Nail regret: how to pick the right colour

Nail regret is real: how to pick the right colour, shape and shade every time

Let’s put an end to the cycle of paint-hate-repeat.

If you’ve ever sat in a nail salon, chances are you know the feeling of panic-picking the wrong nail colour. “It’ll be fine,” you convince yourself as the excitement of what you hoped your hands would look like slips away. “I wanted a bright red,” you say, harking back to the seven saved photos of deep burgundy sitting in your camera roll. 

Between rushing the colour choice (hate you, nail polish wheel of doom!) to not feeling confident to speak up when the first wrong slick of paint has been applied, there are a number of reasons you leave feeling worse than when you entered. And I for one empathise. 

Until recently, I had never received a manicure I didn’t instantly regret. From picking the wrong shade to fluffing the shape and length, there was always something that didn’t go quite right. 

So, to stop the cycle of paint-hate-repeat, I decided to ask the experts for their advice on how to avoid the small, wrong decisions keeping us from living our best nail lives. Here’s what they suggest.

First, look at your skin tone to identify complementary colours 

If you’ve never considered working with your skin tone before, know that it could be the key to identifying the nail colour that suits you best. For example, red is not just red. There are a plethora of variations and factors that affect if a red presents as warm, cool, bright or dark when applied – one of which is how it sits next to your skin tone. 

Beauty and nail expert Leighton Denny MBE explains how to find the right shade for fair, medium and dark skin tones.

For fair skin tones

Lily Collins Nail Regret
Lily Collins Nail Regret

Lily Collins wears a cool-toned stark black nail colour to Paris Fashion Week 2020.


“Soft berry and wine reds with a blue undertone are ideal. Avoid reds with an orange undertone as these can make this skin tone look washed out and ashen.”


“Mocha brown colours and darker brown/pink polishes are also flattering for fair skin tones. Extra pale browns with yellow undertones can make fair skin look sallow.”


“Pinks look fantastic on fair skin. Avoid hot pink colours as these will overpower your fair skin tone; instead, look to more natural pink shades with blue undertones. For those who want to make a statement, try a sea-shell pink with gold shimmer to enhance your skin tone. For a more subtle look, a dusty rose shade will work beautifully.”

For medium skin tones

Zendaya Nail Regret
Zendaya Nail Regret

Zendaya wears an orange-based, warm-toned red nail colour to the CFDA Fashion Awards, 2021.


“Dark reds are most flattering – they’ll make a bold, beautiful statement and look warm on medium skin tones.”


“Stick to taupes and rich caramel shades, medium brown with yellow or pink undertones, and creamy coffee colour browns can work too. Metallic browns in these varying shades can also be very flattering.”


“Rich and deep pinks look best on medium skin, but light pinks also enhance and flatter medium skins. Cream is much more successful than metallic with these shades of pink.”

For dark skin tones

Michaela Coel Nail Regret
Michaela Coel Nail Regret

Michaela Coel wears a nude gradient nail colour, melting blush pink with soft white at the Primetime Emmy Awards, 2021.


“Try reds with a blue undertone, which are deep and rich. Metallic works well with this skin tone if you want to go all out. Also, mahogany, deep purple, and wine reds are worth trying. Avoid orange and pink reds, as they clash.”


“Almost any shade of brown suits dark skin tones. Sheer and shimmer light browns to rich, dark, creamy deep reds.


“Soft sheer pinks are very flattering. Hot pinks and coral colours can also really enhance this skin tone. Purple and plum bases can also be really flattering.”

“Remember though,” says Denny, “these are just guidelines – there isn’t a rulebook you need to follow when choosing a nail colour. If you want to be bold and make a statement, blue, lavender, yellow shades and shimmer polishes are all on-trend, so just have fun and go for it!” 

Then, choose the right nail shape

If choosing the right colour wasn’t already difficult enough, the shape you choose can make a huge difference to how happy you are on manicure completion. Clue up with Denny’s help: 


“This is a classic, timeless nail shape that suits everyone and is fuss-free. This shape will especially suit those who like to keep their nail length shorter as this versatile, low maintenance shape can subtly elongate fingers.”


“This feminine shape works brilliantly to elongate the appearance of fingers and work best with a little extra length. You don’t need to have super-long nails but if you like to keep your nails short then this probably isn’t the shape for you.”


“If you’re up for trying something different and like wearing your nails long then a coffin shape is for you. The long and narrow shape with a clean square finish gives you a statement look. If you have weak nails then I’d advise steering clear of this shape as you’re more likely to catch this shape and break a nail, must people wear this shape with extensions or overlays to protect the natural nail against knocks.”


“This shape is overall less subtle than the oval or round shapes but still works well for shorter nails. The clean, sharp edges give a polished finish and will be particularly flattering for those with long, thin fingers.”

Don’t be afraid to ask to try a few colours

“A good manicurist should always allow the client to try two to three colours on respective fingers before starting painting.  Once the colour is chosen and is being painted onto the nail, you should be asked if the colour is to your liking after two or three nails. It is perfectly acceptable at this point to ask to choose another colour and to start again,” says Seriah Leslie, a manicurist at beauty and skincare destination, Young LDN in Notting Hill. 

“If the manicurist fails to ask you about the colour, tell them after two or three nails that you don’t like it and ask to change the colour. They will be annoyed if you leave it until later into the manicure and they may not have the time to start again.”

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What to do if you’re not happy with your manicure

“A good manicurist will always ask if you are happy with the treatment once it is finished. At this stage, if you are unhappy, they should try to make a plan to change what it is that is causing the problem, even if they have to book you back the following day.  This is far preferable to you leaving and later admitting there was a problem,” says Leslie.

“If the nails get damaged, the salon should be happy to fix the damaged nail within 48 hours of the service, but anything longer will be queried and possibly payment will be required.  Remember: if, after a couple of days, you decide you just don’t like the colour, you can always book a minimally priced colour change as the manicure with treated cuticles.  

“Finally, make sure to follow aftercare advice even if you are planning to change the colour.  Use your hand cream and cuticle oil and remember to wear dishwashing gloves – your nails and manicurist will appreciate it!”

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Main image: Getty