My Nail Routine Arsenal: Top Coats

I'm not claiming to be an expert in nail application and care, but people do often ask me what I use. This is what I've found works for me (keep in mind that I haven't done extensive head-to-head tests or anything, my picks are just from trial-and-error plus experience).

Everyone who polishes their nails should use top coat.  It extends the life of your manicure, speeds drying time, protects colors from fading, etc.  There are two types of functional top coat: quick-dry and normal.  Quick-dry tend to have a thicker  formula and require special application instructions.  However, once you know how to handle them, they are just as easy to apply as any other top coat.  There are also top coats for finish, ie. satin and matte finish top coats.

Unless you are crazy, I would suggest you use a quick-dry top coat for your nails.  Most quick-dry top coats (QDTC) have a more viscous formula, which is why some people steer clear of them, but it only takes a couple manicures before you become accustomed to the difference.  Here are the instructions that come with Seche Vite, my favorite QDTC: "Apply thickly, get a nice bead on the end of the brush, then set softly down on the first nail painted and watch how Seche Vite flows over the wet nail polish self levels and will not drag or streak the underlying manicure."  So basically, instead of wiping the brush to remove any excess, make sure you have a bead of top coat at the tip of the brush about to fall off and then apply it to your wet manicure.  Yes, wet: if you apply QDTC to a dry manicure, you will get shrinkage and your manicure will be more likely to peel off.  Obviously, don't apply top coat right after you've polished your nail - I paint each finger and then go back and brush on Seche Vite in the same order, which is the perfect amount of in-between time.  

QDTC are also great at minimizing bubbling of your polish; I have no idea why, but I rarely get bubbling now compared to when I didn't use quick-dry.  There are many QDTC and The Edge of Sanity blog did a quite fascinating blind-study on some of them.  The ones I hear mentioned frequently on the NB are Nubar Diamont, Poshe, INM Out the Door, NYC New York Color In a New York Minute, and Essie Good to Go! Of these, I've only tried Poshe, which I found dried slower and less glossy.  Before I got really into polish, I used Sally Hansen Mega Shine Extended Wear Top Coat, which has a similar formula. Again, I think body chemistry often plays a role in which treatments work best for people, so don't be afraid to test a few out before you settle. One QDTC I would not recommend is OPI Rapid Dry - I don't think it's glossy, and often it pulls up some of your color on its brush.

Another important thing to keep in mind with QDTC is that when you get about halfway through the bottle, the formula will get unworkably thick.  Don't throw your bottle out!  Just take a few drops of nail polish thinner (I use Seche Restore), shake or roll the bottle, and your top coat will be like brand new!  Make sure to let your bottle settle after thinning, so that you don't get bubbles in your application. You can use any nail polish thinner to thin your top coats, but many people like to match their B3F formulas, so keep that in mind.  Thinner can be used with all your polishes, not just nail treatments.  Keep in mind that nail polish remover is not the same as nail polish thinner - using remover as a thinner will degrade and destroy your polish.  If you use thinner conscientiously (not remover!), your polish can live with you your whole life! You can also buy large bottles of a few of the most popular brands - I just refill my bottle of Seche each time I get about half-way and it works like new.

Not pictured, but useful as a top coat, is American Classics Gelous Advanced Nail Gel Coat. It's meant as a base coat or treatment to strengthen nails and fill in ridges, so it's not quick dry, but it's really good for using as the first layer over rough glitter polishes. It's not quick-dry, but once you top it with Seche Vite, your glitter polish is smooth, incomparably shiny, and dry to the touch in 15 minutes! Just be aware that since it's not quick-dry, you will want your polish to be dry, not wet before you use it, or you could get color bleeding into the Gelous.

Finally, we can move on to matte top coats.  Mattifying power can vary from a "satin" finish to a "flat" finish.  My favorite is Nubar V for Men Matte Finish Nail Protector, but Essie Matte About You is comparable and more easily accessible.  I find that Nubar's gives a little more wiggle room (more friendly to user-error) in dry time than Essie's.  Both of these matte top coats provide a more flat finish.  Matte top coats don't really provide protection from wear; they are all about the finish.  I will usually do a regular glossy mani and then after a couple of days, add a layer of matte top coat, since my mani is wearing down by then anyway. Make sure to wipe the neck of your bottle down after each use, or the topcoat will dry and then flake off in white specks on your next application. All Lacquered Up has a good comparison of some popular brands and their finishes.  Here is what I have found, though not all of these are readily available:

UPDATE 9/15/2012: Since I wrote this post, there has been a huge influx of matte top coats. I have by no means included an exhaustive list, but some of the most popular brands, as well as some vintage versions for historical value.
  • Flattest: Rescue Beauty Lounge Matte Top Coat, Essie Matte About You, China Glaze Matte Magic, Deborah Lippmann Flat Top, NYC New York Color in #247 Matte Me Crazy!, ELF Matte Finisher, ManGlaze Matte-astrophe, Butter London Matte Finish, Chanel Beauté des Ongles Top Coat Velvet, Sephora by OPI Matte Top Coat
  • Slightly less flat (ie, perfect IMO): Nubar V for Men Matte Finish Nail Protector
  • Suede (between flat and satin, like the Orly Matte Couture collection): NailTek Foundation II Ridge-Filling Base Coat (used as top coat), Butter London Nail Foundation Flawless Basecoat (used as top coat), Chanel Suede Laquer, Maybelline Matte Maker, Barielle Matt-inee, CND Super Matte Top Coat
  • Satin: Orly Matte Top, BB Couture Matte Finish Top Coat, Orly Nails for Males, China Glaze Man Matte Finish Nail Treatment
That's it for my nail polish 101.  Hope you liked this short little series.  If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear them!


  1. Can the China Glaze Man Matte Finish Nail Treatment be used on top of polish to give it a matte finish?

  2. Hi Anonymous! The Man Matte finish treatment, from what I've heard, is meant to give a flatter look to bare nails and gives a satin finish when used over other polishes (it also might slightly cloud the base color). A cheap, readily-available matte coat option that has come out since I wrote this post is NYC New York Color in #247 Matte Me Crazy! Mattifying Top Coat. It retails for $1.99 and can be found at any Target that carries NYC New York Color. I hope that's helpful to you!


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