How to Get Rid of Stained Nails When Eating With Your Hands Is Cultural

Last year, I reconnected with half of my family after 17 years. Some backstory: I’m a first generation American; half Mexican and half Ethiopian. My parents split up when I was around five, and sadly I didn’t stay in touch with my father’s side; my Ethiopian family. When we reconciled last year, I felt closer to my roots than ever, and as a result, I began cooking and eating more of my favorite Ethiopian dishes like kitfo and doro wat.

Ethiopian food is eaten entirely with your hands on a spongy, circular sourdough bread called injera, which serves as the base for spiced stews, meats, and vegetables. One of the main ingredients used in Ethiopian food is a fragrant red spice called berbere which consists of chili, ginger, fenugreek, coriander, and cinnamon. It’s considered the life force of all Habesha — northern Ethiopian — people. Besides imparting a spicy, delicious flavor, it also imparts a red, hard-to-remove stain on hands and nails. This phenomenon isn’t unique to Ethiopia: Eating with your hands is the norm in India, Indonesia, Mali, and Egypt — cultures that also happen to use colorful spices like turmeric and curry powder in traditional foods.

Funny enough, the more connected I feel to my culture, the more stained my nails seem to get: When I visited my first cousin Frey, the most talented cook in my family, she sent me off with heaping bags of Ethiopian spices to cook with at home — and my nails have been cloaked in a yellow tint ever since. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with embracing spice-tinged nails. But after spending $100 on a classic white French mani, I wanted it to look that way.

My first stop was the group chat. Most of my friends who also eat with their hands for cultural reasons told me they just do their best to physically scrub away stains — but that most of the time, there’s still a shadow left behind. One friend told me she’s resorted to wearing latex gloves when prepping her favorite turmeric smoothie.

Naturally, I wanted better answers for all of us. So I reached out to manicurists, including Julie Kandalec, who had a suggestion for stopping staining before it starts if you’re getting a gel manicure: “At the salon, ask for a non-wipe — also called non-cleanse — top coat which is formulated to repel stains,” she says. These types of formulas, like CND Shellac No Wipe Top Coat, are less porous, which means they aren’t as likely to absorb pigment. “This is especially key on a light color like white,” says Kandalec.

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