Though choosing a colorful polish is the most exciting part of doing your nails, it’s not the only bottle you should be using. But do base and top coats work? Although they’re transparent and you can’t really see what either are doing, experts say both products are key to a better manicure.
There’s a reason why salon technicians always use both a base and top coat on your nails — each special polish plays a specific role. The main purpose of both is basically to protect your nails, although they each do so in different ways. “You should always use both,” says Dr. Dana Stern, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in nail health. “Base coats are formulated to adhere to the nail plate as well as to hold onto the polish. Top coats are an entirely different formula and tend to contain more nitrocellulose and plasticizers for gloss, flexibility, and scratch resistance.”
According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, M.D., it’s more important to wear a base coat than a top coat. “If you don’t wear a base coat, polish will potentially weaken and stain your nails, especially if you choose a dark color,” she tells Bustle. Though she notes nothing will happen to your nails if you skip a top coat, your manicure “won’t be as protected or glossy-looking.” Read on for the full rundown on base and top coats for your nails.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Base Coat Nail Polish
A base coat works as your nail’s protective layer. “Base coats are a key step in the polish process, as they are crucial for polish adhesion, but they’re also a protectant,” says Stern. If you skip this step, you could wind up with stained nail beds. “Not using a base coat can result in pigments from polish leaching into the nail plate and subsequent yellowing of the nails,” she says.
Sometimes nail beds develop ridging (this can happen from dehydration of the nail plate), and base coats work to smooth it out for a better nail painting experience. “Base coats fill in any cracks on your nails for even painting and work as nail ridge filler,” says Mariwalla.
And the right base coat can also be a nourishing treatment for your nails. Mariwalla recommends ones with ingredients like biotin, calcium, and vitamin B to strengthen the nail. “Nitrocellulose will create a hard barrier, which helps with nail peeling and splitting, and kukui nut oil will help moisturize the nail plate,” she says. Celebrity manicurist Deborah Lippmann also points to the moisturizing benefit — if you pick a base coat with hydrating ingredients, like vitamins C and E, “it also helps dehydrated nails,” she tells Bustle.
Top Coat Nail Polish
A top coat is less about the health of your nails and more about having a better, longer-lasting manicure. “A top coat seals polish to prevent chipping and protects your manicure,” says Mariwalla, who says it doesn’t necessarily lend any benefits to the nail (although mani aficionados surely believe anything that prevents chipping is a major perk). It also protects your polish from getting those annoying dents and lines that can come from, well, using your hands. “Top coats work as scratch resistance,” says Stern.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of using top coats? When you apply a layer over your polish, your mani will actually look better. “Top coats give you that super glossy shine, as it protects the nail color,” says Lippmann. Or you can try one that gives you a matte finish. TL;DR: Seal your polish with a top coat if you’re looking for a more IG-worthy manicure.
Stromme, M. (2020). Calcium and Silicon Delivery to Artificial and Human Nails from Nail Polish Formulations. Cosmetics. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339836149_Calcium_and_Silicon_Delivery_to_Artificial_and_Human_Nails_from_Nail_Polish_Formulations
Dr. Dana Stern, M.D., board-certified dermatologist who specializes in nail health
Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in West Islip, New York
Deborah Lippmann, celebrity manicurist and founder of Deborah Lippmann nail care