TikTok Is Obsessed With A “Dry” Manicure — But Is Waterless Really Better?

Photo: Courtesy of Glosslab.
The Russian manicure, named after the country in which it’s said to have originated, is one of the most satisfying nail trends on TikTok — and also the most controversial. You'll know it when you hear the buzz of an e-file, which is exactly why the technique is so divisive: The electric nail file does an impeccable job of cleaning up the nail bed in lieu of a cuticle cutter, but the technique also lifts the cuticle, which can leave the delicate skin beneath the nail open to bacteria.
Recently, nail artists outside of Eastern Europe have rebranded the Russian manicure as the “dry” manicure and taken it to TikTok, where videos hashtagged #drymanicure boast 218 million views and counting. While the terms “dry” and “Russian” manicure seem to be used interchangeably, there are a few key differences between them. Not to mention other factors to consider when thinking about your nail care and the use of water in the process.

What is a dry manicure?

There are differing professional opinions here, but the simplest and most reliable definition of a dry manicure is a manicure that does not involve water or liquid elements. The traditional manicure often uses liquid-based nail polish remover, applied via a saturated piece of cotton, and involves soaking your nails in soapy water to soften the cuticle and make it easier to work with. A dry manicure, however, will skip these steps and instead offer an alternative form of removal and exfoliation.
The specific dry manicure that’s trending on TikTok is actually similar to a Russian manicure in that it uses an e-file for cuticle work. According to Julie Kandalec, a New York City-based nail artist, the e-file is used to “exfoliate the cuticle rather than cut it, which can cause it to grow back faster.” On TikTok, you can see how the e-file bit works to exfoliate the dead, dry skin around the cuticle. According to a TikTok posted by @karanailedit, the e-file can be used to remove gel polish as well, avoiding the need for liquid nail-polish remover. "The benefits are that you're not soaking your nails in acetone," she explains.
Other than skipping a hand soak or polish remover in favor of light exfoliation, a dry manicure then mirrors any other manicure, whether you're getting regular polish, gels, extensions, or acrylics. Also good to note: This is not a Russian manicure, as that technique actually lifts the cuticle so that nail polish can be painted under the cuticle. This is said to yield minimal natural regrowth and a longer-lasting manicure. The dry manicure does not lift the cuticle to paint underneath it; the idea is just to remove polish and exfoliate the cuticle sans liquid.

What are the benefits of a dry manicure?

So why opt for a dry manicure? Have routine (or wet) manicures been bad for your nails and cuticles all along? Opinions differ. “The nail and the skin around it is like a sponge, and it swells after soaking,” says Kandalec. “That can cause superficial tears in the skin.” Therefore, Kandalec opts for the dry manicure technique that’s been making the rounds on TikTok by exfoliating her clients’ cuticles using an e-file, which can also be used (with a different drill head) to remove nail enhancements like acrylics and hard gels. However, this is a specialized technique that not every salon offers.
Salons that don’t work with e-files may offer other, less intense “waterless” alternatives to cuticle softening. For example, Glosslab, a rapidly growing nail salon franchise, only offers “water-free” services, applying a cuticle softener — which is an oil that often contains urea (a moisturizing ingredient often found in skin care) to soften the skin — no liquid required. According to Glosslab founder Rachel Apfel Glass, it's more sanitary. “Water is a breeding ground for germs,” she says. “Even when the water is changed out between clients, germs still live in the bowl, and so it's always better to do services water-free.” 
Bacteria growth in warm water is certainly a valid concern for many. However, it doesn’t mean that all water-based hand soaks or liquid removal techniques are unsanitary or bad for the nails. “If the cuticles swell as part of the [water] softening process, it is only temporary and it enables the technician to more easily work with the cuticle,” explains Jin Soon Choi, a celebrity nail artist and founder of JINsoon. “People are worried about bacteria in warm water, but the bowls we use to soak the hands at the JINsoon salons are well sanitized and we use essential oil in the water,” which Choi says prevents bacteria from propagating.
A good salon with an up-to-date certification license will be equipped with proper sanitation equipment, such as Barbicide. 

Should I ask for a dry manicure at my next appointment?

Beyond sanitation reasons, there’s anecdotal evidence that dry manicures may help prolong the longevity of your manicure. “Water-free services actually help pedicures and manicures to last longer,” says Apfel Glass. The water causes the nail bed to expand, adds Apfel Glass, resulting in the polish peeling off and chipping faster as a result.
If you're someone who gets regular gels and you often pick and peel at your cuticles, a dry manicure with exfoliation might be worth trying. Kandalec notes that her process offers a longer-lasting manicure as well. "When my clients come in for a dry manicure with gel, their nails last up to four weeks," she says. Of course, you should only ask for the e-file exfoliation technique at a trusted salon with a licensed professional, as using an e-file requires certification. "It’s a highly specialized service that takes months or even years of training," says Kandalec.
Liquid or dry, this manicure discourse has certainly made me more mindful about using hand cream more often.

More from Nails

R29 Original Series