A close-up shot of a woman's hands showcasing glossy, perfectly manicured nails adorned with a vibrant gel nail polish top coat, reflecting light and displaying a flawless finish.

The Ultimate Guide To Gel Nail Polish Top Coats

If you love getting gel manicures but hate how quickly they can chip and fade, using a quality gel top coat is a must. But with so many options on the market, how do you know which one is right for you?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: The best gel nail polish top coats provide a super glossy, long-lasting shine that protects your manicure, like Gelish Foundation Top Coat or OPI Infinite Shine Top Coat.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about gel top coats from what they are and how they work to the most important factors in choosing one as well as provide recommendations on some of the best selling and top-rated options currently available.

What Are Gel Nail Polish Top Coats and How Do They Work?

Definition and purpose of a gel top coat

A gel top coat is a specialized nail polish product that goes on top of colored gel polish or gel nail extensions. The main purpose of a gel top coat is to seal and protect the underneath gel layers, add shine, and prolong the life of the manicure (source).

The difference between regular and gel top coats

There are a few key differences between regular nail polish top coats and gel top coats:

  • Gel top coats contain polymers that allow them to cure under UV or LED light, bonding them to the lower gel layers.
  • Regular top coats only dry via solvent evaporation and do not chemically bond.
  • Gel top coats tend to be more durable, thicker, and high-shine.

How gel top coats cure and bond to the layers underneath

Gel top coat formulas contain monomers and oligomers that are activated by UV or LED light, causing polymerization. This transforms the gel from a liquid state into a solid state, bonded with the underlying nail gel.

This curing and hardening process allows gel polish to last on nails significantly longer without chipping or scratching compared to regular polish.

UV/LED Light Curing Hardens gel top coat layer and fuses it to other gel layers in a process called polymerization, creating a durable bond and nail enhancement
Solvent Evaporation Drying Only dries out solvents in regular nail polish top coats, leaving a less durable film on top that can peel and chip off

Most professional-quality gel top coats require curing in an LED or UV nail lamp for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This allows the photoinitiators to turn the monomers and oligomers into hardened polymers. At-home gel manicure kits include compact LED lamps for convenient top coat curing.

High-end gel top coat products deliver a glassy, salon-perfect finish. Using a quality top coat over gel polish or extensions is crucial for long wear. An added gel top coat protects the artwork underneath, deflects chips and scratches, and amplifies the glossy appearance of a gel mani.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Gel Top Coat


When choosing a gel top coat, longevity is key. You want your manicure to last as long as possible. The ingredients and formulation of the top coat play a big role in determining durability. Make sure to look for top coats designed to extend the life of your manicure by up to 3 weeks or more.

Top coats with polymers for strength and resistance to chipping are ideal. Whether you choose a quick-dry formula or a more flexible slow-dry option, longevity should be a top priority.

Self-leveling abilities

A top coat that self-levels, or evens out as it dries, will give you a smooth, professional-looking manicure. Self-leveling top coats fill in ridges and smooth over bumps for a flawless finish. They also prevent bubbling and streaking.

When researching top coats, look for ones described as high-shine and ultra glossy, as these typically have excellent self-leveling capacities. An easy way to get a salon-perfect mani at home!


A top coat is meant to seal and protect your manicure while maximizing shine. The glossier the top coat, the more prismatic and mirror-like your nails will look. Ingredients like acrylic polymers provide a crystal clear, light-reflecting finish.

Also look for top coats marketed as high-shine, wet-look, or ultra glossy. The gloss factor is purely aesthetic, but it can really make your mani pop!

Quick dry time

No one wants to sit around waiting for their top coat to dry! Look for top coats that dry quickly, usually within 60 seconds or less under an LED or UV lamp. Quick-dry top coats allow you to get in and out of the nail salon faster.

At home, they reduce the chances of smudging while you go about your day. Quick-dry doesn’t mean sacrificing quality though. The best LED gel top coats deliver both swift drying and long-wearing protection.

Compatibility with UV/LED lamps

Make sure to choose a top coat designed for use with UV or LED lamps. UV/LED top coats are formulated with photoreactive ingredients that cure under ultraviolet or LED light. This activates the protective polymers and cross-linking agents that give the top coat its hardness and durability.

UV/LED top coats adhere and set perfectly over UV/LED gel polishes. Always check that your lamp and top coat are compatible.

Brand reputation

When in doubt, go with a top coat brand that’s well-known and reputable. Sally Hansen, OPI, Essie, and Gelish all make excellent top coats designed for gel manicures. A salon-quality top coat helps preserve your manicure, while bargain brands can lead to chips, cracks, and peeling.

Professional top coats are worth the slightly higher price for a long-lasting, flawless finish.

The Best Gel Nail Polish Top Coats in 2023

Gelish Foundation Top Coat – Best Overall

The Gelish Foundation Top Coat is the best overall gel top coat for its smooth application, durable finish, and versatile compatibility with most gel polish brands. This innovative top coat leaves a crystal clear, salon-quality shine that can last over three weeks without chipping or peeling.

It applies evenly without running into cuticles. The Gelish Foundation top coat is also free of harmful chemicals like formaldehyde, toluene and DBP. It’s no wonder nail bloggers on websites like Beautylish consistently rate this as their favorite multipurpose gel top coat.

OPI Infinite Shine Top Coat – Best for Gloss

The award-winning OPI Infinite Shine Top Coat delivers the highest gel-like glassy shine of any top coat brand. In lab tests, the groundbreaking formula achieved over three times the glossiness rating compared to competitor brands (OPI data).

Though it lasts around half the time of a salon gel manicure, bloggers praise its spectacular wet-look shine. For special events when you want your nails to dazzle with a glossy finish that looks just-polished, OPI Infinite Shine can’t be beat.

Bio Seaweed Gel Top Coat – Best Quick Dry

If you’re always in a hurry, the Bio Seaweed Gel Top Coat may be your new best friend. Bio Seaweed Gel designed a patented formula infused with seaweed extract to deliver both rapid drying and long wear.

Nail addicts love that they can apply two coats, cure with an LED lamp, and be out the door in under 15 minutes. Plus the cute seaweed stem brush makes application incredibly easy. While the Bio Seaweed topper may be more expensive than drugstore offerings, fans say it’s worth every penny for the huge time savings.

Makartt Polygel Top Coat – Best Value

For budget-conscious DIY manicure pros, the Makartt Polygel Top Coat offers impressive performance at an affordable price. Their thick gel-like top coat helps polygel or builder gel nails last over two weeks of active wear. An LED/UV responder allows flexible curing options.

With over 5,000 rave reviews on Amazon, this top coat ticks all the boxes. The wide, easy-grip brush makes for smooth streak-free application. Plus the thin fast-drying top layer resists bubbling and yellowing better than more expensive competitor brands.

Overall, Amazon reviewers agree this is the best value top coat for flawless lengthy wear.

Young Nails Cap5 Top Coat – Best for Durability

For maximum strength and damage defense, professional nail techs often choose Young Nails Cap5 Top Coat for their clients. The 5-free formula offers salon-tough durability to withstand daily activities.

In fact, Young Nails boasts over 95% of users achieved 14+ days of wear time before needing a touch-up. The protective top coat also resists stains from dark polish colors, coffee, tea, and other culprits that often ruin manicures.

No wonder the Young Nails brand has earned praise in major beauty publications like Allure, Elle and Vogue for their commitment to healthy, sustainable products that really last.

How to Apply a Gel Top Coat for Best Results

Prep Your Nails Properly

Properly preparing the natural nail plate before gel polish application is crucial for getting the most durable, long-lasting manicure. Start by using a nail file to gently remove any shine from the natural nail. This deglosses the surface so the gel can fully bond.

Next, use a nail cleaner containing isopropyl alcohol to remove any oil and residue. Allow nails to fully dry before proceeding. Having a clean slate helps the gel top coat adhere properly. Skipping this prepping step often leads to chips and peeling.

Apply Thin Even Layers

When applying the gel top coat, using thin passes helps ensure even coverage without flooding the cuticles or edges. Wipe away any excess gel overflow using a slanted-tip cuticle pusher wrapped in cotton.

Thicker globs of gel may feel nicely saturated at first but can shrink back excessively while curing, leaving tracks and dips. Instead, patiently apply 2-3 thin coats, curing fully in between, to build an impervious glossy seal. Allow the gel to self-level instead of overworking one thick layer.

Cure Each Layer Fully in an LED or UV Lamp

Inadequate curing can lead to tacky gels that never quite set, inviting dents and scratches. Be sure to invest in a quality LED or UV lamp, then cure each layer according to gel brand guidelines. Most formulations require 30-60 seconds under the light.

Avoid the temptation to skimp on timing to speed up the process. Running your hands under the light 1-2 minutes further strengthens the top coat. For added insurance against surface imperfections, finish curing with a blast of cold air from a gel drying fan tool.

Letting nails fully set ensures the gel bonds at a deep level so the glossy top coat lasts 2 weeks or more.

Avoid Touching or Wiping the Surface Until Fully Set

Though gels may feel solid to the touch immediately after curing, chemical cross-linking continues deep within the layers long after. Give them at least an hour before exposing them to any friction, moisture or pressure.

Even tasking harmless as laundry or dishes can imprint textures onto under-cured gels. Letting the finish fully stabilize ensures the sleek, glassy top coat you love stays chip and scratch-free for 14+ days. Skipping this last crucial step often reduces wear to just 3-5 days.

Caring for Gel Nails Sealed with Top Coat

Allow full curing time before exposing to water or moisture

After your manicurist applies the gel polish and seals it with a top coat, it’s crucial to allow the full curing time before exposing your nails to water or moisture. Most gel polishes require a UV or LED lamp curing time of 30-60 seconds per coat.

Rushing this process can result in weak, damaged nails. Have patience – properly cured gel nails can last over 2 weeks without chipping or peeling!

Use nail oil daily to nourish and moisture

Frequent exposure to UV rays from the curing lamp can lead to dry, brittle nails. Apply a hydrating nail oil like Vitamin E or jojoba daily to nourish the natural nail and cuticles underneath the gel polish.

Taking just a few minutes per day prevents painful hangnails and peeling around the edges – extending the life of your glossy gel manicure.

File down growth rather than picking at lifted edges

As your natural nails grow out, resist the urge to peel or pick at the gel polish seams. This can pull off layers of the nail underneath! Instead, use a fine-grit file to gently remove any lifted edges. Filing back the surface layer helps the gel adhere smoothly to the new nail growth.

Regularly filing down new growth allows your color and top coat to last 3-4 weeks with no chips.

Limit direct exposure to cleaning chemicals

Harsh soaps and cleaning products can cause gel polish to bubble and lift from the natural nail underneath. According to nail care brand OPI, you should wear rubber gloves when washing dishes or cleaning to avoid damage.

If gels do start lifting from exposure during chores, apply a small dot of nail glue under lifted corners to re-adhere it. Avoid further chemical exposure to regain maximum wear.


Getting longer lasting, chip resistant gel manicures is easy with the right top coat. Just be sure to avoid common mistakes like not allowing adequate curing time or applying too thick of layers. Invest in a reputable salon brand top coat formulated to work with gel polishes and apply a thin, even layer on top of cured color with each manicure.

Pair it with regular cuticle oil application and proper removal technique when growth necessitates a fill or new set, and you’ll be flaunting a flawless, glossy gel mani for weeks at a time with no chips or smudges in sight!

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