Your top coat is your armor. It’s a seal that makes your lacquer last longer, protects your color from fading, and adds that high gloss shine gel polish is known for.
Here we’re talking specifically about gel top coats which require a UV or LED light. If you’re looking for top coats for regular nail polish, see my guide to the Best Top Coats for Longer Lasting Nail Polish.
Gel top coats require a UV or LED nail lamp to cure or they won’t “dry.” If you’re new to doing your own gel nails at home check out my articles on the Best Gel Nail Polish Kits, Best UV and LED Nail Lamps, and Best Gel Polish Brands of 2018.
All about gel top coats.
How does gel work? Unlike regular nail polish, gel will never air dry. Nail polish uses evaporation to change from a liquid to a solid, a little like hairspray. Gel polish relies on chemicals called photoinitiators which react to UV or LED light by initiating a chemical reaction. This chain reaction converts the liquid gel polish into an extremely hard, and durable polymer.
Do I really need a top coat?
I know we’re all in a rush, but yes, you need a top coat. Gel nail polish has two jobs: stick to your base and be a pretty color. That’s all does. Top coats have one job: make everything else look great for as long as possible. Those are two very different objectives.
You’ve probably noticed that not all color are as long-wearing as others. Neons tend to flake and blacks chip on me pretty quickly. Getting that kind of pigmentation takes a lot more science-ing than I understand and that process can make the formula less durable. Top coats don’t need to worry about color. They’re streamlined protection for your polish.
Isn’t a top coat just clear polish? Nope. Clear polish is just the gel polish formula minus the pigment. It doesn’t have the properties of top coat. Top coats are built to be tougher than your daily life. Unlike polish, top coats are designed to be bumped into, repeatedly, without chipping. Top coats give you that high shine and many protect your polish colors from fading over time.
Got any top coat tips? I do–which isn’t shocking since I chose to write that question. If you’re not capping your polish with a quality top coat, you’re not getting the kind of life out of your polish that you could. Capping your manicure refers to running the base, lacquer, and top coat over the free edge of your nail to seal the tips. You want to make sure you do this with each layer. It helps prevent shrinkage and will prevent edge-wear like you wouldn’t believe. I was actually mad the first time I did it because of how much of a difference that tiny extra step made.
What’s the difference between top coats?
Not all top coats are created equal. Every brand is going to have a slightly different formula. Some may give your polish longer lasting wear while some may keep their glossy shine longer than others. Some may be quicker to cure than others but some may have a really strong smell. It’s all pluses and minuses and the right gel top coat for you depends on what traits you’re looking for. Let’s check them out.
1. Perfect Match High Gloss Top Sealer by LeChat
I’d say LeChat’s High Gloss Top Sealer is one of the longest lasting top coats on the list. Its bright shine almost sparkles and won’t dull over time. This is a brand you’ll often find used in nail salons and as a top choice among professionals. The formula is a dream–slightly thicker than regular polish but not as thick as a hard gel. Just be sure you’re applying a thin coat and you’re polish is protected for over two weeks. It’s self-leveling and cures very smooth and hard as a rock. I’ve featured LeChat gels in several articles from Best Glitter Nail Polish to Best Gel Polish for French Manicures.
Buy the Perfect Match High Gloss Top Sealer by LeChat here.
- Very high gloss
- Long lasting shine
- Great formula
Find more Perfect Match High Gloss Top Sealer by LeChat information and reviews here.
2. Matte Top Coat by Ugly Duckling
Ugly Duckling is a favorite with many famous nail artists and educators. The Nail Art Expo awarded it the title of Best New Product of 2017 by popular vote. This is high quality, professional-endorsed stuff. I love matte top coats because they basically double the number of colors you have to choose from. The problem with most matte gel top coats is that they tend to lose their matte look before the manicure needs to be redone.
This is why Ugly Duckling’s Matte Top Coat has made so many waves: the matte doesn’t fade. Ugly Duckling’s Matte Top Coat creates chalkboard nails that last longer than any other gel matte I’ve seen and even manages stay matte after applying cuticle oil or lotion. I have no doubt the matte look will last longer than your manicure, but that doesn’t mean this top coat doesn’t have staying power. You can get two to three weeks no problem from this top coat. It’s just impressive all around.
If you haven’t tried out Ugly Ducking products, it’s really worth a shot. The top coat has a thicker consistency that’s easy to work with but may remind some of a hard gel formula. According to the Ugly Duckling site, this one cures under both UV and LED lamps with 30 seconds under LED and 90 seconds under UV. It does have an inhibition (tacky) layer and the top coat won’t appear matte until you remove that with a cleansing wipe. If you’re looking for only gel top coats without a tacky layer, read my guide to the Best No Wipe Gel Top Coats.
Buy the Matte Top Coat by Ugly Duckling here.
- The mattest of matte
- Long lasting
- Matte finish won’t fade
- Named Best New Nail Product of 2017
- Could be a little thick for some
- Not everyone is into matte
- Bigger investment up front
Find more Matte Top Coat by Ugly Duckling n information and reviews here.
3. Shellac Top Coat by Creative Nail Design
CND Shellac is still a favorite among salons for its lasting high shine and durability. The formula is smooth and easy to apply, just like the CND Shellac polishes which I featured in my Best Gel Nail Polish Brands article. This little bottle is what gives the shellac manicure its famous plump, glass-like shine. CND claims their line of shellac will last you 14 days and I appreciate that they aren’t making wild claims that it will last four plus weeks. And it’s true. This top coat and shellac line will go approximately 14 days. You may get some edge wear but nothing that affects the look of your nails. I like honesty in a brand. It works with any gel, but you will have the longest and best wear with this top coat when used with other CND Shellac products and cured under their CND LED Lamp which is specially calibrated to their formula.
Buy the Shellac Top Coat by Creative Nail Design here.
- Very high gloss
- Great formula
- Lasts two weeks
- Trusted salon brand
- Performs best with the CND Lamp and polish
- Must remove tacky layer
Find more Shellac Top Coat by Creative Nail Design information and reviews here.
4. Top It Off by Gelish
Gelish is a well-known brand for a reason. I’ve featured them in my Best Gel Nail Polish Brands of 2018 and I like how many kits and combinations they put together with everything you need at once from polish to nail lamp like their Gelish Pro Kit. Top It Off has a very similar consistency to regular nail polish. It’s not so thick that it becomes hard work with or difficult to cure but it’s also not so thin that you’re constantly flooding your cuticles and needing to do lots of clean up. I do recommend doing your thumbs separately because of the thinner formula so that you can lay your thumbs down flat and prevent the gel from pooling to one side.
Gelish has great shine and a hard finish. The high gloss will probably keep that shine a little over a week before it may dull slightly. You can apply a second thin layer of top coat when the shine begins to fade, just be sure to prep your nail surface with alcohol first. It has fairly average cure times at 30 seconds with LED and two minutes under UV. The most important part is that it does last. When applied properly, this top coat can give you two weeks easy. Top It Off creates a very tough barrier that’s durable enough to handle even active hands.
Price: $12.49 (20 percent off MSRP)
Buy the Top It Off by Gelish here.
- Applies like nail polish
- High gloss
- Long lasting
- Kits and sets to choose from
- Has inhibition (tacky) layer
- A little thin for some
- Gloss may dull after about a week
Find more Top It Off by Gelish information and reviews here.
5. Non-Wipe Gel Top Coat by Cheri
If you want to skip scrubbing off that sticky inhibition layer, go for a no wipe top coat like Cheri’s Non-Wipe Gel Top Coat. When cured this top coat doesn’t leave any tackiness that you need to wipe off which saves you a step and more time to do other things. A no wipe top coat is very important when working with chrome or holo powders for the shine of the nail pigment powders to stick properly and look brilliant. It’s a middle of the road formula that’s not too thick or too thin. It will last you two weeks and is cheaper than most of the top coats on the list. The Cheri Top Coat’s main issue is that it takes longer to cure than most, but also longer than they claim. So whatever the bottle tells you, add 15 or 20 seconds so you’re not ending up with an under-cured top coat and rubbery nails. I recently featured this top coat on my Best No Wipe Gel Top Coats.
Buy the Non-Wipe Gel Top Coat by Cheri here.
- No tacky layer
- Perfect for pigment powders
- More affordable
Find more Non-Wipe Gel Top Coat by Cheri information and reviews here.
6. Brilliance Seal & Shine Top Coat by Red Carpet Manicure
This is one of the top, longest lasting gels on the market. It has a bright sparkling gloss that won’t fade on you even after two weeks. Brilliance is incredibly durable and should help your gel manicure last between two and three weeks before you start seeing wear. My only issue with it is that the formula is a little thin so you have to be careful not to flood your cuticles when applying. But once you get the application down, the performance of this top coat is enough to hook you on this brand.
Buy the Brilliance Seal & Shine Top Coat by Red Carpet Manicure here.
- Extremely long lasting
- High shine won’t fade
- Made in America
- Must remove tacky layer
- Formula is a little thin
Find more Brilliance Seal & Shine Top Coat by Red Carpet Manicure information and reviews here.
7. Radiant Mirror Shine No Cleanse Top Coat by Gel II
This is another top coat that works best with polishes in its own brand, which I don’t mind because Gel II polishes are formulated to not need a base coat. Not needing a base coat saves you a step and helps keeps your gel nails from getting too thick. Radiant Mirror Shine is a no wipe top coat so it’s perfect for nail pigment powders, nail art, and just not wanting to deal with that sticky stuff. It’s got decent staying power and you can easily get around 12 days with minimal tip wear, impressive for a line with no base coat. It wears nicely and keeps its shine well with only a little dulling after about a week. One nice plus is that this brand tends to remove faster than others.
Buy the Radiant Mirror Shine No Cleanse Top Coat by Gel II here.
- No tacky layer
- Works with chrome and holo powders
- Decent staying power
- Brand doesn’t need a base coat
- Works best with other Gel II products
- Not as long-lasting or glossy as others
Find more Radiant Mirror Shine No Cleanse Top Coat by Gel II information and reviews here.
8. Top & Base Coat Duo by DND
If your priority is intense glass-like shine, this may be what you’re looking for. The DND Top Coat delivers serious shine that won’t dull or fade on you. This set comes as a duo of the DND Top Coat and Base Coat and for the price of the two of them, this may be the most affordable top coat on the list. However, if you do a lot of work with your hands and are pretty rough on your nails, you may want to skip this one. If you don’t regularly go rock climbing or work as a nurse, this top coat can help your polish last a good 14 days with a brilliant no-quit shine. The base coat is sort of hit or miss depending on your prep routine. The shine is really the star here.
Price: $9.78 (25 percent off MSRP)
Buy the Top & Base Coat Duo by DND here.
- Comes with base coat
- Intense high gloss shine
- Must remove tacky layer
- Included base coat isn’t awesome
- Not as durable as others
Find more Top & Base Coat Duo by DND information and reviews here.
9. Crystal Clear UV/LED Top Coat by Bundle Monster
When you’re on a budget, you can’t beat the price of this top coat by Bundle Monster. Known for their awesome nail art products and stamping polishes, their Crystal Clear Top Coat is exactly that. It’s completely clear so it won’t distort and alter the colors of your polish compared to many top coats that have just the slightest hint of a yellow cast. This makes Crystal Clear perfect for nail art that you need to shine.
Its formula is thicker than some giving it that bright plump shine and evens out any texture your nails might have from glitter or foil. It’s not the longest lasting on here and it does tend to take longer to remove than others, but if you’re strapped for cash or have a very discerning eye when it comes to your colors, you may want to give this one a go.
Buy the Crystal Clear UV/LED Top Coat by Bundle Monster here.
- Completely clear
- High profile shine
- Not as long lasting
- Longer soak times
Find more Crystal Clear UV/LED Top Coat by Bundle Monster information and reviews here.
10. One Step Gel Polish Top Coat by OneDor
This is a no wipe top coat that I see a lot of YouTuber’s using for nail art like in the video below. It has a nice glossy shine and no sticky inhibition layer making it a good choice for those of us who do nail art or use nail pigment powders. It’s a nice thickness that won’t run or pool so it stays exactly where you want it. It has a nice shine, but it’s not the most glass-like on the list. You can get a good two weeks with this top coat, but I wouldn’t push it to three. For the money, that’s really respectable. If you work with pigment powders, this is an excellent choice.
Buy the One Step Gel Polish Top Coat by OneDor here.
- No tacky layer
- Perfect for chrome powders
- Nice formula
- Not as long-lasting as others
- Not as glossy as others
Find more One Step Gel Polish Top Coat by OneDor information and reviews here.
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