Iridescent. Opalescent. Pearlescent. All these words invoke a sense of magical shifting colors. Of polished opal and moonstone, the smooth inside of sea shells, and shimmering faerie wings.
I don’t care how old I am, when someone hands me something either iridescent or holographic, whether it’s nail polish or wrapping paper, I’m going to be turning that thing all around watching the colors shift with the biggest grin on my face like a little kid.
Shift those colors.
Color changing nail polish (and makeup) is all the rage right now, but not all color shifting polishes are the same. You’ve got colors that change with temperature, colors that change in sunlight, holographics, duochromes, iridescents, and just plain shiny glitter. Problem is, thanks to marketing, they’re often mislabeled.
Check out this video of Christine from Simply Nailogical showing how a bunch of “holographic” products aren’t really holographic–and generally they end up actually being iridescent.
We all love shiny things. With how fervently I’m about to rave about color-changing nail polish, I won’t want to neglect to say that traditional glitter is awesome. Glitter reflects light, kind of like a mirror. Some glitter is holographic, duochrome, or iridescent, but not all glitter is any of those things. Check out my guide to the Best Glitter Nail Polish Shades of 2018 for examples and more information.
Mood nail polish.
This is nail polish that changes color depending on the temperature of your fingers. It’s generally a gradient that shifts from one shade to another shade as temperatures rise and fall.
Be still my heart. Unlike reflective glitter, holo nail polish refracts light. An example of this happening naturally would a rainbow. Yes, holographic nail polish creates tiny rainbows on your nails. That’s an important distinction because the other color changing polishes have a limited number of colors they can shift to. Polishes must have full rainbows to be holographic. For more information on how that works and to drool over the all the pretty colors, read my guide to the Best Holographic Nail Polish Colors.
Also called multichrome or chamelion, duochrome shifts between two to three colors as you view it from different angles. The nail polish Birefringence by ILNP is a great example of a multichrome. I have this one and it truly looks like completely different nail polish at different angles. This also works by refraction but in a different way. Small treated flakes suspended in the polish refract light, bending it into a specific color wavelength instead of breaking normal white light into all the colors of the rainbow. It’s sort of the love child of holo and iridescent.
Finally, the star of the show. Like glitter, iridescence is a result of reflection, but like duochrome it shifts between a limited range of colors. It may look rainbowy, but it isn’t a true refraction.
The pretty language: Iridescence is like unicorn dreams and mother of pearl. It’s the shimmering blue of butterfly wings and the swirling colors of soap bubbles blown into the wind.
The science language: When light hits an iridescent surface, some of the light waves reflect off the surface, but some of the light travels further into the barely translucent surface and then hits something else and reflects off of that. These beams of light are reflecting off different levels of the polish and the separate wavelengths act in concert to strengthen each other, kind of like if you give someone on a swing a push on every swing, they’ll go higher and higher even if you aren’t pushing harder. These magnified waves of light create stronger, more brilliant pigments than normal colors which gives iridescence its radiant sparkle effect that seems to glow.
A caveat–these designations are kind of up for interpretation and not everyone agrees on them. This is my take on it.
Okay, that was kind of a lot of science. Let’s get to the best iridescent nail polish colors of 2017.
1. Pearl Jammin’ by China Glaze
You know that super crinkly cello paper you get in gift bags that’s clear but has a brilliant shifting iridescence? That’s what Pearl Jammin’ reminds me of. By the way, in the nail community, we call that paper unicorn skin because why not. Pearl Jammin’ by China Glaze is a barely blue sheer with a bright copper and pink flash. While it is extremely sheer on its first coat, this lacquer builds up to be opaque in three coats, four if your coats are very thin which I don’t recommend because this one has a tendency to show brush strokes. This can also be used as a topper to add a light blue tint and shimmer. If you’re looking for a true iridescent without too much pigment getting in the way, try out Pearl Jammin’.
- Ultra light blue tint with copper shift
- Works alone or as a topper
- Opaque in three coats
- Formula can be streaky
- Does need three to four coats to be opaque
2. At Sea Level by Essie
Brand new from Essie’s Seaglass Collection, At Sea Level is a gorgeous sea foam with a pearly shimmer. It’s a beautiful summer sky base with a pinky mother-of-pearl sheen that picks up the colors of everything around it. Some polishes rely on bright beams of light to create iridescent flecks and I love and own many of those polishes, but At Sea Level somehow manages to hold onto its shifting sea foam colors even when the lighting isn’t perfect. That’s not an easy task. This polish is a little sheer so you’ll want two to three coats.
- Sea foam opalescent
- Still great in lower lighting
- Brand new shade
- Three Free
- Needs two to three coats
3. Moonstone by ILNP
This opalescent polish by ILNP is part of their Real Magic topper collection, so I wouldn’t reccomend this is you want something you can wear all alone. But, if you love the look of loose iridescent flakies and haven’t had good luck using them in practice (or have avoided even trying) this topper is a good way to get a similar effect. It’s called Moonstone for good reason because in the bottle it truly looks like moonstone, but one coat over black polish and this topper looks like sparkling amethyst. It has a blue to purple to pink gradient over black that is mesmerizing to look at both in perfect lighting and in the shade. Layered over white, the effect isn’t as dramatic, but gives a completely different result. Over white, Moonstone has more of a yellow to green to blue shift that is reminiscent of opals. The color it’s layered over really changes the look so you can have a lot of fun experimenting.
- Color depends on what’s underneath it–amethyst to opal
- Vegan and cruelty-free
- Only one coat needed
- Dramatic effect even in dim lighting
- Not for use alone
4. This Color’s Making Waves by OPI
Swinging to the other end of the spectrum, this highly pigmented teal polish may not be what you think of when you think of iridescent, but it’s a great example of the types of iridescence that you find in nature. Think butterfly wings and the shiny polished emerald backs of jewel beetles. OPI’s This Color’s Making Waves has that mermaid’s tail color shift from teal to deep ocean blue. The formula is easy to work with and, though sheer on the first coat, it’s opaque in two coats. As I seem to find in all metallic jewel polishes, it can show brushstrokes so just keep that in mind when applying. There is also some bronze micro-glitter in this to give the shimmer an extra boost and it reminds me of sun glinting off the ocean. I don’t know why I bothered explaining it any other way. This looks like the ocean.
- Shifting colors of mermaids’ tails and ocean waves
- Opaque in two coats
- Extra sparkle of microgitter
- Looks great in any lighting
- Can go on a bit streaky
5. Wonderland by ILNP
Wonderland is part of ILNP’s Real Magic Collection and the way it shifts and reflects flecks of bright greens, blues, purples, and reds just like an opal–feels magical. I don’t mean to flood you with ILNP brand, but they do iridescents so well that I can’t resist.
This is a flakie topper so it’s not really meant to be worn on its own. The way this topper looks will depend on the color you swatch it over. Over black it creates this gorgeous blue and green iridescence but over white it has more of a pink tone. It’s versatile and a fun way to spruce up your current nail polish collection.
I like that it’s vegan and that since they’re flakies, you don’t have the same struggle to remove them like you do with glitter polish.
- Pearly opalescent effect that shifts depending on base color
- Easier to remove than glitter
- Not really for wearing alone
6. Pearl of Wisdom by OPI
This very sheer polish by OPI has a satiny white look to it that swirls with purples and pinks and greens when you turn the bottle in the light. When worn alone on your nails, it take two to three coats for the color to build up and when it does you get this iridescent shimmer that reminds me of pink pearls. For a lacquer that looks very white in the bottle, on your nails it’s definitely more of a strong pink to gold. Pearl of Wisdom isn’t going to be opaque even at three coats so if you’re okay with a sheer, then enjoy this subtle shimmer on its own. You can also layer it over your favorite polishes to give them a hint of iridescence. The formula is okay but does show brushstrokes so just be mindful of that.
Pearl of Wisdom is part of OPI’s Infinite Shine system which has its own base coat and top coat and is meant to have the staying power of gel polish without the UV lights so this polish will work best with those. It won’t actually last as long as a gel manicure, but when you use the system as directed, your manicure will last longer and be more chip resistant.
- Pink pearl shimmer
- Works as a topper or as a sheer on its own
- Long lasting with Infinite Shine top and base coat
- Can go on a little streaky
- Best with Infinite Shine system
7. Iridescent Eye by Jessica
Iridescent Eye by Jessica is riding the line between an iridescent and a chrome. I like it as an iridescent because you tend to be able to see several shades of the gradient at once instead of the sharper shift of duochromes. That said, this is a shiny polish. This is not for the faint of heart or people who prefer neutral polishes. This is a peridot gemstone with shifts of emerald and gold. As I’ve said before, you have to be careful with brushstrokes with theses types of formulas, but it’s absolutely worth it. I like that this one is still stunning even in low lighting and in the sun it absolutely gleams. It’s a prefect, fun color for fall.
- Peridot with emerald and yellow gold
- Easy to work with formula
- Seven free
- Bright chrome-like shine
- Wonderful even in low light
- Can go on streaky
8. Valentina by ILNP
Valentina from ILNP is a translucent polish that can be worn on its own or as a topper. It’s an almost minty, baby blue tint with an iridescent flash of rose gold and pink. The formula is a very sheer jelly that nearly disappears at one coat if worn on its own. ILNP straight up states that you’re not going to get this one to be completely opaque and I’m okay with that because the color and shimmer does build well. With two to three coats you have a creamy aqua with bright pink flash. As a topper, this one can turn any polish iridescent while being sheer enough to only impart a blue tinge without completely obscuring your bottom color. I have had good luck with ILNP lacquers being long lasting and chip resistant.
- Milky teal shifting to pink and gold
- Works alone or as a topper
- Long lasting
- Three free
- Not opaque on its own
9. Pink Fire Opal by Mineral Fusion
Pink Fire Opal brings is a gorgeous pink iridescence with a color shifting shimmer. The opalescent look of this polish is subtle in some lighting and stunning in others. The gold flash of the iridescence tints the pink of this to almost more of a coral. It’s a sheer polish so you’ll need a couple of coats if you’re looking for full coverage or you could try it as a topper.
- Subtle opalescence
- Unique pink color
- Four free
- Fairly sheer
10. Tilda Bombshell by Julep
One final topper for you but this one can work on its own as well. Tilda Bombshell is one of Julep’s Metamorphic Top Coats and is a pearlescent swirl with a bluish tint. When worn alone, it takes about three coats to built up the color and once you do, it has more of a pink gleam to it rather than the blue you see in the bottle. The first thing I think of when I see Bjork alone is that it reminds me of ballet. It’s a fun twist on a nude color with some hidden sparkle that you can bust out in the sun. It’s not the most color changing of the list by itself, but this topper really shines over other base colors.
The milky blue transforms the color underneath more than just with iridescent flakies like some toppers. You can turn colors you’re tired of into different colored shimmers by applying one coat of Bjork. It will take some experimenting because there will be some base colors that won’t be as exciting or work as well with Bjork as others, but hey who doesn’t like doing their nails? Beyond altering the color, this topper will give your nails a sheen to it that subtly shifts different colors as you turn your nails in the light. Like all Julep polishes, this one is five free, vegan, and breathable.
- Pearly blue tint with pink hues
- Works as topper or alone
- Five free
- Breathable and contains green coffee extract
- Not as intensely iridescent as others