Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The thing about topcoats

I guess first things first. What's the point of topcoat?

The use of a topcoat provides enhancing qualities to a basic manicure. First, it provides extra shine, thus resulting in a very attractive clean look to the eye. Second, it has the ability to protect the colored polish underneath, which extends the life of a manicure. This is especially true if topcoat is applied every second or third day and the free edges are wrapped.

Now, with that being said, there are exceptions to this standard definition for a variety of reasons. The fact is, not all topcoats are created equal and neither are our nails. This is wonderful, yet frustrating when trying to find something that works.

I often get asked, "what is your favorite topcoat?". As much as I would love to rattle off a quick answer, it's complicated. I buy, use and rotate a good many topcoats regularly. Why? Because every topcoat I own has a purpose. I need them all!! Mwahahahah! Each gets used based on the results I wish to obtain. Therefore, I have a "favorite topcoat of the moment", based on my (or rather my mani's) needs.

In my mind, I categorize topcoats into a few groups:
1. Quick dry
2. Regular dry
3. Half quick half regular blends
4. Dual purpose (base and top) - usually have average drying time
5. UV cure - usually quick dry/cure

These categories vary of course in drying time, but ultimately it's all about the formula. The formula determines the dry time, wear, durability (how hard or soft it cures) and finish (shiny vs. super shiny). However, even formula can vary within one category; topcoat results will vary based on the different colored polish formulations we use them with AND our own physical nail characteristics.

I specifically talked about some of the pros and and cons of quick drying topcoats in this post and mentioned a small bit about the UV types. There are many things I can say on topcoats in general (hence the length of this post already), but today I want to show you that even a topcoat in the same category can vary with interesting results due to slight variations in formula and individual nail structure (softer or harder nail plate). Further, I'd like to show proof of concept of the following statement in the aforementioned post...

"Quick dry top coat formulations may

a.) be incompatible with certain polishes (or with your own nail chemistry) OR

b.) dry to a much harder finish in comparison to the flexibility of the nail or polish underneath.

Thus in both cases the polish is much more likely to chip because there is not as much "give" as in the natural nail."

On to the meat of this post ... huh huh meat :P <---click to giggle

Touch 'n Go (Brand: LRC) is a brand I found in an online nail supply store. Google and ye too shall find it.

A slight tangent, but when my bottles arrived, one was broken. I took a picture of the bottles that survived in front of this chemistry book. Coincidentally, it communicated my sadness about the recently deceased quite perfectly.

The other topcoat I'll mention today is Seche Vite. This is quite a well known brand so I won't elaborate.

Both of these topcoats can be categorized as Quick Dry.

The other player in this story is the nail polish color:

This is Ruby Kisses - Blues Clue (RNP 140)
Shown as 2 coats, but it could have used a 3rd. This and my only other Ruby Kisses polish recently prompted me to buy a crap load more. I loved the formula and assumed others would be great. That remains to be seen. This picture is under lamp lightening.

It get's more vivid in the sun.

This was 3 coats. I absolutely loved the bright baby blue.

On to proof of concept:
Click the picture to enlarge!
Base: CND Toughen Up x2
Color: Ruby Kisses Blues Clue x3
Top: Touch 'n Go (LRC) x1

This is the second day of the manicure. You will see small cracks on each of the natural nails from the use of the Touch 'n Go topcoat. It reminds me of the desert. You can actually see the cracks in the previous "sun" picture as well.  Click the pictures to enlarge.

The cracks are the worst at the stress points of the nail, where the nail would naturally bend if you applied pressure, more so at the tips less near the base of the nail/cuticle.

These cracks appear because the topcoat dries/cures very hard thus has very little give, while the nail underneath has more give (bends, has flexibility). When I am not sitting on the couch eating Bonbons, I do use my hands. I don't use my nails as tools, but my nails will bend and give during different tasks. They have the necessary flexibility to resists breaks. This topcoat, on the other hand, lacks flexibility; it simply cracks under the pressure. Interestingly, the polish does not chip completely off the nail plate. I suspect this is because the topcoat has adhered well to the colored polish which adhered well to my nail plate via the base coat. Kinda cool!

This phenomena is not isolated to quick dry topcoats. Normal dry topcoats can do this as well, it's just a matter of time. For example, I had a wear test where I used a normal dry topcoat in this post. In this instance, I noticed cracking after about 6 days vs. 2.

This cracking phenomena will be more severe the greater the difference in flexibility between the nail and topcoat. People with very bendy nails using quick dry topcoats will experience more cracking. If they are not using a basecoat that works well for them, then the polish may also chip more quickly. Someone with very hard natural nails my not even notice a difference between quick and normal drying topcoats. Just to prove that point...

Click the picture to enlarge!
Here I have pictured the same manicure (same base, color and top) except one of the nails has been Shellaced before the manicure was applied.

Two of the natural nails are seen with cracks while the Shellaced nail is completely smooth.

I find Shellac to be a nice temporary way to protect the nail as it grows out after a break. That process can be seen in this post and video. Shellac is a soak off gel that is harder than the natural nail. The hardness of the gel makes the final nail surface hard and prevents the Touch 'n Go topcoat from cracking.

Out of curiosity, I re-did this manicure in exactly the same way changing only the topcoat.

This manicure used Seche Vite as the topcoat. After 4 days, I saw no cracking on either the Shellaced or natural nails.

To summarize: This post just goes to show that all of our nails are different and will experience varied wear and durability outcomes with different nail polish formulations and topcoats. We have to find a topcoat/polish combination that works well with our own nail plate characteristics.

There is sooooo much more I could say about topcoats, wear, durability, soft nails and wear etc etc etc. MIND EXPLODES ... more in the future I suppose.

Have you ever noticed cracking with your topcoat? Which one?
Do you have flexible nails that tend to chip more with quick dry topcoats?


  1. You absolutely blow my mind. I am so interested in my nails after I have started reading your blog. Just sayin......

  2. I use Seche Vite as my top coat mainly because I'm too impatient to wait for my nails to dry, and I always get cracks like this. My nails are quite flexible, and shortly after I notice the cracks, the nail polish chips off. Thanks for posting about this, I may have to do some experimenting now.

  3. Gah, I love your posts. I find your intelligence super sexy. I think I'm girl crushing a little. But on to the post, I have SUPER flexible nails (like, a little pressure on the tip and I can bend it to touch my fingertip) and I actually really like SV because it strengthens my nails. I don't have trouble with bending/cracking/chipping generally until after 2-3 days. If I use any other type of quick dry topcoat (ie revlon) my polish cracks in a few hours, and once it cracks, it'll chip in the next few hours.

  4. You are the hottest nerd ever. LOVE

  5. What an awesome post!! Very interesting. Oh goodness, do I ever love that blue. I also thought that the cracks looked kinda cool XD!

  6. Thanks for the fabulously informative posts! My nails are better because of you!

  7. My nails have a very pronounced C curve so they are not as prone to bending as flatter nails. Also, I use Nailtiques II and Derma Nail.

    I don't have many cracks or chips.


  8. I have a lot of trouble with Seche Vite shrinkage, even if I try to encapsulate the polish entirely from cuticle gap to free edge. If I wrap my free edges with SV, they are a bit too thick, and usually results in the free edge polish chipping off. Lots of people seem to have great success with SV, so this is a thorn in my side.

    So far I've had the best results with Out the Door. I guess I should just be happy that I have a quick dry topcoat that works for me...but some day I shall defeat my SV nemesis! *shakes fist at SV bottle*

  9. I love these posts. Glad to see your writing mojo is back in full force! Love you!

  10. Wow, now I understand why sometimes my polish starts to crack. I use only two top coats, both are quick dry and as far as I know both are available only in Europe. The first one is from a Greek brand Seventeen. It is very thin, quick drying, gives great shine and goes on like a dream without any side effects. The other one is by German brand Essence and is called Better than gel nails top sealer. It is very thick, easy to apply, dries polish in an instant and gives more than great shine. Downside is that it pulls the polish from the tip and since it is very thick the manicure starts to crack the first or second day. It does strengthen the nails, though, as if they were covered with gel.

  11. I don't wear my nail polish long enough to experience cracking :) Blues cue looks absolutely gorgeous

  12. I love this kind of your posts!
    I also use superdry top coats for fixing and they help my nails become more firm. Without base coat, two coats of polish and top coat my nails would chip and break too easy.
    I do notice cracks on top coat sometimes (mostly with Poshe) but I don't mind them too much.

  13. HEHE You said MEAT! I actually use Seche when I do my mani, but the days after, I use CND Super Shiney to lengthen the mani as well as keep it shiny. I have never seen cracking like this before. The problem I have is with shrinkage. I WAS IN THE POOL! Sorry, Seinfeld tangent!

  14. Brilliant info as always, thanks. I wish I had the patience to not use quick dry TCs but I don't sadly. SV and the OPI one are ok. I also use quick dry drops sometimes.

  15. I sometimes notice cracks on my index fingers. I have the most "free" part on the corners there and they will bend and therefore crack sometimes. I am glad to have found a topcoat that works quite well with all my polishes so far, and it also gives me nice wear (as far as I can tell, changing at max. 3 days).

  16. May I say how much you crack me up?! lol...I love your postes, they never fail to make me grin or roll on the floor cackling like a crazy woman! Thank-you for brightening my day *hug*!

  17. I don't generally have a problem with cracking, but then again, my nails are *so* thin and flexy that I do get chipping within a few days, no matter what topcoat I use. Do you think if I started using shellac as a base it would keep my nails stronger and stop that flexing and chipping? (And breaking - my nail breaks are almost always because I bumped against something and they flexed -too- much and split.) I've been using "strengthening" base coats for months now and have seen no difference (though I recently switched from SH Miracle Cure to Nail Life to see if it works better...and next month I'm going to buy Haken Nail Magic.)

  18. My genius! Trust you to not only break things down in a way the rest of us lesser mortals can comprehend, but making it fun as well (get in to teaching science...STAT!!) I used to use Seche Vite, but while I loved the shine it gave and how ridiculously quick my nail polish dried, I have yet to go past 1/2 of a bottle before it turns to glop. Then there was a Sally Hansen number (don't remember the name) that made my nails look like they were encased in bubbles --- so not the look I was going for. Lately I've been quite loyal to both the a-england top coat (crazy shine on this one!) and Poshé products....no cracking noticed, no chips, and actually plenty of give!

  19. I have to say I always use generally Revlon topcoat and never really had too many problems with it. although can shrink some polishes but this is rare.

  20. Hands down, this is the best post about top coats I ever read!
    I never noticed such cracks on my nails and I have tons of different TCs I use randomly (I hate the ones that melt polish, you know, when the brush remains coloured, but found out that they are good to use with full nail decals), so I suppose my nails are not that flexible :-/...Polish chips usually just where nail is damaged, if there is a tear or a peel (but I swear I file/buff the nail as you Master :-) taught us) and my main issue remains tipwear (due to typing with fingertips, I think).

  21. Great post Anna! I shall be linking this to everyone and their mother who asks me about top coats in the future. ;)

  22. I usually have chips in my nail polish by day 3, but not cracks.My nails are pretty hard, no bending, no nothing, when they are in good shape, cause right now I've got lots of peeling going on, don't know why. I use Seche vite, basically because I don't have the patiance for another top coat

  23. great post!! i've never noticed cracks in my polish like that BUT this does remind me of something that happened over and over when i was working as a nail technician (before i learned the woes of salon life and was screwed over majorly)

    the OPI Axxium line has a product called No Cleanse Sealer which is a final step topcoat that leaves no sticky layer, so you don't need to wipe it, and it is ridiculously shiny. way shinier than using the other form of topcoat (clear overlay gel.)
    i had to stop using the wonderful product because it was giving EVERYONE cracks. all the way through the gel nails. and not just gel polish, but enhancements! it was so weird. i believe we reported the problem to OPI but never heard anything back. it sucked because the sealer was in a polish bottle and was a dream to apply instead of the overlay gel. wah wah. but it doesn't matter to me now because i'm not a salon nail bitch anymore!!

  24. My brain definitely did just explode...but in a good way! I love learning about all the stuff I wonder about but don't have any answers to :) I'm going to have to take this into consideration and investigate further how certain top coats react with certain polishes (again, brain explodes). Boy oh boy.

  25. Sally Hansen Insta-Dri in the red bottle cracks my polish EVERY. TIME. Within hours even. I never noticed it until I wore it over a light colored polish (ChG Lemon Fizz ... I think ... pastel yellow). Painted before bed, woke up with cracks throughout all 10 nails!!! D:< I will occasionally experience cracking with other QDTCs, but it's after several days and the nails have been subjected to a bunch of monkey torture and whatnot.

  26. Sally Hansen Insta-Dri in the red bottle cracks my polish EVERY. TIME. Within hours even. I never noticed it until I wore it over a light colored polish (ChG Lemon Fizz ... I think ... pastel yellow). Painted before bed, woke up with cracks throughout all 10 nails!!! D:< I will occasionally experience cracking with other QDTCs, but it's after several days and the nails have been subjected to a bunch of monkey torture and whatnot.

    1. Omg yes I use sally Hansen no chip and it cracks my nails within minutes

  27. Omg!! This have me soooo much insight!! Thank you for this!!