How to Match Nail Color to Skin Tone

Nail polish bottles
Photo: Moncherie/E+ Collection (Getty)

Many things can influence your choice of nail color, including the seasons, trends, and your mood. Some say that lipstick shades that look great on your lips will also be the right color for your fingernails. That method, however, doesn’t work for colors like neon greens, yellows, and blues!

Actually, the colors you wear and look good in have a lot to do with skin tone, so it makes sense that another way to tell which nail colors are right for you is by discovering what colors complement your complexion.

You might find that one shade of blue looks great on you, yet another is terrible. Or you’ll notice that a vibrant pink looks great on someone who appears to have the same complexion as you, but on you, the same color looks drab. The type of pink you can wear depends on your skin tone. It can also be determined by whether the polish itself has a yellow or blue base. Of course, a person of any skin tone can wear any nail color they please. 

Skin of color is typically lumped into warm or neutral-based categories, but depending upon racial background, some women of color have cool undertones as well.

So how do you know what undertones your skin has? Stand in natural light, either outside or by a window and look at your arm. Skin with pink, blue or red undertones is considered cool. Skin with golden, beige, or olive is considered warm. If you still can’t tell, look at your wrist. If your veins look blue, you have a cool undertone. If your veins look green, you have a warm undertone. If you still can’t determine your undertone, you might be neutral and look great in most colors.

Pale Complexions

Pale skin tones are considered a cool skin type. Lighter shades with pink or blue undertones are best. Pastel colors look great. Choose pinks or reds to brighten the complexion. Choose blue-based reds. If you’re pale with a warm tone, you can even try coral reds. If you’re very light, you want to avoid extremely dark or overpowering shades because these will make you look too pale. If you do wear a dark color like black, you’ll probably want to trim your nails to a shorter length.

  • Polish tip: Choose a polish with a blue base.
  • Shades that flatter: Pale pastel pinks, blues, and greens, pale peach, beige.
  • Shades to avoid: Dark polishes like dark blue or black (unless you happen to like the Goth or vamp look), yellow, green, gold, and orange.

Light Complexions

If you are light (often referred to as fair), with a warm tone, you tend to have more of a variety of shades to choose from. Cool and warm tones can wear red, but cool undertones look better in blue-based reds. Warm (golden or peachy) tones look better in red polish with yellow/orange undertones.

  • Polish tip: Choose a polish with a blue base or yellow base, based on undertones.
  • Shades that flatter: Beige, white, and silver (French manicures look great), light and medium toned purples, soft oranges, darker pinks, reds and berry shades.
  • Shades to avoid: Very dark blue, black, green, dark orange, gold.

Tan Complexions

Tanned skin looks better in warmer colors. Lighter shades can accentuate tanned skin, like warm pale shades of brown, light blues, pinks, and purples. Avoid gold, which will just blend with your skin color.

  • Polish tip: Blue and (possibly) yellow base.
  • Shades that flatter: Light blues, pinks, and purples, tangerine, light brown, copper brown, and chocolate.
  • Shades to avoid: Gold and shades of gold (because it will blend in with the tanned skin and lose vibrancy).

Medium/Olive Complexions

Medium skin tones enjoy a wide range of colors. You look good in dark burgundy and wines, vibrant colors like pink, blue, yellow and orange. You can also try silver and metallics (like metallic blue). Medium-dark can wear black, navy blue, dark pinks, burgundy. Olive skin has a combination of yellow undertone and greenish hue. It looks slightly beige with yellow undertones. Peach or gold colors enhance olive complexions. Blue-based reds and orange-reds should be avoided. Olive-dark tones look great in earthy tones and chocolate browns with red undertones. Some reds, russet, for example, work well, and gold.

  • Shades that flatter: Olive: peach or gold colors. Olive-medium: brown, reddish-browns, gold.
  • Polish tip: Blue or yellow base.
  • Shades that flatter: Vibrant orange, pink and blue, light blue, lilac, silver, metallic and glittery colors.
  • Shades to avoid: Dark purple, red or navy blue. Bronze colors won’t show well against your skin tone. Medium-dark: avoid paler, pastel shades, which could appear washed out.

Dark Complexions

Dark complexions can wear rich, deep shades, except dark brown, which will disappear. What looks great are burgundy, vibrant purples, and plums. Bright orange and pinks zap the color out of rich dark tones. Though darker shades are better, very dark tones need to be careful with deep purples, greys, and black, because these shades could make the skin appear muddy and dull.

  • Polish tip: Yellow or brown-based undertones.
  • Shades that flatter: Deep purples, dark, yellow-based reds, dark greens, dark blues, black, chocolate-brown, and gold.
  • Shades to avoid: Orange, yellow, neon colors, pastels, white and silver.

What About Neon Shades?

Neon colors can often be shocking, but they're not impossible to wear. While neon yellow, orange, and green look overpowering on some, those colors might look fine on you. It's easier to experiment by going bold and daring on the toenails.

If you’re not sure about how a nail color will look on you, the best way to decide whether you like it is to test it out on a fingernail. You can’t judge from the color in a bottle because achieving the color can be based on how many coats of the lacquer are applied. You could also love a color on your toenails, but be totally unimpressed when it’s applied to your fingernails. has a great Try It On feature that lets you see how nail shades look on different skin tones.

So this is a general guideline. It’s not set in stone. Trust your gut and your eyes. You’ll know which shades look best on you.

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