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The Ultimate Guide to Every Type of Nail Polish

From classic paint to gels.

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Photography by: Aaron Dyer

From classic lacquers to high-tech gels, today's polishes offer more than just a slick of color. We asked the pros to weigh in on the ingredients, ease of use, and longevity of four common formulas. Read on to pinpoint your big-day pick.

 

A Step-By-Step Guide to Wedding-Worthy Nails

Traditional Polishes

The Lowdown

These formulas have come a long way, says New York City–based manicurist Geraldine Holford. "They're longer-lasting and almost always five-free," she says, using the industry phrase for the most controversial polish ingredients (formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, camphor, and formaldehyde resin). Some also eliminate ethyl tosylamide, xylene, and triphenyl phosphate, so they're cleaner than ever.

You'll Love That . . . 

They're commitment-free. "Wear one color for your wedding, then change it for your honeymoon," says Holford. Plus, any remover—acetone, acetone-free, or soy-based—will work, adds Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder and CEO of Olive & June.

Keep in Mind

Lighter tones, like sheer pinks and ivory, may turn cloudy or yellowish after repeated sun exposure.

Pro Tip

Request a dry manicure (no soaking) to prolong the effects. "Nails expand when wet. As they dry and contract, you're left with tiny uncovered spots, where chipping begins," says Holford.

One to Try

Sinful Colors Nail Polish, $2, sinfulcolors.com.

 

 

Salon Gels

The Lowdown

These contain a photoinitiator that creates a thick, protective coating when cured under LED light, explains cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. Primarily an in-salon service, they're the longest-lasting of the bunch: up to two weeks of wear.

You'll Love That . . . 

"The staying power and shine are exceptional," says Deborah Lippmann, founder of her eponymous polish brand. Go from wedding to honeymoon, then back home, chip-free.

Keep in Mind

With consistent use, gel polish can weaken nails. Its removal involves placing acetone-soaked cotton over the nail bed, then wrapping them in aluminum foil for a minimum of 10 minutes. Afterward, "the polish should flake off easily, without scraping," says Lippmann. She warns: No matter how tempting, don't pick off a past-its-prime gel manicure. As you peel away the color, you'll take layers of your nail with it.

Pro Tip

For a quick color change, "you can paint a regular polish over a gel," says Holford.

One to Try

Gelish Soak-Off Gel Polish, from $40 per manicure, gelish.com.

 

 

Gel-Effect Polishes

The Lowdown

The newest bottles on the block, these can be applied at home or in the salon. They claim to offer the longevity of salon gels without any light-curing 
or time-consuming removal.

You'll Love That . . . 

"These can last up to seven days without chipping and are usually shinier than traditional polishes," says Tuttle. How? They contain an additional polymer that helps the color better adhere to the nail, explains Romanowski. A swipe of regular non-acetone remover melts it away. Bonus: The thicker formula creates a protective coating that can help prevent breakage, adds Holford.

Keep in Mind

"This is a fairly new formulation for most brands, so you may not find as wide a color range," says Lippmann. (Fun fact: When Lippman launched her line 
of gel-effect polishes, Martha was the first tester!)

Pro Tip

Can't find the shade you want? Layer a clear gel topcoat over regular polish to extend its wear.

One to Try

Essie Gel Couture Nail Polish, $12, gelcouture.com.

 

 

Healthy(er) Formulas

The Lowdown

Touted on their labels as "good for your nails," "nutrient-rich," and sometimes even "vegan," these are five-free at a minimum. They're also infused with a wide range of ingredients beneficial to nail health—think biotin, peptides, oils, antioxidants, vitamins, and even that popular superfood, kale.

You'll Love That . . . 

"Because nails are so porous, they respond well to these kinds of topical treatment ingredients," says Tuttle. Plus, with the benefits of both a polish and treatment in one, there's
 no need to buy additional nail strengtheners or hardeners.

Keep in Mind

There really aren't many drawbacks to these formulas, but you'll reap the greatest benefits when you use them as a base coat (rather than color or topcoat), since they'll sit directly on the nail bed.

Pro Tip

Dealing with thin or brittle nails? Paint on one of these healthy polishes to help strengthen your tips without having to go bare-nailed.

One to Try

Sparitual Vegan CC Crème, $17, sparitual.com.

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