, sienna shade, a medium-tone milk chocolate, a vampy dark chocolate, or a shimmery multi-dimensional shade, it's a flattering trend that pairs so well with all the cozy looks for fall."

An opaque chocolate tone as seen above serves as a chic, simple take on the trend, but when chrome powders are involved, that's when the manicure falls into the chocolate glazed donut territory. "The chocolate glazed donut finish is a semi-sheer iridescent look that still shows off the color underneath," Van Iderstine says. "In bright flash, the chrome shines through a bit more, and in lower light you get chocolate with a hint of shimmer."

While the chrome finish is entirely optional, it certainly adds an extra dimension to the decadent tone while paying homage to the glazed aesthetic of the summer.

As with any manicure trend, getting creative with nail art is always an option. Whether you're opting for negative space half-moons, intricate linework, French manicure-inspired tips, or some combination of all the above, just about anything goes as long as you stick to a chocolate-toned color palette.

Get the Look

Start by determining your finish of choice, and whether you want to go the gel or lacquer route. In every case, you've got options, and every one of them starts with applying a solid base coat of rich brown.

If you're opting to use gels, Charloff advises starting with two coats of brown gel polish. Cure each layer, and if you're going for an opaque chocolate effect, your journey ends with a final layer of top coat, which you'll cure into place. If you're going full chocolate glazed donut, rub chrome powder over the top and cure following your top coat. "The technique that is needed for a successful chrome application is called burnishing, which is the act of making it shiny by friction," she explains. "You or your nail designer will have to rub the chrome pigment fast and with pressure to activate that high gloss effect by friction."

If you're working with traditional lacquer, prep your nails accordingly, then apply a layer of your favorite base coat. Sweep on two layers of a deep brown tone, then either follow with a glossy top coat for an opaque chocolate finish, or reach for a pearlized topper to impart that glazed effect. "Keep in mind, less is more," says Morgan Haile, head of marketing and brand at Morgan Taylor and Gelish. "Use thin layers, and finish with a high-shine top coat."

Another option? Replacing the pearl top coat with either chrome powder, or a shimmery formula from your makeup bag. "You can also use a powder highlighter or iridescent eyeshadow on top of the brown polish to mimic the effects of a chrome powder," says Van Iderstine. "I like to use an old eyeshadow brush or sponge to apply it." One caveat: Make sure your nails are completely dry before doing this, as you may run the risk of smudging the layers underneath if they're still wet. Once the powder has been applied to each nail, seal it all into place with your favorite top coat.

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