A Guide to Nail Polish Types and Finishes

A Guide to Nail Polish Types and Finishes 4.50/5 (90.00%) 4 votes

Nail polish is a coloring element that is applied to fingernails and toenails to enhance their beauty as well as to protect and strengthen the nails. It is one cosmetic that makes an integral part of a woman’s vanity box.

Nail paints come in myriad colors and shades and a huge variety of finishes. Diverse decorative designs such as crackled, glitter, flake, iridescent, holographic, etc., make nail decoration truly an art.

Different types of nail polish have different chemical formulations containing different ingredients. Nevertheless, their function is the all the same – to decorate the nails and make them look long, healthy and attractive.

They also serve to protect the nails as well as hide flaws like chipped areas and ridges. Some nail polish formulations are specially designed to even strengthen the weak nails in addition to beautifying them.

Unpolished, chipped and unhealthy-looking nails can be made to look most attractive by applying the right type of nail polish.

Nail paints have gone through a series of progression over the past years, similar to other beauty products. This article describes the various types of nail paints and the colorful finishes they give.

Classification of nail polish types

Nail polishes can be classified based on the following features:

  • their chemical formulation
  • the finish they lend to the nails post-application
  • their special attributes

Nail polish types based on chemical formulation

According to their chemical formulation, nail paints can be categorized into five main types:

  • Base coat
  • Top coat
  • Regular nail polish
  • Gel nail polish
  • Shellac nail polish

Base coat

base_coatBase coat is a clear or milky formulation that is applied on the nails prior to the application of nail polish. It acts like a primer or foundation for the nail paint and prepares the nail surface for receiving a uniform and smooth layer of the nail polish.

A base coat also serves to protect the nail and nail bed from coming in direct contact with any strong chemicals present in nail polish. Furthermore, it helps extend the life of a manicure.

Apart from the regular, plain base coat, several special formulations of base coat have also been designed in order to enhance the range of its functionality, for example: strengthening base coat, nail growth base coat, hydrating base coat, ridge filler base coat, sticky base coat, nail bonder base coat.

Strengthening base coat and nail growth base coats. These come fortified with ingredients such as gelatin, calcium, proteins, vitamin E, or special herbal supplements. These additional ingredients help strengthen weak and chipping nails, and may even promote healthy nail growth.

Hydrating base coat. This type of base coat is helpful for thick and brittle nails that break easily. It helps in moisturizing the nails, making them soft and less prone to breakage.

Ridge filler base coats. These are thicker than usual formulations and contain microfibers or micro-particles that can act as fillers to fill in any ridges, lines or grooves present on damaged nails, thus lending a smooth appearance to the nail surface. These are ideal for repairing age-related damage to the nails.

All the above-mentioned base coats can be worn alone on their own too (i.e., without nail polish on top) if all one wants is to impart a healthy and shiny natural look to the nails.

Sticky base coat and nail bonder base coat. These two types of base coats are, however, different in that they cannot be worn alone without nail polish on top because they are supposed to leave the nail surface tacky.

The tacky surface helps the nail to grip the nail polish firmly. These types of base coats are can help people whose nail polish tends to chip or peel off easily for some reason or the other.

The sticky and nail bonder base coats work by creating a coating that is like a double-sided adhesive, sticking to the nail on the one side and to the nail polish on the other. The nail bonders usually have higher resin content than the other base coats.

Top coat


It is a clear, colorless, quick-drying nail polish formulation that is used after the application of nail polish to give a shiny and smooth finish to the nails. On drying, it forms a kind of barrier on the nail paint, preventing chipping, peeling and scratches. It also helps the nail polish dry faster, reducing any chance of accidental messing up of the applied wet nail polish.


Regular nail polish


The most commonly used nail polish is the regular nail polish. The main constituent in this nail polish is the film-forming cellulose derivative nitrocellulose dissolved in a volatile solvent like butyl acetate or ethyl acetate.

Nitrocellulose is an excellent film-forming material and easily forms a film as it dries when the solvent evaporates. It also exhibits good adhesion properties on the natural nail surface.

Another beneficial attribute of nitrocellulose is that its solution dries on its own under normal ambient conditions, at room temperature and without any aid. Moreover, the film it forms is strong, durable and protective, and being semi-permeable it allows the nail to breathe freely.

In addition to the primary ingredient nitrocellulose, the regular nail polish has a number of additives too, such as plasticizers, adhesive resins, dyes and pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, etc.

Plasticizers like dibutylphthalate or camphor help make the nitrocellulose film less prone to breakage upon drying and adhesive resins enhance its adhesion. Dyes and pigments lend the desired color to the nail polish, and UV stabilizers help resist color changes on exposure to sunlight.

Many other additives too can make it to the list of nail polish ingredients, depending upon the special attributes, texture and finish of a nail polish, e.g., opalescent pigments and glitter particles for lending shimmer and glitter, thickening agents for creating a suspension of sparkling particles, luminescent powder for creating luminescence effect, and magnetic dust for magnetic nail polish.

Gel nail polish


Gel nail polish differs from the regular nail polish in the very nature of its basic film-forming ingredient. In contrast to nitrocellulose in the regular nail polish, here the film-forming ingredient is an oligomer–photoinitiator combination in an organic solvent that hardens to a solid polymer form when exposed to UV light.

The most commonly used oligomer (a molecular complex made up of a couple of monomer units) is methacrylate, which polymerizes to polymethacrylate on exposure to UV light. Thus, the solid paint film on the nail is formed by holding the nails under a UV lamp for a couple of minutes.

A gel nail polish would never dry on its own, unlike the regular nail polish. It dries only when cured under UV lamp, or some formulations also under LED lamp.

Gel nail polish too contains other additives like plasticizers, pigments, etc.

Gel polish has some unique advantages. It can stay flawless and chip-free for as long as 2 to 3 weeks with little or no maintenance. In contrast, regular nail polish starts chipping and peeling within 3 days of application.

Shellac nail polish


Shellac nail polish is a special patented formulation of gel nail polish created by the well-known US Company CND (Creative Nail Design). Actually, it is a hybrid formulation, because it combines gel with regular lacquer nail polish. The name Shellac comes from the resin Shellac that is used in this formulation.

Shellac is a natural bioadhesive polymer secreted by the lac bug and commonly used in wood varnishes. Addition of regular nail polish makes Shellac nail polish somewhat thinner than a regular gel nail polish, making it easier to spread more evenly and smoothly. It also makes shellac nail polish more nail-friendly than gel nailpolish.

Despite being blended with regular nail polish, Shellac nail polish retains all the advantageous features of a gel nail polish. It is removed by special acetone wraps sold by CND that do not require the entire fingertips to be soaked in a bowl of acetone, as required in the case of pure gel nail polish.


Nail polish types based on finish

Finishing reflects how the nail will actually look after the entire process of nail polish application is over. Whatever the finish, perfect finishing is the only desired thing.




As the name suggests, glossy finish simply refers to a shiny finish, in contrast to matte finish, which is non-shiny. Glossy nail polishes give a mirror-like shiny appearance to the nails after application. A basic glossy nail polish contains pure color with no decorative add-ons.





Matte finish refers to a non-shiny finish available in regular nail polish. It comes in a dual range of base coat and top coat as well as in different colors. Matte nail polish has been a favorite throughout the years. Like crème, matte nail polish is also quick-drying but dries to a completely flat-looking, non-shiny finish.

Being quick-drying but not as silky as crème nail polish, matte polishes are a bit tricky to apply and may give a streaky appearance if not applied carefully. Another downside is that they are more prone to chipping because they require one to not apply a base coat and a top coat. Also, the use of hand lotion on matte finish nails is not recommended as it tends to weaken the matte effect.

A matte shade cannot easily be recognized simply by looking at the bottle. The real essence will be reflected only after applying the nail polish and letting it dry completely to give a solid finish.




Satin finish is a minor variation of the matte finish, in the sense that it is semi-matte. Though a satin finish dries up to an almost matte finish, it does lend a visible shine to the nails, though not enough to be categorized as glossy.





Suede finish is yet another variation of the matte finish. Suede finish nail polishes are completely matte, but have shimmer particles added to them to give a textured matte look, unlike the regular matte nail polish. In other words, a suede finish is a matte shimmer finish.





Crème is the very basic and one of the most commonly used nail polish. It has a thick milky or creamy consistency and consists of essentially pure color, with no additives like glitter, shimmer, or metallic pigments. It is quick-drying and dries opaque, lending a smooth and brilliant finish.

Crème finish nail polish offers the maximum number of color options to choose from. Crème finish gives a classic, elegant look to the nails and is, in the true sense, wearable for all kinds of occasions.


A jelly nail polish is nothing but crème with a clear base. The clear base gives it a jelly-like consistency – in fact, rather watery consistency like a sheer nail polish. Like the crème finish polishes, jellies too are pure color without any special additives like glitter or shimmer.

However, unlike the opaque finish of crème nail polish, jelly finish appears a bit transparent, somewhat like sheer finish, but is amazingly glossy. And unlike sheer, jelly nail polish comes in many vibrant colors.

A jelly nail polish can be worn alone or can also be used as a top coat, for example, on top of glitter finish. A jelly nail polish can be recognized from its bottle by tilting the bottle sideways. A watery consistency indicates it is a jelly finish polish.



Rubber finish looks like a hybrid between satin matte finish and glossy finish. The finish gives a latex-like appearance to the nails.





Waxy finish is another thick nail polish finish that looks like a cross between matte finish and glossy finish. Waxy finish gives a natural, deliberately created unfinished kind of look.



Also referred to as soft shades, sheers have a watery consistency and lend a semi-transparent kind of finish to the nails, such as that used in French manicures to flaunt the white tips. A majority of sheers are nude or light pink, sometimes also salmon. However, these days there are also shimmer, crème and iridescent sheers available that can be used for layering.




A shimmer nail polish has hundreds of tiny shimmering specks (which are just extremely fine particles of glitter) suspended in a crème or sheer color base. These microglitter particles impart a sparkle to an otherwise plain finish. Some shimmers shine brilliantly in the sunlight, while others do so irrespective of the lighting.

The most common shimmer color is silver, but it is available in other shades too like black, gold, beige, teal and pink.




A microshimmer finish nail polish is slightly different from the shimmer finish in that it contains ultrafine metallic pigments uniformly distributed in a color base, in addition to shimmer. In fact, it contains more pigments than shimmer.


Glass fleck


This type of nail polish looks as though it contains tiny glass flecks. These flecks exist in conglomeration with a jelly base. The finish is smooth and lustrous. Glass speck nail polish can come as sheer, duochrome, multichrome or iridescent.




As the name suggests, this type of nail polish gives an icy or frosty finish with a pronounced metallic appearance. It contains extremely fine particles of shimmer, fine enough to be not visible to the naked eye. It is this ultrafine shimmer ‘dust’ that appears as frost. The color balance typically has more frost than pigment. Sometimes frost finish is also described as pearl finish.

Frosty nail polish usually exhibits visible brushstrokes. This kind of finish is not too popular nowadays. Sally Hansen’s “Chrome” line is one of the most popular and original example of frost nail polish. That perhaps is the reason why sometimes chrome is used synonymously with frost, but actually chrome is a special kind of frost finish, as described in the next paragraph.




A chrome finish refers to a special kind of frosty metallic look with an extremely glossy mirror finish. Sometimes chrome is taken to be synonymous with Minx Chrome, a nail product by Minx and popularized by artists like Beyonce, Blake Lively, and Pink. Some people consider Minx chrome look as the true chrome look because it really makes the nails appear as though they have been dipped in liquid metal.







Duochrome/multichrome finish can be rightly called the ‘chameleon’ of all nail polishes because it really appears to change its color magically depending upon the lighting and the angle at which the eye views it. A duochrome exhibits two colors, whereas a multichrome can appear pink, green, blue and purple all at the same time. This effect is greatly enhanced if a duochrome/multichrome is paired with a black base.

The special visual effects exhibited by duochrome/multichrome nail polish arise from the small platelets of mica coated with titanium dioxide or iron oxide that are suspended in the base color. A duochrome/multichrome nail polish can be easily identified from its bottle by rolling the bottle around – one hue at one position gradually transforming into another hue as the bottle is rotated is a surefire sign of a duochrome.



As the name suggests, the look imparted by this type of nail polish is rich metallic. Metallics have opaque consistency and typically come in silver, gold, bronze and copper color finishes, though other variations too exist. Metallics are close cousins of frosts and chromes.




Foil finish nail polishes are comprised of a metallic base color infused with tiny foil flecks in addition to extremely fine glitter particles. Foil finish has a textured look, but is very smooth to touch. Also, it is very glossy and sparkly. Some foil-finish nail polishes can give an aluminum-foil-like extra-rich metallic look.

Foil finish nail polish is closely related to metallic nail polish, but differs in the finish it imparts. Whereas metallics come in actual colors of metals, such as gold, silver, bronze and copper, and do not have glitter added to them, foils come in many other shades and have microglitter particles added to them for extra shimmer.





Opalescent finish, sometimes also referred to simply as pearl finish, has more pearly shine than frost finish. It exhibits a characteristic “mother of pearl” effect. It scintillates in a manner similar to how the inside of a shell does.




A pearlescent nail polish is an extremely fine shimmery polish containing very small particles of shimmer. The finish is incredibly shimmery and looks kind of textured but not really gritty. Pearlescent nail polish has a thickish consistency, and hence this finish tends to suffer from brushstrokes. However, it is a very popular finish among nail polish lovers.




A luminescent finish nail polish is a UV-reactive polish containing luminescent powder TAT33 in a clear base. It glows in the dark and is known as black light or glow-in-the-dark nail polish. It is quite popular among the youth and is used to attract attention in discos and night clubs. Light blue and light green are the brightest afterglow colors. It can also come in sheer, crème and neon avatars.




Iridescent finish nail polish may sometimes be confused with duochrome or shimmer. It contains luminous colors that appear to change when viewed from different angles. However, whereas the shifting colors are very obvious in duochomes, in iridescent polishes there is just a momentary flash or hint of another color in the main color.




Glitter is one of the most versatile, most dazzling and flamboyant finishes. Flashy and loud yet elegant, glitters symbolize youthfulness and passion. Basically, a glitter nail polish contains glitter particles injected into a crème, jelly or clear base. It is the size, shape and amount of the glitter particles and the base into which they are suspended that defines a type of glitter finish.

A glitter nail polish differs from the other two glitter-containing polishes, namely frost and pearlescent, in that the individual glitter particles here are large enough to be seen by the naked eye. On the other hand, in frost and pearlescent the glitter particles are so fine that they are not visible individually to the naked eye, only their overall effect is.

Glitter finish comes in as many variations as can be imagined. Glitter particles can take any of the various shapes and sizes, and accordingly give a new finish for each.

Elegant and flamboyant, glitter finishes reflect youthfulness. One can experiment with endless colors, sizes and shapes of glitter as well as different bases, e.g., clear, crème, jelly, to create the ultimate accessory. For example:

  • Micro-glitter: Contains extremely fine metallic/sparkly specks suspended in a base color. It may be rough to touch at times but not always.
  • String glitter: Contains thin rectangular strips in clear base of silver and iridescent colors. It is used as a top coat.
  • Round glitter: Contains round pieces of glitter in a clear base. Like string glitter, this one is also used as a top coat.
  • Square glitter: Here is yet another glitter top coat. The glitter in this case is in the shape of small squares.
  • Hexagonal or hex glitter: The hex glitter nail polish is a regular nail polish containing hexagonal-shaped glitter pieces.
  • Shape glitter: Shape glitters are special glitter top coats containing different glitter shapes like hearts, stars, diamonds, etc.
  • Shards glitter: A shard glitter contains irregular shapes and sizes of glitter that appear like shards of broken glass.
  • Holo glitter: Also known as scattered holographic polish, a holo glitter nail polish contains very small amounts of glitter suspended in a different color base. The iridescent glitter does appear to change color in light but it does not exhibit any rainbow effect or 3D look, as in holographic nail polish.




A crackle nail polish, also referred to as shatter, is strictly a layering nail polish and does not serve any purpose on its own. It is generally used as a layer over a glossy nail polish. Basically, it is a polish that shrinks upon drying.

So, what happens is that as it dries, cracks begin to appear, and in the process of cracking it ends up revealing beautiful patterns of the underlying glossy paint. Since crackle polish is generally matte, the finish appears as though there are glossy crackles on a matte background.

Crackle finishes provide endless possibilities of shades and look very trendy. Black shatter, in particular, is an example of one of the most elusive crackle nail polishes.




A flakie nail polish has extremely fine flakes of opal, a duochrome, suspended in a jelly base. Since the jelly base is usually sheer, a flakie nail polish is mostly used for layering. Sometimes a flakie finish may feel rough to touch if the flake pieces do not align flat on the surface.




Textured finish nail polish refers to a regular nail polish that has been deliberately designed to quickly dry to a coarse, gritty finish – unlike a regular nail polish that dries to a slick and smooth finish. Textures can range from satin to matte and from granular sandy to caviar.

In most cases, textured nail polishes have substantial amounts of sparkle added to them in order to give a flashy look. One does not even require an additional top coat necessarily. But topping up a textured finish with a shiny coat can transform it into an even more gorgeous double-shaded finish.

Some textured finishes have polyethylene terephthalate fibers added to them that give a three-dimensional woven fiber appearance to the finished look.




Holographic finish, also referred to as prismatic, is the most unique and magical finish amongst all. It subtly shows the characteristic 3D feature of a hologram and exhibits a stunning rainbow effect under sunlight. The visual effects keep changing playfully as the viewing angle changes.

A holographic nail polish contains rainbow-colored glitter that changes color under sun light. The iridescent mica present in holographic nail polishes can produce a beautiful oil spill effect.




A magnetic nail polish may actually be described as more of a type than a finish. It contains a fine dust of iron oxide suspended in a regular nail polish. Holding a magnet close to the wet polish surface draws the colored iron oxide particles towards the surface and orients them along the magnetic lines of force, creating a variety of eye-catching wavy designs.

A magnetic nail polish finish is generally metallic and high shimmer because the magnetic patterns become more evident and enhanced in this finish.

Nail polish types based on special attributes

Other than chemical formulation and finish, nail polishes can also be classified according to their unique attributes. Some common ones are:

  • Quick-drying: This type of nail polish dries very fast, within 60 seconds. It is ideal for those who are constantly on the go.
  • Long-lasting: These nail polishes stay chip-free and flawless for as long as 2 weeks, or sometimes even more. Gel nail polish and shellac nail polish are examples of long-lasting nail polishes. They are ideal for those who hate going through the rigmarole of nail painting every other day, yet love to have their nails painted.
  • One-coat: One-coat nail polishes are polishes containing high concentrations of the pigment, so that a single coat suffices to obtain the right amount of color and opacity. Ideal again for those with hectic time schedules.
  • All-in-one: This kind of nail polish is a dream-come-true for any manicurist, as it combines a base coat, a top coat and the nail polish all in a single product. It is said to be long-lasting as well as protective for the nails.
  • Strengthening/Growth-enhancing: This category of nail polishes contain a host of nutrients and vitamins that apparently help strengthen brittle and weak nails, which are prone to breakage and chipping, as well as promote growth.
  • Hardening: This one supposedly helps nails that are too soft and supple, in contrast to brittle nails. It hardens them to the optimum level.

This completes the guide to various types of nail polishes and their finishes.

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