Whether you’re someone who only picks up a bottle of nail polish come summer because sandals force you to or someone who joined Instagram solely to stalk nail art, you know how vast the selection of lacquer is. And it’s hard enough to choose a color, let alone compare and contrast countless brands.
That’s why I’ve searched Instagram, scoured beauty blogs, and surveyed our own beauty editors in order to name the best nail polish. (Let’s just pretend I had no vested interest in this task. Yes, I did this just for you. You’re welcome.)
Surprise, surprise, I couldn’t choose just one. So I broke things down into the following categories. Check out the winners:
Best Budget Polish
Winner: Essie | Runner-up: Sally Hansen
Sally Hansen has been lauded for its color selection, and Consumer Reports named it one of the best of its price point thanks to lasting wear and one-step application. Whenever I need to replace one of my basics, like nude or dark red varnish, I almost always go for the Sally Hansen section of the drugstore. Thankfully, my cheapskate ways are usually rewarded by a few days’ worth of quality.
However, Essie edges out the more affordable Sally thanks to smooth application and rich colors that are always on trend. Professional manicurists say it lasts longer than most polishes of this class, especially when worn with a hardy top coat. “And in my experience, it resists thickening up,” said fellow Groupon beauty editor Kelly MacDowell. “I've had some of the same bottles for a few years, which makes it worth the extra couple of dollars.”
Best Higher-End Polish
Winner: OPI | Runner-up: Butter London
This was a close one. OPI has a crazy amount of colors available, and regularly comes out with themed collections inspired by movies and cities around the world. (Not to mention the excellent names—for instance, the New Orleans collection features She’s a Bad Muffaletta! and Show Us Your Tips!) Fans also adore the brand’s staying power and even, streak-free application.
When I sought ways to update the classic french manicure, the nail salons I visited almost universally used OPI polishes. I enjoyed the line’s rich colors, crisp application, and staying power—even for glitter polish, which I was notorious for picking off in my preteen years. Since then, OPI is my source for my favorite hues for beachy pedicures: Hot & Spicy coral and Cuckoo for This Color blue-green.
Meanwhile, Butter London is pricier, but devotees say that’s reflected in the high-quality opacity you get with just one coat. The color selection is also a plus. “It's a really cool brand with really cool colors inspired by everything from runway shows to rock 'n' roll,” Kelly said. “They even just released two shades that match Pantone's 2016 Colors of the Year.” [Editor’s note: rose quartz and serenity are Pantone’s faves this year.]
Best Designer Polish
Winner: Chanel Le Vernis | Runner-up: Deborah Lippmann
At $27 a pop, Chanel isn’t for the thrifty at heart. But fans of the designer varnish praise its dependable formula and richly pigmented shades.
Deborah Lippmann, founded by a celebrity manicurist, is a bit more affordable at $18–$20 a bottle. The up-and-coming brand has some high-profile partners, too, from the TV shows Empire and Girls to Lady Gaga. The polishes are easy to apply neatly, and they last a long time. The glitter polishes are especially worth the investment.
Best Gel Polish
Winner: Gelish | Runner-up: Sally Hansen Miracle Gel
Pro nail artists like no-chip Gelish’s wide variety of colors and easy-to-use formula—in fact, it was the first brush-in-bottle gel polish on the market. (However, if you get a lot of gel manicures, CND Shellac is generally regarded as being gentler on nails.)
Sally Hansen Miracle Gel, on the other hand, burst onto the drugstore scene as perhaps the best option for at-home gel manis. It’s a mere two-step application process that doesn’t require UV or LED light or special nail-polish remover. Hence InStyle naming it 2015’s Best Overall Nail Innovation and Allure giving it a Best of Beauty Breakthrough Award.
Best Eco-Friendly Polish
Winner: Zoya | Runner-up: RGB
These “green” formulas are generally free of formaldehyde, formaldehyde resin, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, and camphor. Vegan Zoya is perhaps the most widely available brand, stocked by many salons and beauty-supply stores. It also has a long-lasting finish that comes in plenty of modern colors.
RGB is less common, but the nontoxic polish is heralded for its chip-resistant wear. (For those who want further explore the world of green polish, check out the water-based formulas from Suncoat or Acquarella.)
Best Base Coat
Winner: Orly Bonder | Runner-up: CND Stickey
Orly Bonder has a rubberized finish that grips onto polish, which helps manicures last longer. Think “double-sided tape for nail polish,” as New York nail pro Julie Kandalec told InStyle.
Close behind is CND Stickey, which dries with a similar tacky texture that adheres firmly to both the nail and the nail color. As someone who believed that base coats were unnecessary, my research has converted me into a believer—my ridge-filled nails could surely use some help providing a smooth surface for nail polish to latch onto.
Best Top Coat
Winner: Seche Vite | Runner-up: Deborah Lippmann and Revlon (tie)
Seche Vite is considered the holy grail among nail-art fans, thanks to its glossy finish, quick dry time, and hardiness. “If you're not using Seche Vite, you're not succeeding at life,” Kelly said. “Other top-coat manufacturers should just stop trying. ... It can get a bit gummy over time, but thankfully Seche Vite also makes a restoration thinner.”
Groupon beauty editor Colleen Loggins agreed. “I can't stop buying it because it makes doing my own nails so efficient. … It dries in minutes, making it really easy to do a mani-pedi before bed and not worry about getting indentations in my polish while I sleep.”
Deborah Lippmann’s Addicted to Speed top coat is gaining fans for similar reasons, while Revlon’s Extra Life No Chip is emerging as a more affordable option.
Check out related reads on the Groupon Guide:
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Should Your Manicure Match Your Pedicure?
Our highly scientific poll had respondents examining their polish habits for both fingers and toes.