Nail Basics: Favorite Base and Top Coats

February 16, 2012

It’s been on and off rainy here so the Chanel swatches will be delayed until the sun comes back. In the meantime, I wanted to share some of my nail care tips. Many of you have asked what are my favorite base and top coats. I’m by no means a nail expert (even if I am addicted to Chanel and Dior nail polishes) but here are my top picks.

A brief intro: I think the right base coat or top coat will depend on what kind of nail color you are using. Formula matters. Some top coats are not compatible with all brands of nail colors due to ingredients. For the most part, I’ve found top coats and nail colors within the same brand work well together. However, I rarely stick to 1 brand of nail polish so I’ve looked for base coats and top coats that are versatile among the brands I use the most. These include Chanel, Dior, Rescue Beauty Lounge, Dolce & Gabbana and OPI.
What else I look for: The things I’m most picky with include bubbling and shrinkage. For actual nail colors A number of drugstore brands caused bubbling (I can’t recall which ones, but Poshe is one that did). I found OPI’s top coats just ok, they lacked long-lasting shine for me. The highly acclaimed Seche Vite only worked on Essie and OPI, but for all other brands I’ve tried caused extreme shrinkage. Nail shrinkage is when you see the top coat shrink from the tips and cuticles after application so it looks like it just wasn’t applied over the entire nail. There is debate about what exactly causes shrinkage, I found threads on The Purse Forum and an article on Beaut.ie extremely helpful. I’ve concluded that since SV isn’t 3-free it’s what causes messy-unfinished-looking nails. I even tried adding their thinner (which many have recommended) but it did not work for me.
My picks: I’ve by no means tried every single base or top coat on the market. I can’t say whether these are the best or better than other brands, I just know they work for me for the brands I like to wear.
  • Deborah Lippmann Rehydrating Base Coat ($18 for 0.50 oz at Nordstrom) – This one I have Amy from CafΓ© Makeup to thank. We were chatting about swatching one day and I mentioned that changing colors frequently to do comparisons was harsh on my nails and that my fingers were starting to hurt. She suggested Deborah Lippmann’s base coat which is a wonderful hydrating base coat. It contains aloe and while it won’t solve dry cuticle issues, I’ve noticed a visible improvement in my nail texture after using this. It helps nail color apply smoothly as well. I don’t use a base coat all the time but when I do this one is among my favorites. (Chanel’s is also nice but pricey.) You can read Amy’s review here.
  • Rescue Beauty Lounge Top Coat ($18 but sold out on Rescue Beauty online) – I purchased this in their Treatment System Trio and fell in love with this thin but super shiny hard-finished top coat. I really hope Ji Baek decides to bring it back. I agree with other reviewers this one takes a bit longer to dry (just a few minutes more) but the finish is shiny and protects the nail polishes pretty well. The thin texture makes it easy to apply smoothly and quickly in a few strokes.
  • Chanel Laque Brilliant ExtrΓ¨me ($25, I purchased mine at Nordstrom but I’m not sure if they still carry this instore) – A few years back Chanel released a new reformulated base and top coat in the US. I never tried the originals although they were raved about my a number of Chanel fans as the best in the market. I gave the new ones a try. At first I was not impressed, mainly due to the price (versus the $6 OPI options at Ulta). I kept trying this one and really love how shiny and lacquered they make the nails look. They add a shiny smoothness that has a slight cushy look. The texture is slightly thicker but not too thick. Drying time is a bit longer but the result are freshly polished nails. I found that it helped with lasting power as well.
  • Creative Nail Design Super Shiney Top Coat ($8.50 at Ulta) – This is hands down my favorite top coat for the price that I’ve ever tried. I discovered it at one of my local nail salons. Out of all the different kinds of top coats they’ve used this one provides the longest lasting manicures that are shiny and glossy. The shine is just as good as Chanel’s although not quite as cushy-glassy looking. For the price and quality it can’t be beat. It’s one of the few that I’ve found doesn’t bubble or shrink. It’s 3-free with a slight tint which is supposed to be a UV absorber that guards against fading and discoloration. (I’ve stopped using the nail dryers at the salons and prefer the fans or air drying even though it takes longer. I’ve found that sometimes the light dryers change the color of reds or purples and darkens them.)

My personal top 2 picks: Deborah Lippmann and CND. What are your favorites?

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  • Hi Sabrina, loved this post, thanks for the great information. In your experience, what is the drying time of the CND top coat? Is it as fast as Seche Vite? Thanks!

    • Hi Estelle! I'm glad you liked this. Drying time for CND is about the same as Seche Vite. Normally for any top coat though I wait about 10 minutes for the entire manicure to dry.

  • I also use the Deborah Lippmann Rehydrating Base Coat and love it. I think I have Amy's review to thank for that as well. As for top coat I'm still struggling to find one that I'm happy with. My nail polish seems to always peel off within 1-2 days after application. Seche Vite and other fast dry top coats cause the dreaded shrinkage and exacerbate the peeling. I'm pretty happy with the Barielle Manicure Extender top coat but it takes quite a bit longer to try. I find I need a quick dry top coat or I'm bound to destroy my manicure before it's fully cured. Maybe I will try the CND though. Thanks!

  • Christy K

    Sabrina, hi. Have you tried the Dior top coat? It has recently become my favorite as it dried nearly as fast as SV without the thickness or shrinkage.

    • Hi Christy, I've tried the Dior Top Coat that came with the summer nail colors last summer (the duos) and wasn't impressed (too thin and not enough shine). I believe these are different than the regular ones though. I will check out the Dior when I use up what I have πŸ™‚

  • mqs

    I use Zoya Color Lock System Kit.
    Get Even Ridge Filling Base Coat
    & Fast Drops Polish Drying Drops
    are my fav's!

  • Anonymous

    I'm glad you post this. I've been following your blog since I also have a Chanel nail polish addiction, but still trying to look for the best top/base coats for them. I recently had a baby, so 3-free product is a must for me. I'm disappointed that SV is not 3-free and I can't get CnD or RBL anywhere near me. That only leaves me with Chanel top coat, which is ok but pricey. Any other alternatives? Thanks so much & keep up the good work!

    • Anonymous, I'm not sure where you are located but CND should be easy to purchase online at Amazon and perhaps Ulta.com? I think for the price it's definitely worth it. Check out All Lacquered Up's blog – she's done a Top Coat Challenge series which I found very detailed. I can't say I've tried all her recommendations but she is a great resource. Good luck!

  • I totally agree with you on the CND top coat. I always go back to that one. It seems to produce the nicest shine too, as far as I could tell. I need to try that Deborah Lippman base coat.

  • I like CND as well. In the past my favorite topcoat was Poshe, I but find it peels sometimes and the texture gets thick in the bottle over time. I would love to try the DL Rehydrating Base Coat to see if it will help my awful dry nails! The Chanel Laque Brilliant Extreme sounds really great — I am always seeking that cushy super-shiny look you described! Thanks for all of the helpful recommendations πŸ™‚

    • Makeup Magpie – Yes, I've tried Poshe and it's not consistent for me. I get peeling, uneven textures (goopyness) and bubbling sometimes. Then other times it's great. I don't know why! I feel that CND is the best/most consistent no matter what brand I wear.

  • I love DL base coats!

  • I usually use OPI because I actually have not given much thought to lasting power. Usually I'm digging around with my nails for some reason or another so chips are inevitable! I like OPi's wide brush since it makes for quick application. I'm inspired to branch out after reading this post — I like the sound of the hydrating base coat

  • Thank you for writing on this subject; it's extremely helpful.

  • My favorite base coat is Essie First Base – it really extends the wear of my polish (it's a sticky – type base coat). I find that top coats, at least the ones I've tried, tend to make my nail polish peel (Seche Vite is the worst offender), so I usually go without. If I'm using a rough polish that really needs topcoat, I'll use Essie Good to Go.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for another great review. I change my nail color about twice a week, and it used to take a toll on my nails and cuticles. In the past year I started using Dior Crème Abricot Fortifying Cream For Nails and Lush Lemony Flutter Cuticle Butter, and they both have done wonders for my nails and cuticles. I was wondering if you can review your nail care products such as nail polish remover, hand cream, and anything that has to do with nails. Your reviews are greatly appreciated. Off to buy the Deborah Lippmann Rehydrating Base Coat.

    • Thank you for your recommendations/suggestions! I currently like Zoya's Remover Plus (another recommendation from Cafe Makeup) as a good gentle remover that doesn't hurt the fingers. I use L'Occitane's Hand Creams (regular and seasonals). I've wanted to find other good hand/nail products but feel like my salon visits solve any issues I have with dryness, peeling etc. Tools like files/cuticle trimmers/clippers are just the regular Revlon things from CVS or Target.

      I need to check out that Lush! If I discover anything else I will definitely share! But for now this reply sums it up. Not much I've tested extensively.

    • Anonymous

      Zoya's Remover Plus is great, but I find it a bit messy with darker or brighter colors. I love it though, because it's the only nail polish remover on the market that doesn't dry my nails and cuticles. Thanks for recommending Deborah Lippmann Rehydrating Base Coat, I can't tell you happy I am with it. It made a huge difference within the first two uses. Thanks

  • Loved this, I have to check out the CND base coat when I go to Ulta this weekend!

  • Thank you very much for this post! I ran out of my top coat last night due to your awesome reviews I think I am going to give the Chanel a try. Can't go wrong with Chanel, right??? Xoxo

  • Vanessa

    Great post and so helpful! Thanks.

  • Cathy

    Great topic! I just want to add that for nail polish remover I use WilaVerde. It has no acetone and no ethyl acetate and is fragrance free. IF you can find this stuff.. its great at removing all polish and doesn't harm your nails. Since I found this, I won't use anything else. HTH

  • alice

    Thanks for this great post, Sabrina. It is so helpful for nail polish addicts like me. I always try to search for top coats that are 'better' than my previous ones but have never used CND top coats before. Right now I'm using Revlon's No Chip Top Coat and I think it's better than the ones I used to use– Seche, inm, OPI, etc.. But I need to check out the CND!

  • kwp

    Dior has been my go to top coat for a while. It works nicely with all my polishes (from China Glaze to Chanel) and dries quickly to a shiny finish that really lasts. The liquid is really thin and doesn't seem to thicken with time which I really like.

    I still dream of finding the old Chanel Laque Reflet Immediat. The best EVER for a long lasting shiny finish. I used to use it with the cheapest polishes and it always kept my mani looking beautiful.

  • Thank you for the recommendations! I've been using Seche Vite, and I love how fast it dries and how shiny it makes my nails, but I HATE the shrinkage with some polish colors, and also that the formula seems to thicken when it's only about half-used, causing it to not work as well. I used to use Sally Hansen Insta Dri topcoat in the red bottle, which is a little cheaper than Seche Vite but works about as well, but I'm going to give CND a try next time I'm at Sally's.

  • I'm a little late to comment, but….thank you so much for this post Sabrina! I tried the CND topcoat and it is the best I have ever used. Perilously Pale (love your blog too!) – you should definitely try it.

  • I really like Deborah Lippmann Addicted to Speed topcoat. You should check it out. I will def try the hydrating base coat!

  • Iris

    Hello dear,

    I must say that I really love your blog. Very informative on the luxury lines of the nail polish whose colors I love but don't dare to try, especially that notorious formula of Chanel. I also love how you address the bubble and shrinkage issue. I have problems with bubbles appear after layering the top coat a lot. Would you mind sharing the cause and how to prevent it? I'm using both drugstore and high end. Based on your recommendation, I definitely try Deborah Lippman and CND for Chanel.

    Again, thanks a lot!!!

  • Anonymous

    Would it be a good idea to use OPI's base and top coat with an essie polish?