Updated January 2022
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Buying guide for Best top coat nail polishes

If you’re going to go through the trouble of painting your nails, you don’t want the color to chip off within a few hours. A quality top coat nail polish acts as a seal to protect your newly manicured nails and prevent chipping. With a strong top layer, your color will last much longer, and you’ll need to re-apply the polish less often.

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Some top coat nail polishes are meant to work as a “system” with other products. For example, a particular gel top coat may be designed to work with a specific nail polish brand. If you were to use a different brand, your results might not be as good.

Why use a top coat?

The advantages of using top coat polish include the following.

  • Faster drying time: While not all top coats dry quickly, many have quick-dry properties that allow you to spend less time doing your nails.

  • Long-lasting manicure: A layer of top coat helps seal your polish and encourages color to last longer. Your freshly manicured nails could potentially look good for weeks.

  • Protection: A top coat helps protect your nails against chips and scratches.

  • Sleek look: Most top coats deliver a polished finished appearance.

Types of top coat nail polishes

There are several types of top coat nail polishes, each with its own unique look. The option you choose depends entirely on your personal preference.

  • Matte finish: This type of non-reflective top coat provides a look without shine.

  • Shine finish: This type of top coat imparts the traditional glossy, glass-like appearance. It’s the most common type of top coat finish.

  • Glitter finish: A sparkly top coat layer with glitter adds a shimmery effect to your chosen color. Some options have more texture than others.

  • Gel finish: This thick and highly protective top coat may require UV light to set. Gel top coats are available in different finishes, including matte and gloss.

  • Special effects: Some top coats alter the appearance of polish in unique ways. Crackle top coats, for instance, give painted nails a shattered appearance.

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For your safety
Women who are pregnant or nursing should only use top coats that are free of hazardous chemicals. Look for a product that is marketed as Big 3 Free, Big 5 Free, or Big 7 Free.

Features to look for in top coat nail polish

The top coat is the finishing touch to your manicure. Here are some features you may wish to look for as you shop for a product.

  • UV protection: Many top coats have built-in UV protection to prevent yellowing of the nails and polish. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, UV protection is a must. It’ll help safeguard your delicate nail beds from sun exposure, too.

  • Nail nutrients: A few top coat polish options are infused with vitamins intended to strengthen your nails. For example, you might find a polish that includes vitamin C and E. However, you’re more likely to find base coat nail polishes with nutrients than you are top coat nail polishes with nutrients. For antifungal protection, look for nail polish formulas with tea tree oil.

  • Quick-drying property: Who wants to spend the better part of an hour blowing on their nails to get them to dry? A quick-drying top coat formula ensures you can get back to your routine in a jiffy.

  • Scratch resistance: While all top coats are designed to seal and protect your polish, some may be vulnerable to scratches. If you work with your hands or spend a lot of time in the garden, look for a scratch-resistant top coat formula.

  • Multiple applications: Some topcoats require multiple applications for upkeep. You’ll need to re-apply these polishes once a week or more to ensure extended protection. If you’re short on time, a top coat of this nature may not be convenient for you.

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Expert Tip
Wait until your colored polish is completely dry before applying a top coat, else you’ll smudge all your hard work.

Top coat nail polish ingredients

Are you concerned about what’s in your nail polish? Perhaps you’re worried about harsh chemicals or products that are not cruelty free. If so, it helps to read the label, as some products are more consumer-friendly than others.

  • Toxin-free properties: Some brands offer top coats that are free of heavy chemicals. If you’re intrigued by this, look for top coats that are marketed as “Big 3 Free” to avoid DBP (dibutyl phthalate), toluene, and formaldehyde. There are also formals that are “Big 5 Free” and “Big 7 Free.” These formulas omit other potentially toxic ingredients.

  • Cruelty-free properties: Many top coat options are vegan; they don’t contain animal products. If this matters to you, check the label before buying to be sure.

  • Hydrating/moisturizing properties: Many top coats tend to dry out nails since they create a seal that keeps moisture out. The seal also reduces breathability. If you’re concerned about ending up with dry, brittle nails, look for formulas with hydrating and moisturizing properties.

Top coat nail polish prices

Many drugstore brand topcoats can be purchased for under $10. Brand name top coats will be pricier, but a good-quality option shouldn’t set you back more than $30 unless you’re purchasing a polish set.


  • The perfect manicure involves some prep work. Before starting your paint job, push back your cuticles, clean under your nails, and shape them to your taste.

  • Clean off your nails with a quick wipe of a cotton swab soaked in polish remover. Oils and lotions that are left sitting underneath polish may prevent the polish from adhering properly.

  • Always start with a base coat. Apply color without going on too thick. Let the polish dry between coats.

  • Keep in mind that you’ll need a UV or LED light to set some top coats. Nail salons usually have this equipment on hand, but UV nail kits can also be purchased for at-home use. Shellac and gel polish require curing via UV light.
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Thin layers of polish are better than thick layers. Thin layers dry more evenly, and it’s much easier to apply the finishing top coat.


Q. Can I use regular nail polish with a gel top coat?

A. Yes. You won’t get the same long-lasting results as you would with gel polish, but this method does make it easier to remove the nail polish once it starts to chip.

Q. Is clear nail polish the same as a top coat?

A. Not necessarily. Unless it’s labeled as such, clear nail polish is basically just a nail polish without pigment. If you want a shiny no-color manicure, you’ll still need to apply a base coat, the polish itself, and a top coat for protection.

Q. What is a shellac manicure?

A. Shellac is almost the same thing as a gel manicure. Shellac, however, is the name of a specific brand of gel polish. Over time, the two terms have come to be used interchangeably. Both require the use of a UV light to cure the product and harden it in place.

Q. Are acrylic nails the same as gel nails?

A. Acrylics are faux nails set over your actual nails. Once they are applied, polish is added for color. The process often results in nail damage.

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