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Okay, so choosing a base coat isn’t quite as sexy or fun as picking a trendy new polish color, but these workhorses are manicure must-haves. Think about it: You wouldn’t paint a wall without priming it or apply foundation without using moisturizer first, right? A base coat evens out the texture of your nail, smoothing out bumps and filling in ridges. It also acts as a barrier between your nail and the polish to come, preventing the color from staining or discoloring your tips. Not to mention that many formulas are also infused with a host of strengthening ingredients to counteract peeling, splitting, and breakage. And, of course, they create a grippy surface for the polish to adhere to, reducing the likelihood of unsightly and oh-so annoying chips.
Whether you’re a salon regular or prefer to take the DIY route, here are a handful of options all deserving of the title ace of base (coats).
Best Overall: OPI Natural Nail Base Coat
Simple and straightforward, this gets the job done, and done well. It wards off stains—even if you’re sporting dark polish, as noted in many reviews from satisfied users—and ups the longevity of your mani. And while sure, in theory, it should be paired with OPI polish, we’ve mixed and matched it with other brands and had equally good results.
Best Drugstore: Essie First Base Coat
One of the most iconic polish brands of all time is now widely available in drugstores, and that includes this ideal base coat. With rubber adhesive in the formula, it’s especially choice when you want a long-lasting mani. Plus, the nice shiny finish looks nice on its own, even if you don’t add color on top.
Take a peek at some of the other best drugstore nail polishes you can buy.
Best Natural Formula: 100 Percent Pure Horsetail Base Coat Polish
Many polishes are labeled as three- or five-free these days, referring to the lack of often-used chemicals. But this vegan formula goes above and beyond and is free of 10 of the most common toxins found in nail products. Also nice: It contains plant-derived horsetail extract to strengthen your tips.
Best Quick-Dry: Revlon Quick Dry Base Coat
Sitting around waiting for polish to dry is quite possibly one of the most painfully boring activities on Earth, so we’re all about anything that’s going to speed up the process. This option dries in seconds, so by the time you’re done coating each finger, you can move straight onto color, no extra waiting time required. The affordable price doesn’t hurt, either.
Best for Weak Nails: Nails Inc. Nailkale Superfood Base Coat
Consider this the equivalent of a green smoothie for your nails, ideal for tips in need of a little extra TLC. It does, in fact, contain kale extracts to nourish your nails, plus keratin to strengthen them and ward off splitting and breakage. Happy Sephora shoppers rave about how well it works, leaving their nails stronger and harder, so much so that it can even be used solo as a treatment.
Want to take a look at some other options? See our guide to the best nail strengtheners.
Best Vegan: Smith & Cult Base Coat
Admittedly perhaps a little pricier than other options, this ultra-adherent base coat—that really does extend the life of your polish—is worth it. Clean beauty queens will also appreciate that the vegan formula is free of eight commonly used toxins. Plus, the chic bottle and pretty pink hue (it dries clear) make it a base coat that you’ll actually want to display on your vanity.
Best Multi-Tasker: Deborah Lippmann All About That Base CC Nail Treatment Base Coat
You’ve heard of CCs for your skin, and now here’s one for your nails, offering an impressive list of 10 different benefits in one swipe. We’re talking all the benefits of a basic base coat, coupled with extra hydration and the slightest amount of tint that brightens nails and makes them look flawless, even pre-polish.
Best Spray: Sally Hansen No More Stains Spray On Base Coat
The first-ever spray-on base coat, all you have to do is, you guessed it, spray each nail to coat it with the protective, smoothing, stain-reducing formula. It sets in seconds and is incredibly easy to use—even DIY mani novices (insert hand-raising emoji here) can’t screw it up.
Best for Damaged Nails: Duri Rejuvacote 1 Original Maximum Strength Nail Growth System
When our nails have really taken a beating, we reach for this base coat time and time again. Whether used on its own or under polish, it helps to harden nails and reduce brittleness, all while promoting growth, too. Credit a combo of wheat and soy proteins, keratin, and calcium; use it regularly and you can see results in just a few weeks.
Best Long-Lasting: Orly Bonder Base Coat
A nail salon staple, think of this as the double-sided tape of base coats. It has a unique, rubberized resin formula for extra grip and stick, ensuring any polish you layer on top won’t go anywhere. It does leave a slightly tacky finish on your nails, which users point out, but don’t worry, that’s exactly why it works.
Best Ridge-Filler: Ella + Mila All About the Base Ridge Filler Base Coat
Apply two coats of this vegan, seven-free formula (be sure to let it dry thoroughly in between layers) to help fill in unsightly ridges and smooth out bumps that can ruin the look of your mani. And even if you don’t have ridges, it still works well, just stick with one coat.
Need a polish next? See our guide to the best nail polishes.