Differences Between Top Coats & Base Coats

by Mimi Abney

Create a professional-looking and chip-free manicure with a base coat and a top coat.

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If you want to give your fingers and toes a salon-worthy manicure or pedicure, don't skip the base coat or the top coat. This dynamic duo helps to add professional polish to your nails and extend the life of your lacquer. Brush on these necessary nail products to make your polish chip-proof, long-lasting and super-shiny.

What is a Base Coat?

A base coat functions as a primer that helps the nail polish adhere to the natural nail plate. Base coats are usually clear substances that create a tight bond with your nail polish to prevent chipping. They contain plasticizers, which are chemicals that create elasticity in the product. When applied to the nails, these plasticizers create a flexible and sticky layer that prevents the natural nail from breaking. Use a base coat to protect the nail plate from polish colors that may stain or weaken the nails. If your nails are brittle, a base coat containing Vitamin E, calcium or aloe vera may strengthen weak nails.

What is a Top Coat?

Top coats are nail lacquers that dry fast and create shiny and hard layers of film on the top of the colored nail polish. Apply a thin layer of a clear top coat over your favorite nail polish colors to avoid chipping, provide a protective seal and add gloss to the nails. While base coats have ingredients to enhance flexibility, top coat formulations are hard, scratch-resistant and strong. Most top coats contain methacrylic and cellulose-based film formers as ingredients. Nitrocellulose as a film former adds a high shine to the top coat. A thicker top coat ensures a higher shine but will unfortunately increase the total drying time.

How to Apply

Clean your nails and remove oils with an acetone-based polish remover. Any natural oils on the nails will cause chipping and prevent the polish from adhering to the nails. For an even finish, first apply a single layer of base coat. Swipe on two thin layers of colored nail polish. Let each coat of nail polish – the base coat and the two coats of your nail polish color – dry for two minutes between each application before moving on to the top coat. Apply one final swipe of top coat to complete your nail look. Let your nails dry for a minimum of 25 minutes to prevent smudging or smearing of the polish. Apply the top coat every other day to keep your nails chip-free and glossy.

Nail Polish Tips & Considerations

The key to a professional manicure and pedicure is to keep the polish coats even and thin. Thin and even coats of polish minimize drying times and create maximum polish smoothness. If the surface of your nails has ridges or you have weak or brittle nails, choose a ridge filler as your base coat. Small and tiny ridges can leave lumps and bumps in your nail polish application. Do not dry your nails with a blow dryer or any other heat source. Heat causes the nail polish to expand and lift away from the nail plate.

Photo Credits

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About the Author

Mimi Abney is a lifestyle writer specializing in online content for women. Her work has appeared in NewsOK.com and "Keepsake Magazine," among other publications. With over 15 years of writing and editing experience for the web and print, Abney is also a contributor to online health, beauty and fashion publications. She holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from Spelman College.