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All Things Nails

Nail Polish 101

Nail polish 101 – if you’re new to the wonderful world of nail polish, you might be wondering about some of the terms you hear or read about. What do they mean? Glad you asked, because here’s a “Nail Polish 101” for you!

But First…What is Nail Polish?

I know, sounds like a silly question. But when you stop to think about it, what is nail polish – what is it made of?
If you’ve ever gotten bored and read the ingredients on a bottle of nail polish, you may see a bunch of long chemical-y sounding names. The ingredients fall into four main groups:

  • Plasticizers: These give the nail polish some flexibility
  • Film-Formers: These are what hardens the polish.
  • Solvents: These serve to mix the ingredients and keep it in a liquid state.
  • Colorants: These give the polish its color.

There may also be other ingredients, like glitter, but the above are the ones you’ll find in every polish. (Of course, the clear polishes don’t have the colorants.)

Nail polish isn’t just something to be pretty on your fingers. Yes, it is that, but it can also be a protectant, giving weak or brittle nails some extra strength. It also serves to helps protect your nails from the elements. So nail polish isn’t just fun, it’s also practical.

Nail Polish 101 – Terms to Know

Here are a few nail-related terms that you might like to know.

  • 3-Free: Nope, it’s not buying one polish and getting three for free (don’t I wish!). Back in the 1990s, there was a movement to take out three ingredients that were thought to be possible/potential carcinogens. The European Union was the first to limit their use, and the US manufacturers mostly followed. The three ingredients that most (not all) major manufacturers have removed are Dibutyl Phthalate, Toluene and Formaldehyde.
  • 5-Free: In addition to the chemicals listed under 3-Free, there are two additional ingredients that are removed from 5-free polishes – Formaldehyde Resin and Camphor.
  • Base Coat: A base coat is a layer of polish that is applied directly to the fingernail, before any other polish. A good base coat will help keep your nails from staining, can fill in ridges and might have extra hardeners or other benefits. It will help to anchor your main polish, so that it doesn’t chip as easily.
  • Cuticle: The cuticle is where the nail is “born” It is located at the bottom of your fingernails, and it’s what you always want to protect!  You may often hear that you need to push back (more about that later). Healthy cuticles help make healthy nails, so keep yours clean and well-moisturized.
  • Combo Base and Top Coat: It’s a polish that can serve as both a base coat as well as a top coat. While it’s definitely better than nothing, separate base and top coats help keep your manicure looking better, for longer. However, it’s great if you just want a clear polish for a natural look.ys hear
  • Fast-Drying Top Coat:  This may seem obvious, but there are top coats that actually do set your nail polish against smudges – fast (usually within 5 minutes)!  It won’t protect totally against dents and dings for maybe 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how many coats of polish you have on), but it’s great to have on hand.
  • Finishes:  There are so many that I’ve devoted an entire post to nail polish finishes!
  • Free Edge: This is the very tip of your nails.
  • Gel: A gel nail polish (also called a gel polish) doesn’t cure (harden) in air, like a regular nail polish. Instead, gel polishes require exposure to a certain kind of light in order to cure. All gel polishes (at the time of this writing) will cure with a UV light, and most will also cure under an LED light. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain to have a special lamp for this, but the advantage is a manicure than can stay looking new for up to 2 weeks.
  • Nail Plate: This is your fingernail.
  • Nail Bed: This is the skin that lies under your nail.
  • Nail Polish: This generally refers to your main polish color.Nail Walls: This is the skin immediately on either side of your nail plate.
  • Top Coat: A top coat is typically clear, and it is a final layer to help protect your manicure. A good top coat will help to keep your manicure looking glossy longer. There are also fast-drying top coats that help prevent smudges.

Nail Polish Finishes Explained

Nail polish finishes have come a long, long way since I was a young girl.  We had cream, sheer and frosted.  (Oh boy, I’m probably showing my age, LOL.)  Nowadays, nail polish finishes are totally amazing!  If you’re not familiar with the kinds of polish finishes, here are some explanations.

Nail Polish Finishes

  • Cream:  It’s creamy looking, and usually opaque in two coats.  There are no “special effects” like glitter, shimmer, metallic, etc.  This is probably the most common finish.
  • Crelly:  It’s a cross between a cream nail polish and a jelly nail polish.
  • Chrome or Foil:  Is more metal looking than even a metallic.  Foils can be temperamental; some require a special base coat and many specify that no top coat be used.  They don’t tend to wear very well…but the effect of the foil colors are dramatic!
  • Duochrome:  This is a dichroic effect — it reflects different colors depending on the angle at which you view the polish.
  • Frosted:  Tends to be sheer, and in lighter tones.  It has more “glimmer” than a shimmer, but less than a metallic.  This used to be very popular, but is less so these days.
  • Glitter:  A polish that has glitter suspended in it.  The glitters may be fine or large in size, and can come in many different shapes.
  • Gloss or Glossy:  This finish has a high shine.
  • Holographic:  A holographic finish reflects the colors of the spectrum as you move your fingernails back and forth.  The effect can be linear or scattered.  Linear tends to give the most dramatic spectrum.
  • Jelly:  A jelly polish is a very sheer polish that is see-through, but has color.  The most common example is to think about Jell-O — it has color, but you can see through it.  Jelly polishes are great for jelly sandwiches, pond manicures and for changing the color of your base nail polish.
  • Matte:  A matte finish has no gloss or shine to it; it is more of a “flat” finish, but it can provide wonderful special effects.
  • Metallic:  More of a metallic look than a frosted, and can come in both light and deep shades.  Many times very vibrant in color.
  • Satin:  This is halfway between a gloss and a matte finish.
  • Shimmer:  A shimmer polish has tiny reflecting particles, typically in a cream base.  They are more subtle than a frost.

Two things that aren’t exactly finishes as much as formulas are the terms “opaque” and “sheer”.

A nail polish is opaque if does not let the nail bed or tips show through.   A good opaque polish will cover in two coats; some are even opaque in one coat!

A sheer polish is very translucent, and take three or more coats to be fully opaque.  Some never quite get there!

That’s a quick overview of nail polish finishes.   Hope you’ve found this helpful!