How Long Does It Take Nail Polish to Dry? A Definitive Answer

How Long Does it Take Nail Polish to Dry

Unsplash / Design by Julie Bang

We've all been there: right after leaving the nail salon (or finishing an at-home mani with that favorite color), something happens while reaching for the car keys or getting something to eat and that's it... we find some pretty, but now smudged, nail polish. It's almost inevitable, but not all is lost.

Painting your nails requires time and patience—two things we know it's hard to have these days. So, in an effort to prevent ourselves from smudging still-tacky polish, as well as avoid a number of other nail polish faux pas, we reached out to three nail experts—Cyndi Ramirez, Georgia Rae and Jessica Tong—all of whom offered great advice on mastering the art of manicure care and maintenance. Keep reading to learn exactly how long it takes nail polish to dry, along with some expert tips to maintain your mani.

Meet the Expert

  • Cyndi Ramirez is the founder and CEO of the non-toxic New York-based spa, Chillhouse.
  • Georgia Rae is a London-based manicurist known for her work in the fashion editorial industry.
  • Jessica Tong is a brand ambassador for nail and beauty brand Smith & Cult. She has served as the lead manicurist backstage at New York Fashion Week.
5 Secrets to a Smudge-Free At-Home Manicure
Emily Roberts/Byrdie

How Long Does It Take Nail Polish to Dry Completely?

Naturally, our first question has to be how long does it really take nail polish to dry? If you have applied a base coat, two coats of color and a top coat, Rae says "this should take one to two hours to dry completely. Formaldehyde-free polishes may take more time to dry." 

Tong recommends Smith & Cult topcoat in Above it All ($18) and base coat in Basis of Everything ($18) to guarantee we can return to some activities 10 minutes after the mani. "Polishes can dry in a timely fashion as long as they are applied thinly and evenly on a clean surface and topped with a proper topcoat," says Tong. Key words: thin and evenly. 

How To Dry Nails Faster

  • Wash off extra cuticle oil: "Don't leave your hands too greasy or oily before you apply polish. It will most definitely chip or start bubbling," Ramirez says.
  • Always apply a base coat: Rae emphasizes that no matter what is needed for your desired look, don't skip this step.
  • Keep the application as thin as possible: If you're short on time, Rae's tip is to swear by a sheer manicure. "You can apply less product which means quicker drying time!"
  • Don't use old, sticky polish: Ramirez says to avoid using polish older than six months. If it has a thick consistency, this usually indicates that it is past its best.
  • Rely on a good top coat: "If you are very short on time I recommend the Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat ($6)," says Rae.
  • Use a quick dry oil or a nail drying spray: Both of these products lock in moisture and protect your nails from smudging.
  • Run nails under cold water: You can also submerge your fingers in ice water for about three seconds. The manicurists say temperature difference will keep the color in place, but be sure to take care when drying your hands and nails afterward—use paper towels rather than cloth ones as the fabric may still stick to your nail polish. 

Choose fast-drying, long-lasting nail polish enriched with vitamins. A manicure will always last better on healthy nails.

How To Maintain Your Manicure

So you made it to the two hours drying time, but it does not always mean smudge and dent free nail polish. To help your manicure last longer, Rae says to wear gloves when doing any cleaning, for example. "The chemicals in detergents can dry out the polish causing it to crack and will also dry out the natural nail," she adds. 

Rae also recommends applying cuticle oil or balm two to three times a day, or as much as possible. "It keeps the nail, cuticle, and surrounding skin hydrated especially at the moment with excess hand washing and sanitizing! I recommend the Navy Professional Cuticle Balm ($17)," she says. To maintain a nice color and shine, refresh with a top coat every few days until your next mani.

Best Nail Maintenance Products

chanel base coat
Chanel La Base $30.00

Chanel's basecoat La Base protects and smooths the nail before the nail polish. It has a slight tint to it, which blurs any imperfections on the natural nail so the polish can be worn alone and still look beautiful.

nail polish essie
Essie Expressie Quick-Dry Nail Polish $9.00

Essie's Expressie Quick-Dry Nail Polish is fast drying, long-lasting and a dream to apply with a vast range of trendy colors.

orly topcoat
Orly Sec N' Dry $12.00

For a hard and protective finish, Orly's Sec N' Dry Topcoat has a quick-dry—according to the brand, it only takes 10 minutes to dry.

nail polish dry oil
OPI Drip Dry Lacquer Drying Drops $14.00

Want to make it quicker? We recommend OPI's dry oil. It takes up to five minutes to dry the nail lacquer completely while jojoba and vitamin E are meant to soothe cuticles. 

two hands under nail polish dryer
Makartt Professional Air Nail Dryer $95.00

Some prefer to use at-home portables like Makartt's Air Nail Dryer. This one has a fan with two types of breezes (warm and cool) that dries both hands in just 10 minutes. 

The Takeaway

Of all these important tips, one that all manicurists agree on: Don't rush. Use this mani-time as self-care and relaxation time. Also, avoid touching your clothes or any fabric, and try not to come into contact with warm or humid environments. "Some people take showers or go to the gym afterward. Don't do that," Ramirez says. For best results, polish your nails when you have time to let them dry completely.

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