Base Coat vs Top Coat - Everything You Need to Know

September 01, 2023 6 min read

Base Coat vs Top Coat - Everything You Need to Know

If you have ever gotten your nails done at a nail salon, you probably noticed that the manicurist uses products in a specific way, always following the same order. That’s because both the base coat and the top coat have specific properties that allow them to keep your manicure protected for weeks. 

What exactly are they, and how do they differ from each other? We will be answering those (and more) questions below. 

What Is Base Coat for Nails

In simple terms, a base coat is a special type of nail polish that creates a protective barrier between your nail and the nail polish. If your nails have ridges on them, it also helps with smoothing them out so that your manicure looks flawless. 

Benefits of Using a Base Coat 

Here are a few main reasons why you should be using a base coat when doing your nails: 

  • It protects your fingernails from getting stained. Some nail polishes are made using strong pigments that can transfer onto your nails if there’s nothing protecting them - this is especially true for shades such as bright red or blue. Additionally, if you paint your nails frequently without using a base coat, they might develop a yellow tint. 
  • It can nourish your nails. There are base coats available that, aside from making your manicure look amazing for days, have vitamins and proteins that positively affect your nails, hydrating and strengthening them. 
  • It extends wear.By applying a base coat you’re ensuring that your nails will last for a while - or at least longer than they would without it, as it protects your manicure from chipping. 
  • It can help smooth out the nail surface. Sometimes, nails develop ridges, which can make your nail polish look uneven. A base coat can smooth it out so it looks flawless. 
  • It can help bring out the full potential of colorful nail polish. This is especially the case if you decide to go with a white base coat, as it will make your colorful nail polish look more radiant. 

What Is Top Coat for Nails

Now that we have explained what is a base coat for nails and why it’s important, let’s move on to the next thing we’re going to cover - what is a top coat? 

The top coat is the final step in the manicure routine (at least as far as applying polish goes). Its main purpose is to protect the nail polish from chipping and scratches. 

Benefits of Using a Top Coat 

Here are a few reasons why, if you don’t already have it, you should invest in a top coat polish: 

  • It makes your manicure last longer.The top coat adds a layer of protection so that the nail polish you put under it does not chip away as fast as it would’ve if you only put on the polish. 
  • It can help your nails dry faster. This is especially true when it comes to quick dry top coats, which solidify faster than regular top coats. 
  • It can make your nails look like gel.If you don’t have the energy or the funds to go to a nail salon every few weeks, using the right top coat can be a great solution, as it will add shine to your nails and make them look thicker - a nail salon effect without having to go there, doesn’t it sound great? 
  • It smooths out imperfections. Anyone who has ever painted their nails knows that it’s very easy to accidentally touch something and ruin the perfectly painted nails. A top coat can help you with that, as once it dries, you won’t even notice that something was wrong with them. Sure, you can repaint your nails, but that would take significantly more time than just adding a top coat on. Keep in mind, however, that this works for smaller imperfections - if you accidentally smudged out half of the polish from your nail, you, unfortunately, will need to redo the job. 

Base Coat vs Top Coat - The Differences 

Female hands with manicure on a pink table

So, now that we’ve covered what both a base coat and a top coat are, let's talk about what makes them different from each other. 

The main difference between base coat and top coat is pretty obvious when you consider what we already said - the base coat is applied before the color, directly onto your fingernail. The top coat, on the other hand, goes on top of the nail polish. 

Secondly, the base coat is typically applied more thickly than the top coat - the top coat is usually applied in a thinner layer, as the polish itself is not as thick as a base coat. Because of this, base coats also typically take longer to dry than top coats. 

Finally, base coats are stickier than top coats, as their main function is to adhere to both your nail and the layers of nail polish that you will be putting on it. 

Base Coat vs Top Coat - Frequently Asked Questions 

Which one is more important - the base coat or the top coat? 

Base and top coats cannot be compared as they’re meant to do two completely different things. So, both of them are equally important and if you want to achieve the best results both of them should be used. 

Can I use a top coat as a base coat and vice versa? 

Technically, nothing is stopping you from using a base coat as a top coat or the other way around. However, you should be aware that the quality might not be as good as it would’ve been if you were to use them the way they should be used. 

So, while it is possible to do so, your nails might not last as long as they usually do. 

A solution you might want to consider if you don’t want to purchase two separate products is a 2-in-1 base and top coat. Those polishes are designed specifically to perform both functions, and they do it well.

Do I have to wait before applying each coat? 

Yes - before you put another coat on top, you need to wait for the previous one to dry. As a rule of thumb, you should wait two minutes before each coat, so the whole process would look something like this: 

apply base coat -> wait 2 minutes -> apply the color coat -> wait 2 minutes -> apply the second color coat -> wait 2 minutes -> apply the top coat -> wait 2 minutes -> apply the second coat of top coat* -> wait until completely dry 


What happens if I don’t apply a base coat?

The main thing that can happen in this case is your nails getting stained, as there’s not going to be a protective barrier that prevents it - especially if you decide to use bright or dark nail polish colors such as red or blue. 

Can I wear a base coat layer on its own? 

Absolutely. If you’re not in the mood for colored nails, applying a layer of a clear base coat will leave you with naturally looking fingernails with a little bit of shine. Not to mention that it also strengthens your nails. 

How many coats should I use?

Ideally, you should be applying one layer of the base coat and two layers of the top coat, although in most cases, you will be more than fine with just one layer of the top coat. 

What to look at when purchasing a base or top coat for nails? 

If you’re on a hunt for a good base or top coat, the most helpful thing that you can do is read online reviews, as well as get recommendations from professional nail artists - YouTube is a great source for that, as they often upload videos about their favorite products. 

Can base and top coats contain harmful chemicals? 

Unfortunately, they can, which is why you should pay attention to the brand you’re considering purchasing from. Look for those that offer “3-free”, “5-free”, etc. formulations. 

At ella+mila, we are committed to offering our customers products that are not only of high quality but also safe to use, which is why our nail polishes are “17-free, meaning that they are free from the 17 most common harmful ingredients found in this type of product. 

The Bottom Line

Manicurist applying transparent base coat to nail

In order for your manicure to look as flawless as it would if you got your nails done at a salon, there’s a certain order of applying that should be followed, and both a base coat and a top coat are a part of that. 

Hopefully, after this article, you have a better understanding of what is a base coat, as well as what is top coat for nails and why they’re both important in the nail painting process. 

At ella+mila, we understand that having your nails done brings a different kind of confidence, which is why we have everything you need to create flawless manicures at home. Whether you’re looking for a base coat, a top coat, or a new polish color to adorn your nails, we’ve got you covered, so don’t hesitate to take a look at our selection.