Is there such thing as beauty culture shock? As a Brazilian girl who grew up in Rio and later moved to Newark, New Jersey, I can assure you that there is. Brazilian manicures are messy, intense and nothing like the treatments I found once I moved.
The first time I got a traditional American manicure, I couldn't believe how intact my cuticles remained and how meticulously my polish was painted. It felt like football fields away from the edge of my nail bed!
Within four days of normal nail growth, the polish seemed to ride halfway up my nail, making it look unkempt. "What wasted effort," I thought.
I still get standard American manicures, but should I be in the vicinity of a Brazilian salon (it truly doesn't happen often enough), there’s no question that I'm going in. For this Test Drive, my wish was granted as I visited the Maria Bonita Salon in New York City.
Nail tech (and fellow Rio native!) Pamella Benac got to work, gently filling my nails and then softening the cuticle with a thin coat of lotion around the nail bed. So far, it's pretty similar to an American mani.
Prepping the nails
My fingers were then submerged into room-temperature water to expedite the cuticle-removing process — arguably the cornerstone of this technique. Removing the entire cuticle is a hotly contested and disputed process among the beauty-obsessed (some say it leaves the nail open to infection), but Brazilians are strongly on the pro-removing side. (I mean, just think about our most-famous waxing technique.)
My technician explains that there are two layers of cuticles around your nails. Two? I had never paid attention that closely. After she snips away that initial layer, I’m horrified by the amount of damp, clammy strings of skin dangling from her stainless steel clippers *shudder*. The only thing more embarrassing is when she dives into that second layer to find even more loose skin in my nail bed.
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“Que vergonha!” I mutter in Portuguese. "How embarrassing!"
Applying the polish
Now comes the fun part ...
But first, pop quiz: Were you meticulous about coloring in the lines as a kid? If so, turn away now while you still can. This polishing process is sure to give you the heebie-jeebies.
Rough around the edges is what we can affectionately call it, but if we’re being honest, it’s more akin to feeding a fussy toddler liquefied beets. It’s going to make you cringe, folks!
If you're from the color-as-you-wish camp, you can even try this method at home. It's mostly about cutting the cuticle as much as possible all the way around the nail and going to town with color.
Benac reaches for the basecoat and while it’s clear in color, I can feel the formula shrink wrapping the skin around my nails.
After all 10 digits are primed, she twists open a bold, blue-based red varnish. It’s go time! I can hardly contain my excitement.
She proceeds to polish each nail with the precision of a 4-year-old applying red lipstick while jumping on a trampoline ... but worse. So, why make such a mess? It's all about making the manicure last longer. The polish adheres cleanly to the entire nail, specifically the nail edges that are typically left bare, so that it grips the edges and takes longer to grow out.
Once the first layer of sticky, crimson polish is covering my nails and skin, I wiggle my fingers and smile. It reminds me of my childhood and getting Friday afternoon manicures with my mom.
Cleaning it up
At that moment, Benac says that some customers have tried to pay and walk out after this most sloppy step, assuming it was the final result.
She laughs as she adds a second coat of color in a similarly free-form fashion. As soon as a fresh, wet layer is applied, Benac quickly "detaches" the polish from the skin by running a pointy orangewood stick around the perimeter of the nail. This keeps the polish from drying completely onto the skin and smearing the edges.
At this point, the polish job looks considerably worse! There is still red residue and paint splashes all around my nail beds. I can see why women who are unfamiliar with this technique can start feeling uneasy.
Finally, Benac wraps a thin sliver of cotton around an orangewood stick, dips it in pure acetone and begins to clean along the edges of the nail. She replaces the cotton every four to five wipes. “Red is a strong pigment and we want to keep the color from transferring onto the skin,” she explains.
The final results
A few minutes — and a sizable stack of red-stained cotton buds — later, I stare down at my nails in disbelief. “Have I been here for 40 minutes or a month and a half?” My nails look considerably longer!
The polish sits so effortlessly on the surface of the nail that it almost looks as if they grew in fiery red. My nails somehow feel lighter, while looking tidy and clean.
Three days later, my manicure is still impeccable. While the gloss lost some of its luster, the polish hasn't lifted one iota through the typing, hand-washing and doggy-belly rubbing of my day-to-day life. My American-style manicures usually don't fare as well.
I'm suddenly struck with an idea: I should surprise my mom with a Brazilian manicure. Well, maybe in a week or two. I'm not quite ready to remove my polished perfection just yet.