In Korea, all young girls learn to color their nails with the balsam flower (called 봉숭아 or 봉선화 in Korean), when they bloom in bright shades of pink and red in the summer.
You’d pluck the flower petals and mash them with potassium aluminum sulfate (백반) – this used to be easy to come by but not anymore, I think – then lay on the mixture on each of your fingernails. Your mother or some other older and more experienced lady would wrap each of your nails with plastic wrap and tie each “finger bundle” with string. After eagerly waiting, the bundles would be freed, your fingers would be pruny, but after removing the flower mash and washing your hands, your nails would bright and colorful. If the older lady was not very talented, you’d face the misfortune of orange skin around your nails.
These days, Daiso sells packets of balsam powder that you simply mix with water before applying to your nails. No need to scour your neighborhood for potassium alum, which has pretty much no other use around the house than for dyeing your nails with flower petals. And you don’t have to wait until summer, when the balsam flowers bloom.
Another wonder of modern K-beauty: now you can find these nifty little caps that protect your painted nails while you go about the house, waiting for them to dry. (Daiso has these, too.)
It’s much harder to lay on the paste with your non-dominant hand than it is to paint nail polish. The key with balsam dyeing is to plaster, not paint. Painting would just push the flower mash around on the nail bed, preventing it from covering the surface.
After about 25 minutes, the mixture hardened, and I washed it off.
A few observations:
- It’s very orange. So much so that I suspect this may be henna and not natural balsam. (The packet doesn’t list the ingredients.)
- The new nail growth closer to your cuticle is thinner, so it dyes more intensely. But it’s too difficult to adjust the amount of paste you apply on different parts of the nail plate, so you pretty much have to live with the gradation (which I grew to like).
- The natural dyeing is a rather pretty look and a nice break from chemical polishes. The fact that it won’t chip or peel is another bonus.
As I am not fond of the color orange, I applied some translucent pink polish for a coral color effect.
And the finished look:
Another great thing about dyeing is that you can remove the polish you put on top at any time and try out new looks. But of course, the downside is that the dye is semi-permanent and you’d have to wait for your nails to grow out to be rid of the color. (Luckily my nails grow fast.)
I’d definitely choose the powder packet over the flower petal process for its convenience, although the traditional process is something I wouldn’t want any young lady to miss out on.
Doing this today took me back to my days of growing up in Korea, pestering my mom to buy potassium alum so I can dye my nails.
If you’re curious about the traditional process, check out this Naver Wiki page. And I’m curious to know about other nail art cultures around the world – leave a comment below to share. 🙂