How Many Nail Polish Coats Should You Apply?

Nail polish is an easy and inexpensive way to add glam to your look. When painting your nails, you want the polish to last as long as possible. Now you might be wondering how many coats are needed to make that happen. We've done the research to provide answers to that question and many more.

For best results, the recommendation is that you apply at least two coats of nail polish, but no more than 3, to nails that have been cleaned and prepped. This number doesn't include the base coat and top coat needed for the optimal look. 

Please keep reading to find out more information about applying nail polish to make it last. We will also review some tips and tricks to help with the process and make your polish look its best.

A manicurist applying red nail polish coating on her clients nails, How Many Nail Polish Coats Should You Apply?


Steps for Perfect Nails

It is essential that before you begin your at-home manicure that you spend some time doing the needed prep work to make your nails look their best.

You want to clean your nails with nail polish remover even if you don't have an old polish. Doing so will help to remove any oils that can unfavorably affect your polish.

Beautiful model shows red manicure on nails

It would be best to buff your nails to remove ridges, leaving a smoother surface. Then you are ready to begin.

There is a general rule to remember that says four coats is the minimum for painting your nails.  This includes the base coat, two layers of nail color, and a top coat.  You may add an additional layer of nail color and top coat, but you should never go with less.

Base Coat

The base coat is the first step, and many people skip this one. This is a mistake. The base coat primes the nail and allows the polish to adhere better. It also gives your polish a smoother look by filling in any ridges that remain after buffing.

Ridges can occur when your nails are stripped. If you find that your polish isn't smooth or that your polish seems to be damaging your nails and you aren't starting with a base coat, you should consider using one. A singular layer is enough when it comes to the base coat.

The base coat also protects your nails by creating a barrier between the nail bed and the nail polish. This keeps your nails from becoming discolored, which can happen with strong colors. It also helps protect the nail from breaking, splitting, and peeling damage.  A fortified base coat can even help repair nail damage that has already occurred.

If you were getting a professional manicure, you would expect a base coat, so don't skip it at home either. Your nails will thank you later.

For a base coat that strengthens and repairs nails, consider this long-time favorite from OPI.

Find it here on Amazon.

Nail Polish

When applying nail polish, there is a process that top nail stylists say works the best. You should apply a thin layer with only three stokes: one down the middle first, then one down each side. Two of the biggest mistakes that ruin an at-home manicure are getting too much polish on the brush and using too many strokes.

Too much polish creates a layer that won't dry, leaving a glob of polish that looks heavy and unattractive. Not to mention, it will inevitably turn into a smudge. Too many strokes will leave brush marks instead of a smooth finish.

Experts also say that anything more than three coats is too many. Thick layers of nail polish tend to clump and smudge.  Or too much polish can chip or peel off in large pieces, not to mention that heavy layers look overdone instead of sleek.

In contrast, one coat may not give you the coverage or color you want. One layer isn't very durable and won't hold up to most normal wear and tear.  Go ahead and take the extra time to add the second coat of nail color.

Top Coat

This is another step that some people omit. Doing so leaves your nail polish unprotected.  A top coat is like a coat of armor for your nail polish. The clear layer forms a protective covering that shrinks around the nail and seals in color.

This step helps to prevent chipping and peeling. Don't forget to run a layer along the end of your nail.  The tip part of the nail is often overlooked, leaving the end of the nail color unsealed and vulnerable.

Two layers provide the best protection, but you should add additional layers in the following days for maintenance. In addition to protection, the top coat also gives your nail polish a glossy look. Some top coats even have quick dry ingredients to help your color to dry faster.

For a top coat getting rave reviews from experts and the internet, check out this one from Seche Vite.

Find it here on Amazon.

How long should you wait between applying nail polish coats?

A manicurist putting a colorless coat on her clients nails

It is recommended that you wait 2-4 minutes between each layer of polish, whether it's the base coat, top coat, or nail color. That is the amount of time needed for the solvents in the polish to evaporate, which is what allows it to dry.

Rushing the job doesn't allow your color to lock in fully. Patience will pay off in the end when your nail color looks better and lasts longer.

Is it bad to paint over old nail polish?

For the best look, you always want to start with clean nails. Even if you don't have old polish on your nails, it's still a good idea to use nail polish remover on your nails before you apply the new color.

However, there may be times when you are in a hurry and don't have time to remove your polish and apply new.  In this case, a quick touch-up over old paint will work. The look will not be as smooth as a fresh coat, but it will look better than chipped or damaged nail polish.

What happens if you put on too much nail polish?

More is not always better. This is true with nail polish. While you want full coverage, more than three coats of polish can make your nails look bulky and messy. The extra layers are prone to clumping, streaking, and smudging because only the surface layer dries completely.

Too much polish can also cause your polish to form a shell-like covering which can chip off in one large piece. If you have too much polish on your nails, it is best to remove it and start over.

Can you use a top coat as a base coat?

A colorless nail polish placed on a small block of wood

The two products may look similar, but each one has a different purpose. Therefore, the formulation is different, and the two should not be used interchangeably.

Base coat is designed to give nail polish something to adhere to.  So it is thicker and has a sticker consistency.  In contrast, a top coat is thinner and has multiple ingredients that form a strong protective layer when it dries.

However, there are products on the market designed to do both jobs. These two-in-one products combine the ingredients of each one into a formula that can serve as both the base coat and top coat.

If you are looking for the convenience of using only one product for the base and top coat, make sure you are using a specially formulated product to do the job, or you won't get the results you are expecting.

If you are interested in a two-in-one product, check out this Double Duty version by Sally Hansen.

Find it on Amazon.

Should you reapply nail polish top coat?

A small nail polish placed on top of a wooden block

Yes, you should reapply top coat as part of a maintenance routine to keep your painted nails looking good as long as possible. Reapply a quick-dry topcoat every few days.  The added top coat keeps a fresh layer of protection over your nail polish for added strength. Using a quick-dry version means the process doesn't have to be time-consuming.


A manicurist applying red nail polish coating on her clients nails

When you want your nails to look their best, there is a process that works best when applying nail polish. You want a base coat, two to three thin layers of nail color, and then finish off with a layer of top coat which may need to be reapplied over the lifespan of your nail color for added protection.

To complete your look, consider reading this article: Should Lipstick Match Nail Polish?

Check out 23 Types Of Nail Polish And Finishes for more information about different kinds of polish available.

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