A Comprehensive Guide To Painting Your Nails, Part 1: All About Base Coats, Top Coats And Nail Polish

Written by Victoria McMillin


Posted on January 25 2023

Disclaimer: We are an Amazon Affiliate. If you purchase from a link provided in this blog post, we receive a small commission. 

Hey Beauties!

We are continuing our series on creating long lasting and beautiful at home manicures. If you’re just stopping by for the first time, check out the first blog post in this series, A Comprehensive Guide To Preparing Your Nails For A Long Lasting Manicure to learn how to properly prep your nails. If you’re joining us from last time, welcome back! Today we’re going to be talking about the difference in base & top coats as well as nail polish so that you can gather your supplies to create a great and long lasting manicure!

Do I Really Need A Base Coat?

I’ve got a confession. For a long, long, long time, I never used to wear a base coat when I painted my nails. I made up every excuse in the book. I didn’t have one. I didn’t want to spend the time to use one, I mean that’s one extra layer of dry time! I don’t have that time to wait! And, so I just didn’t wear one. Maybe you’re like me and don’t wear a base coat and I’m here to tell you that’s ok.

You might be surprised by that answer. But, yes, that’s ok. Your nails will stain more. Your nail polish will not adhere as well. Your manicure will not last as long. And, if you are someone with strong ridges on your nails, your finished manicure will not look as smooth. For some people, this is ok. And I’ll be the first to admit that I was “some people” for quite a while.

But, we’re talking about creating a long lasting manicure. You want to get past the first or second day of a manicure? You should use a base coat. If you want to change your nail polish everyday or every other day, then maybe it doesn’t matter so much. But, we’re talking about creating a manicure that lasts. Your salon does it, right? Then you should too. There’s a reason they use a base coat before applying your nail polish. Here are a few:

Applying a base coat to your nails before applying nail polish is like priming a wall before painting it. Sometimes you need a primer because the original wall surface doesn’t provide a quality surface for the paint to adhere to. Sometimes you need a primer to make the color of the paint show up better or to smooth out the roughness of the surface of the wall. Sure, you can paint a wall without a primer, but the paint might peel. It might not cover very well or evenly. You might get streaks or patches or have to use a lot more layers of paint to get the effect you desire. The same idea applies to your nails.

Using a base coat on your nails before your nail polish will help to prime the surface of the nails. Base coats are formulated to adhere to your nail plate while most nail polishes are formulated to adhere to a base coat. By using a base coat, you are creating a surface on your nail plate that is better for the nail polish to adhere to than your natural nail. It also helps to smooth out the surface of your nail so that your nail polish applies more evenly and smoothly. Nail polish that is applied more even and smoothly will dry quicker and more evenly across the nail itself. Better adherence to the nail as well as smoother and more even coats will both aid in the durability and looks of your final manicure.

A Note On Staining

A much debated topic in the nail polish community is whether or not a base coat protects your natural nails from heavily pigmented polishes that are notorious for staining your nails. The answer is that it really depends on how much and how often you are wearing nail polish and if you are wearing a base coat and possibly also depends on the type of base coat you are wearing. Here are my thoughts:

If you are a nail polish swatcher, blogger or someone who constantly wears nail polish or changes their nail polish a few times a week, you will undoubtedly at some point experience nail polish staining. No amount of base coats will help you, it’s just the nature of the product. Think about it. Nail polish is a type of paint. What does paint do? It changes the color of something. It is a product of dyes and colorants meant to change the color of something. If even temporarily, that inevitably is its job by nature. 

Now, if you are someone who always wears a base coat when they polish their nails, but maybe doesn’t always have their nails polished or goes for long periods of time without wearing nail polish, there is a good chance that with a decent base coat you won’t get any or as much staining. But let’s be honest here, we all love to wear nail polish. What’s the point in not having polished nails just so we don’t stain our nails? And if you are always going to have your nails painted, then, what does it matter if they are stained or not? Isn’t that what nail polish is for?

So, will a base coat guarantee that your nails won’t get stained? No, probably not. Could it protect or prevent them from being stained even worse? Maybe. Probably, it could. But, I don’t think your main reason for applying a base coat should be to reduce staining your nails. I think the point of wearing a base coat should be to add another layer of durability to your manicure and to help create a surface that allows the nail polish to better adhere to your nails so that your manicure will last longer.

Picking A Base Coat

Now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you that wearing a base coat will help to prolong your manicure, the next step is…which one? If you’ve ever shopped for a base coat before, you know that not only are there a lot of different brands to choose from, but a lot of different types of base coats to pick from. Some brands even have several different ones in their own line. Here are a few of the more popular types of base coats:


Sticky base coats are named for creating a grip or anchor for the nail polish to adhere to. They are great for nail art applications (especially if you are doing stamping) and are often one of the better base coats for creating long lasting manicures because of their adhesive qualities. One of the top rated sticky base coats loved by fans worldwide is ORLY Bonder


Strengthening base coats or nail strengthening treatments are said to help strengthen your nails so that you experience less nail breaks and so that your nails don’t peel as much. They are often base coats that are infused with calcium, proteins like keratin, antioxidants or other natural extracts. Nail strengtheners can often be worn alone and usually require continued and consistent use to reap the benefits. One of the most popular and most loved nail strengtheners is OPI Nail Envy, which you can even get in a few different tinted colors if you want to wear it alone instead of as a base coat.

Ridge Filling

Got strong nail ridges? Don’t buff them out, this only weakens the nail! Instead, try using a ridge filling base coat. While every nail polish base coat will do some amount of ridge filling, if you have very prominent nail ridges, you are probably going to need something a little heftier. Ridge filling base coats are specifically formulated to fill in deeper ridges and imperfections on your nail and create a smoother surface for your nail polish.


I know this one sounds like a contradiction and it’s easily the one that won’t result in a long-lasting manicure. But, I wanted to mention it in case you come across it in your venture of finding and choosing a base coat. Peelable base coats were created to make your nail polish easier to remove. This means that it will not be long lasting. Peelable base coats are most loved by nail polish enthusiasts, swatchers and bloggers who constantly change their nail polish because it allows them to quickly and easily switch between colors. UNT Ready For Takeoff Peelable Base Coat is a pretty popular choice.

What About 2-in-1 Base And Top Coats?

2-in-1 base coats and top coats are not something that I would recommend using. Why? Because, by nature, base and top coats are created to do two different jobs. Base coats are created to adhere to your natural nail and give a surface for nail polish to adhere to. Top coats are created to adhere to nail polish and to add a layer of shine and protection from outside elements. So, how can a combination of those two products properly do each other's job? In my opinion, one will always be lacking. I get the appeal and in theory it sounds like a great idea, but if a long lasting manicure is what you’re after (which we are), I would recommend using two different products for your base and top coat.

Whew! Did you decide on a base coat? I hope so, because we’re about to talk nail polish now!

What’s With All The (3, 5, 7 ,10)-Free Nail Polishes?

In everyone’s quest to get rid of all the bad, harmful, chemicals in their lives, we’ve become more aware of the ingredients used in everything from what we put in our bodies to what we put on our bodies. Insert the (3, 5, 7, 10)-free nail polishes. What does this mean? It means that depending on the number used (typically 3, 5, 7 or 10) there are a certain amount of harsh or harmful ingredients that are excluded from that nail polish.

3-free nail polishes don’t contain toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP). 

5-free nail polishes don’t contain toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), camphor and formaldehyde resins.

7-free nail polishes don’t contain toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), camphor, formaldehyde resins, ethyl tosylamide and xylene.

10-free nail polishes start to get a little different. They don’t contain toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), camphor, formaldehyde resins, ethyl tosylamide and xylene just like the 7-free nail polishes, but sometimes the last 3 ingredients differ depending on the brand. They could exclude any of the following: parabens, phthalates, triphenyl phosphate (TPHP), tert-butyl hydroperoxide (TBHP), fragrance, gluten, animal derivatives and lead, to name a few.

And to me, this is where it gets a little tricky and why I say that a higher number of -free ingredients doesn’t necessarily make the nail polish better. I feel like after you get past 5 or 7-free ingredient nail polishes, it becomes a marketing ploy and sort of deceptive because there isn’t a set list of ingredients and you can start saying things that your nail polish doesn’t have in it but also maybe doesn’t matter? For example, our nail polishes don’t contain bleach, but nail polishes shouldn’t and probably never have, so does that really matter? I’ll leave that decision up to you.

At BLUSH Lacquers, our nail polishes have always been 5-free and technically we are 7-free and 10-free too. Here’s our ingredient list:





All nail polish has some kind of chemical in it, harsh or not. The one exception might be some water based nail polishes, but even those are using colorants, dyes and copolymers (which are a form of microplastics).

I understand that some people are more sensitive to certain chemicals and ingredients than others and I get that. And, I think you have to do what you feel comfortable with and what works best for you. In my personal opinion, as a nail polish lover and aficionado, I don’t necessarily think that a higher -free number makes the polish better. There is a market for it, there is an appeal for it, but in terms of application and durability, I don’t necessarily think that it’s better or worse. My best advice is to do your research, test out what works for you and your body and go with that.

In terms of creating a long lasting manicure, I’ve had OPI nail polishes (before they started excluding ingredients) and various indie nail polish brands without all the harmful chemicals in them last equal amounts of wear time. We’re going to focus more on technique and application than ingredients, however, I thought it was helpful to go over some of these things to help you make an informed decision.

See our full nail polish catalog here.

What About The Nail Polish Brush?

Another thing you should consider when picking out a nail polish is the brush that comes with the nail polish. This might sound silly and it’s maybe something that you wouldn’t think to think about when picking out nail polish, but it can really be a game changer in the way you apply nail polish and ultimately help in your manicure’s durability. 

Brush Types: Flat vs. Round

Nail polish brushes tend to fall into two different categories: flat brushes and round brushes. They are pretty self explanatory. If you look at a flat brush from the side, you’ll see that it is flat and the round brushes are more full and fluffy. Either type of brush can have a flat and straight across tip or a curved and rounded tip. Nail polish brushes also come in a variety of sizes from being really thin to being thicker and more wide. Even the length of the bristles can vary!

So why does this matter? Well, having a good brush can make all the difference in how evenly and smoothly your nail polish applies. For example, round brushes tend to be able to hold more nail polish which could sometimes mean that you get too much nail polish on the brush and which will make your nail polish coats too thick and uneven. I find that it is much easier to control the amount of nail polish on your brush when the brush is flat. A flatter brush will tend to hold less nail polish and it’s easier to wipe off on the inside of the bottle when you are getting ready to apply it to your nail.

Straight or flat tipped brushes, in my opinion, are more difficult to get a nice even line around the cuticle area while rounded or curved tip brushes mimic the shape of the cuticle and it’s easier to create soft perfectly round edges. Thinner width brushes tend to take more strokes to get an even coat of nail polish where a nice wide width brush can often be applied in one or two strokes (depending on the width of your nail). Using less strokes to apply nail polish can help create a more even layer where the nail polish itself is distributed more evenly.

When I was choosing the brush for BLUSH Lacquers, I knew the exact brush that I wanted and it was the exact opposite of what every other brand (even most mainstream brands) were using at the time. Most brands went with the thin round brush with a flat tip, which is the least expensive option, but in my opinion an absolute nightmare to use. I decided to go with a wide, flat brush that has a curved tip, which I believe creates the best application with the most control for the user. It’s easier to control the amount of nail polish on the brush and how the nail polish itself applies to the nail (thinner or thicker coats and spreadability).

Picking A Top Coat

After painting your nails, you are going to want to apply a top coat. These can have either a glossy finish to give your nails some added shine or a matte finish to create a flatter finish with no shine. Here are few of the different types of top coats:


Glossy top coats give your manicure a high shine finish while adding a protective layer to your nails. One of my favorite go-to glossy top coats is Sally Hansen’s Hard As Nails Crystal Clear.


Unlike glossy top coats, matte top coats create a soft matte or flat finish to your manicure. I’ve found that the matte finish shows up best and your manicure will wear longer when you apply a glossy top coat first and then a layer of the matte top coat (see this post for more details on this process). Matte top coats alone tend to not provide as much protection as glossy top coats, but they are a fun way to mix up your mani and have a more textured finish. I particularly like to wear them in the fall with metallic nail polishes as they give a “brushed metal” effect to your nails. Check out our matte top coat here.

Quick Dry

Quick dry top coats are extremely popular as we all hate waiting for our nail polish to dry! Seche Vite Quick Dry Top Coat has long been a favorite, but I along with many other nail polish lovers have found that you can get some shrinkage from this top coat, particularly if the bottle is getting older and starting to dry out. What’s shrinkage? Shrinkage is when you apply the top coat to your nails and as it dries, it shrinks a little bit. It’s usually most noticeable around the sides of your nails or around the cuticle line and may cause your nail polish to pop off all in one piece! (I’ve had it happen before!) But, before you get discouraged, not all quick dry top coats are bad or cause shrinkage. One of my favorites is actually by a fellow indie polish maker, the Glisten & Glow Top Coat. It’s fast drying and super shiny!

Gel Finish

The gel finish top coat is a relatively new type of top coat. It came about during the gel polish craze and essentially gives you the effect of wearing gel nail polish without having to use a UV light. They tend to give a more smooth and voluminous look to your manicure with an extra high shine. I don’t know that I can say that they are any better than your standard glossy top coat, but try out our favorite, Essie Gel-Setter Top Coat and let us know what you think!

For a long lasting manicure, I would go with either a standard glossy or quick dry top coat to finish.

Now that you have your base coat, nail polish and top coat picked out and ready to go, join us for our next blog post about nail painting tips, tricks and techniques for creating a long lasting manicure!

Read more of our 'Comprehensive Guide' series here:
A Comprehensive Guide To Preparing Your Nails For A Long Lasting Manicure
A Comprehensive Guide To Painting Your Nails, Part 2: Tips, Tricks & Techniques For Painting Your Nails



  • Comment author

    I didn’t think too much about brushes before I really started getting in to nail polish in a big way around 4 years ago. I discovered Blush quite early and the brushes are really the absolute best for my nail shape as I can get close to the cuticle without any mishaps; I wish all brands (indie and mainstream) would use an identical brush. Thank you for giving so much consideration to brushes – they are indeed a game-changer!

    Posted by Katherine Watson | August 12, 2023
Leave a Comment