Do You Need a Base Coat Before You Apply Nail Polish?

A long-lasting manicure starts with a base coat.
A long-lasting manicure starts with a base coat. See more pictures of personal hygiene practices.

You don't need to go to a salon and spend tons of money to get the perfect manicure or pedicure. Experts say you can do it yourself at home, provided you follow all the right steps.

Those steps start with a clear base coat, which helps the polish stick to your nail more easily. A base coat also creates a barrier that helps protect your nails from the damaging effects of nail polish. It prevents staining and peeling, and it will give your polished nails a more even texture.


Base coats come in plain and ridge-filler varieties. Ridge-filling base coats are thicker than regular base coats. They fill in any lines, ridges and grooves to give the nails a smoother looking appearance.

Many base coats are fortified with substances such as protein, vitamin E or calcium. These ingredients help keep nails healthier and prevent breaking, splitting and peeling.

After the base coat dries (and it should dry relatively quickly), apply two coats of colored nail polish rather than one, to give the nails a richer look. If you want to skip the colored polish altogether, you can use a base coat on its own to make the nails look shiny but natural.

Finish off the manicure or pedicure with a top coat to seal in the polish, make the nails shine and prevent chipping. Some products combine a base and top coat, but they may not work as well as the individual top and base coats.

Anyone with a sensitivity to nail polish should be careful -- base coats have a higher resin content than regular nail polish, and are the cause of many nail polish allergies [source: Almond].

Although it may seem like a hassle at the time, base coats will extend the life of your manicure and help you avoid yellowed nails if you decide that fire-engine red isn't really for you after all. To learn more about nail health, visit the links on the next page.


Base Coat Nail Polish FAQ

What is a base coat?
A base coat is a clear polish that is painted onto nails before any color polish is added. They come in two varieties: plain and ridge-filler.
What does base coat nail polish do?
A base coat helps the polish stick to the nail more easily; creates a barrier that protects nails from the damaging effects of the polish; prevents staining and peeling; and gives nails a more even texture. A base coat ultimately extends the life of your manicure.
Are top coat and base coat the same?
Top coats and base coats are completely different formulations. After all, they're meant to do two different things. Base coats act as an adhesive or "primer" while top coats create shine, a hard surface and scratch resistance.
Should base coat be dry before applying nail polish?
Yes, a base coat needs to be fully dry before applying nail polish. Luckily, it dries in about two minutes, so you don't have to wait very long before proceeding.
What's a base coat made of?
A base coat is a mixture of chemicals including solvents, plasticizers, cellulose chemicals, resin, and more. They also tend to be fortified with substances such as protein, vitamin E, or calcium to improve nail health.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Almond, Elaine. "Manicure, Pedicure and Advanced Nail Techniques." London, England: Thomson Learning, 2004.
  • Garza, Xazmin. "Pedi, Set, Go: Master the at-home pedicure." McClatchy-Tribune Business News. July 9, 2009.
  • George, Rebekah. "For Feet's Sake." Prevention. September 2008, Volume 60, Issue 9, pgs. 111-113.
  • "Nail Care Tips: Base Coat and Top Coat."
  • "Nail File." Ebony. November 2008, Volume 64, Issue 1, pg. 69.
  • Real Simple. "A Clear Topcoat and a Base Coat?"
  • Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. "Style -- Tricks of the Trade: A Nail-Polish Guru Gets a Manicure." The Wall Street Journal. April 19, 2007, pg. D.10.