I have been guilty of top coat crimes. I think we all have. I’ve skipped top coats altogether, I’ve used bad top coats because it’s what I had around, and I’ve used two-in-one top and bottom coat combinations.
When you don’t have a lot of time to do your nails in the first place, it’s easy to decide to skip the top coat because that’s adding another layer of wet polish and you need to be out the door in 10 minutes. Either that or it’s the wee hours of the morning and you seriously need to get yourself in bed and you don’t want to wake up with sheet prints. But skipping top coats is like saying you’re too busy to take a time management course. Or not buying a case for your new smartphone because it’s an extra expense. It’s a small investment now with big, lasting returns.
It’s counterintuitive, but a lot of top coats will make your nail polish dry even faster than without top coats so there goes your time excuse. Top coats seal your polish off from the hazards of our daily life. We expect our nail polish to hold up to lot–showers, hand washing, exercise, cooking, rooting around in our bags looking for keys. A top coat is that extra coat armor. As a lacquer that doesn’t have to worry about being a certain color, the formula can revolve completely around what it will take to stay chip-free for as long as possible.
It’s not just your polish that it protects. The extra layer of strong top coat also lends stability to your nails themselves, protecting them from breaking so you can grow long, gorgeous nails. If you’re having a lot of trouble with breakage, read my guide to the best products to grow nails fast.
Simply put, a top coat makes your manicure look better. The brighter the color of your nail polish, the more likely it will dry to a dull finish. If you’re going for matte, that’s fine, but if you want that slick, high gloss look you’ll need a top coat to bring out all that hidden luster. Top coats make nail art more visible and vibrant. They make glitter even more reflective and smooth out its bumpy texture. If your polish went on streaky or uneven (it happens to all of us) a good top coat will smooth the lacquer out, hiding any imperfections. Just like a couch by the window that isn’t quite the same color as when you bought it, light will fade the color of your nail polish leaving it dull and flat. Many top coats are UV light shielding and will keep your colors as bright as when you first applied them. It’s basically sunblock for your nail polish.
Make your manicure last longer without gel or shellac.
Prep your nails, top and underneath, by wiping them with rubbing alcohol before you polish them. This removes any lotions or natural oils on your nails that keep lacquer from properly sticking.
Use a good base coat and avoid products intended to be an all-in-one base and top coat. A base coat should be adhesive. Its job is to be the perfect foundation for things like nail polish to stick to. A top coat should be slick and tough and should slide off of anything that hits it. They have totally different purposes and trying to use one for both will only wind up with less than average quality layers of both. Read my guide to the best base coats for my information on choosing the right base coat for you.
Use a top coat. You just read why. For best results, also apply your top coat to the free nail edge and just under the lip of your nail tips, especially if that’s wear you tend to chip first.
Cap your tips. With each layer of base, color, and top coat make sure you’re swiping along the free edge of your nail. This will prevent shrinkage and extend the life of your polish by reducing edge wear. It blew my mind how much this helps your polish last. I like to cap my tips first and then paint the rest of the nail to avoid any uneven stops.
Avoid hot and humid environments for at least six hours. Even when your nails feel dry to the touch, it takes closer to 24 hours for them to fully set up. Nail polish dries best when it is cool and dry. Activities like taking a shower, washing dishes, swimming, or hanging out in a sauna will only prolong the drying process and leave your manicure vulnerable to dents and smudges.
Apply another layer of top coat every two to four days to stretch your polish even farther.
When it’s time to take your polish off, use a remover that is best for your nail health. Depending on your genetics, some nail polish remover will make your nails flake or peel, leaving an uneven surface for your next color. Check out my guide to the best nail polish removers to see which is best for your nails.
There are loads of top coat options to choose from, all with different specialties. Let’s go through the best currently on the market.
1. Best Fast Drying Top Coat: Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat
I would be flat out remiss if Seche Vite wasn’t included in this list. This top coat has fans across the globe singing its praises for being able to dry your polish quickly. It’s also one of the more misunderstood top coats because of its unique application. The biggest critique about quick dry top coats is that they tend to be quite brittle. Your polish dries quickly but it also chips the next day. To counter this, Seche Vite is meant to be applied while your previous layers are still wet. If the idea of that made you twitch, you’re not alone. It’s a common rule that all your layers need to be dry before adding the next, but Seche Vite works by bonding together all the layers before it into one solid brick of polish (except pretty.) When you apply it to dry or even mostly dry polish, it can’t work its magic.
The majority of complaints people have about Seche Vite tends to be that it peels polish off in large pieces or that it shrinks away from the edges of the polish. I have run into this, but these things can be avoided when applied to wet nails, across the free nail edge, and applied thickly which seems to break all the rules. Let the top coat bead on the end of the brush and carefully place that drop onto your wet nail. Use the brush to guide the top coat around to cover your whole nail and free edge. Don’t press so that the brush flattens out like you would for a regular polish. Don’t worry, it won’t dry that thick. You wouldn’t think so, but even with that thick layer, in just a few minutes you can touch your nails and after 15 minutes they’ll feel like you painted them yesterday.
Is Seche Vite a miracle and I can stop the list right here? No, it’s not perfect or for everyone. It’s not the longest lasting top coat on the list and it has warnings on the box that it contains some nasty chemicals. Like a lot of quick drying lacquers, this one tends to get thick and goopy in the bottle. Seche Vite makes its own polish thinner brand called Restore that you can use to get your top coat, or any other polishes, back to the consistency you like. For some that may be a hassle, but for others it’s worth having dry nails in under 10 minutes. This is my current go to to coat for nail art (I bought this with my own money) as it won’t smudge your lines if you apply thickly with light pressure.
Price: $5.88 (41 percent off MSRP)
- Dry to the touch fast
- Bright, glassy shine
- Bonds all layers of your polish
- Won’t smear nail art
- Can chip or peel if not applied wet
- Thickens in the bottle
- It has chemicals not safe for you if you’re pregnant
2. Best High Gloss Top Coat: Jessica Brilliance Top Coat
This is a lesser known top coat that ought to be giving Seche Vite a run for its money and the title of most popular top coat. While it won’t dry as fast as Seche Vite, it will definitely dry faster than your average lacquer. The formula includes UV protection to keep your colors bright and prevent yellowing. Its high gloss surface will stay glossy. It has a thick, look to it like glass. A lot of top coats lose their beautiful shine after a couple of days, but Brilliance keeps on shining. I use this top coat when I’m not doing nail art, and again, I bought this with my own money so my opinion is definitely my own.
This is another one you want to apply in a thick layer for best results. It dries thicker than traditional top coats giving you that high profile, glossy gel manicure look without putting your nails through the gel process. It won’t make your polish last two to three weeks like a gel manicure, but you can extend your manicure to last about five days with Brilliance which, for someone who abuses their nails like I do, is no small feat. This one is longer lasting than Seche Vite and a better choice for a lot of folks. This brand’s base coat, Jessica Reward, was featured in my best base coats for nail polish guide.
- Long lasting
- Gel-like, high gloss finish
- Fast drying
- Hard to find in stores
3. Best 3 Free Top Coat: Essie Good to Go Top Coat
Good to Go Top Coat is a three free polish so you know your lacquer doesn’t contain DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde–chemicals which aren’t great to be putting on your body. This one will dry not quite as fast as Seche Vite, but it’s pretty close. You can start going about your day in under 10 minutes as long as your day isn’t entirely digging ditches with your hands. The finish is a wet looking, gel-like shine and will keep its gleam for a long time. Good to Go applies with average thickness for the first half of the bottle, but tends to thicken up by the second half. It won’t become unusable, but there’s a noticeable difference. This top coat shouldn’t shrink on you as it dries or create awkward edges.
It creates a decent seal for your polish and will give your polish some protection, but don’t expect to get past four or five days without chips. Good to Go’s priorities are fast drying and high gloss foremost and extending the life of your polish seem secondary. I personally don’t mind because I like to change my polish up often, but that may be a downside to some folks. One of essie’s base coats, First Base, was featured in my best base coats for nail polish guide.
- High gloss finish
- Trusted, high-quality brand
- Fast drying
- Thickens in the bottle
- Won’t last a week chip-free
4. Best Thin Top Coat: ORLY Sec’n Dry Deep-Dry Top Coat
This ORLY top coat is continuing to prove that what we often really want out of a top coat is not having to sit on our butts for an hour before we can go about our lives without a stiff breeze messing up our polish. Sec’n Dry goes on much thinner than other top coats and is intended to speed up the drying time of the layers of nail polish beneath it. It works best when applied to tacky or mostly dry polish so this isn’t one like Seche Vite where you want to apply it immediately over wet polish. Your top coat will be dry to the touch after a minute or two, you’re reasonably safe to move around after five minutes, and after 10 minutes you can forget about your nails and get on with your day or go to sleep without worrying.
I love all of ORLY’s bottles because they have this easy grip top which makes it a breeze to open no matter how tightly you’ve closed it. While Sec’n Dry has a gloss finish, it won’t deliver that thick, glass-like shine that other top coats will. No one will mistake your manicure for gel, but that’s not everyone’s goal. This one will give you a couple of days without chips but expect to see some chipping around the nail edge by the end of the week. This is definitely a top coat you’ll want to strengthen by applying to your free edge and just under the tip. If what you want is pristine nails for a week, you want the next one on the list. Orly’s Bonder Rubberized Base Coat, was featured in my best base coats for nail polish guide.
- Fast drying
- Won’t thicken up in the bottle
- Bottle isn’t a struggle to open
- No gel-like shine
- Chip prone after a few days
5. Best Long Lasting Top Coat: CND Vinylux Weekly Top Coat
The name kind of says it all: weekly top coat. And that name is promising a lot. I know the bottle looks like a gel, but this is an air dry lacquer. Creative Nail Design’s Vinylux collection is built to have gel-like lasting power, and it’s nearly there. Wear varies depending on your personal nail type, but this top coat can make a manicure last well over a week. To get the most out of its staying power, use it over the Vinylux nail polish line, but the Vinylux Top Coat works with any standard lacquer. It applies thinly and dries at the rate of regular polish so you’re looking at closer to 10 to 15 minutes of waiting for your nails to stop being tacky, but Vinylux is well worth it.
The reason the bottle is opaque like gel and Shellac polishes is that while this top coat is air dry and doesn’t need a special lamp to cure, it does contain polymers that react to light. As you wear this top coat and it is exposed to light, the lacquer continues to harden even after it is completely dry. The longer you wear it, the harder it gets. This one really benefits from the practice of adding a new layer of top coat every few days, but even without that, Vinylux Weekly Top Coat will outlast most top coats out there. CND’s Sticky Base Coat, was featured in my best base coats for nail polish guide.
- Long lasting
- Actually gets stronger as you wear it
- From trusted, high-quality brand
- Smooth to apply
- Not quick drying
- Not as high gloss as others
6. Best High End Top Coat: Smith & Cult Above it All Top Coat
Smith & Cult has a seriously dedicated following and it’s not surprising. This lacquer is eight free, meaning eight of the common but toxic polish ingredients have been eliminated from their formula. All of Smith & Cult’s lacquers are long lasting and come in gorgeous bottles that look more like high end perfume than nail polish. This isn’t a quick drying top coat so expect it to take as long as your normal polish. If that handle looks bulky and awkward to use, no worries–the large gold piece lifts up to expose a smaller, ribbed brush handle.
Above it All has a very high gloss, wet-looking finish that won’t dull in a few days. As far as sealing in your polish, this top coat will protect your polish from chipping for around four days on average and up to 10 depending on how rough you are with your hands throughout the day. Smith & Cult’s base coat Basis of Everything, was featured in my best base coats for nail polish guide.
- Long lasting protection
- Eight free
- Wet, glossy finish
- Trusted, high end brand
- Gorgeous bottle
- Bottle design makes it hard to get the last few drops
- Not quick drying
7. Best Sally Hansen Top Coat: Sally Hansen Diamond Flash Fast Dry Top Coat
Sally Hansen is probably the best known brand in drugstore type top coats. It’s where many of us started out and where many of us go back to after trying other brands. This one is not joking around when it comes to shine. Diamond powder is listened in the ingredients along with platinum powder. If the idea of covering your nails in literal diamonds appeals to you, there’s a top coat made for you. This top coat has a very high shine, but even with diamonds it will start to dull after a few days of wear.
As far as fast drying, Diamond Flash can compete with the other quick dry polishes and is dry to the touch after a minute or two and safe to go about your day within 10 minutes. This one goes on thin and will keep your manicure looking fresh for three to four days in most cases. Diamond Flash has picked up a bit of a reputation for leaving tiny bubble marks after your polish has dried, but that’s not a universal experience. If you don’t shake your polishes up before using them, prep your nails, and wait for each layer to dry you should be able to prevent any bubbling.
- Contains diamond dust
- Fast drying
- High gloss
- Lasts about half a week
- Three free
- Shine fades a bit
- May bubble for some
- Not as long lasing as others
8. Best Vegan Top Coat: LONDONTOWN Kur Protective Top Coat
LONDONTOWN is a five free, vegan, gluten-free, and cruelty-free brand of luxury polish which focuses on nail health along with practical wear. The kur Protective Top Coat not only strengthens your manicure, it works to strengthen the structure of your nail as well. This top coat contains extracts of chamomile, evening primrose, cucumber, and garlic which is good for strengthening but don’t worry, you won’t be able to smell it. It also contains rapeseed oil, biotin, vitamin A, and vitamin E. It dries with a high profile shine, giving it a gel-like plumping finish that looks constantly wet and won’t dull on you. This one also dries rock hard and once it has set up, you’ll be hard pressed to dent it no matter what abuse you put it through.
As long as you have a quality base coat, expect your manicure with LONDONTOWN to last you at least five days without chipping. With a UV resistant formula, you won’t have to worry about your polish color fading or the gloss turning yellow. The kur Protective Top Coat isn’t rapid dry though, so you’ll have to settle in and wait or it to dry like a normal polish, unless you have a quick dry product up your sleeve.
- Plump, wet-looking finish
- Long lasting
- Five free and vegan
- Contains nourishing botanicals
- Trusted, high end brand
- Not quick dry
- A little pricer
9. Best Chip-Resistant Top Coat: Nail Tek Quicken Fast Dry Top Coat
First things first, this is not fast drying when compared to some of the other top coats on the list. It’s faster than standard top coats, but it doesn’t have rapid, immediate results so if that’s your main priority, this one isn’t for you. But, you absolutely should buy this if you want your manicure to be chip free for almost a week. The Quicken Top Coat really ought to be billed as a marathon-worthy protective armor for your polish. It has a thick finish, but doesn’t deliver the bright gel-like shine you normally expect from a plump top coat. Frankly, for a top that is going to prevent my polish from chipping for a week, I don’t care if it isn’t quite as shiny as the others. This is a formula developed to work best on natural nails which is great to lend strength for those of us with softer or less stable nails. It might not be the best choice if you’re not working with your natural nails. Plus, it’s cheap so it’s one of those what do you have to lose situations.
- Long lasting protection
- Formulated for natural nails
- Not as fast drying as advertised
- Not best for fake nails
10. Best Overall Top Coat: INM Out the Door Top Coat
If there’s a top coat that’s going to steal the throne out from under Seche Vite, it’s Out the Door by INM. In a fast drying race, Out the Door would come in behind Seche Vite, but only just slightly. With Out the Door you can expect to feel comfortable going back to your normal activities between 10 and 15 minutes after applying, which isn’t bad considering that normally 20 minutes after applying a standard top coat I’m gingerly picking up everything I touch like it’s about to bite me. As far as how long it will protect your manicure from chipping, Out the Door is in front of Seche Vite by a mile. It isn’t quite as glossy as some of the others, but it makes up for it with sheer staying power.
You can get five days easy out of this and more likely a week. A nice surprise for a fast drying polish, this top coat won’t dry up in your bottle and become a goopy mess forcing you to either throw out the last quarter of your bottle or buy a thinner. I like that because I have limited space for my nail supplies and a partner who has been giving me the side-eye as my nail stash slowly takes over our apartment. It’s in the same price bracket as Seche Vite and a great choice if want you want your colors to really last.
Price: $4.99 (17 percent off MSRP)
- Lots of staying power
- Fast drying
- Won’t go goopy on you
- Doesn’t dry as fast as others
- Not as glossy as others
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