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Best nail polishes 2023: The finest nail lacquer for a colourful manicure

Nails in need of a pop of colour? We review the best nail polishes from £4

One of the quickest ways to perk up your hands is with a home manicure. Giving your mitts a little TLC is a simple and relaxing act of self-care that you can squeeze into a spare hour, and polished nails in a colour that complements your style are a great way to complete your look.

Today’s nail polishes, lacquers and varnishes come in an array of colour and finishes, from gloss to satin and matte; as well as bringing a wide range of benefits from fast-drying to long-lasting. We’ve filed, buffed and painted our way through a selection of the best available to find you the polish with which to put the finishing touches to your fingertips.

Check out our buying guide and mini-reviews below for the best nail polishes on the market, to discover a formula that does everything you want it to without compromising on the results.

Best nail polish: At a glance

How to choose the best nail polish for you

What different types of nail polish are there?

All nail polishes are made from pigment suspended in a solvent (usually acetate), the latter of which gives nail polish its distinctive aroma. When the polish is applied, the solvent evaporates within a few minutes, leaving a film of colour behind. Nail polish arrives in the following types:

  • Classic nail varnish – Classic polish is the most common form of varnish you’ll see in the shops, with the lacquer itself relatively thin, and usually smooth and glossy. Its thin consistency makes it easy to apply and remove, and it’s therefore perfect for those who like to switch up their colour every few days. Some classic polishes may contain ingredients such as acrylic to resist chipping and strengthen the polish, but a classic polish will usually last a few days to a week. The main benefit is that it’s quick and easy to use, and fast-drying formulas can air-dry in under a minute.
  • Gel nail polish – Gel formulas are made with an acrylic solution that bonds to the nail when “cured” under UV light, to create a much tougher and longer-lasting finish over classic polish. Your local salon may offer a selection of gel colours (sometimes known by the brand name Shellac) as an alternative to classic polishes. It’s also possible to buy gel nail kits that include a UV lamp for use at home. This makes at-home gel polish more expensive upfront; however, if you like your colour to last, gel nails require less maintenance long-term and can be a good investment compared to salon visits.
  • Gel-like polish – Many nail-care brands now offer a gel-like polish formula that’s stronger and harder-wearing than a classic polish, but which doesn’t require UV curing. The formula is usually thicker in the bottle and takes longer to air-dry than classic polish; but if you take your time, the finish can be close to the look of a true UV gel polish.

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How should I choose my nail polish?

As well as thinking about which formula you prefer – classic, gel or gel-like; fast-drying or long-lasting – pay attention to the packaging and how comfortable the top is to hold in your hand as you apply. Some polishes have awkward-shaped handles, which look pretty on your dressing table but are less comfortable to use. Small bottles with little handles can also be fiddly.

For a flawless finish, choose a polish with a wide brush so you can apply your polish in one or two sweeps per nail. If you want to be more precise, a thinner brush may be better.

Some nail polish ingredients can be drying, so if you wear polish often and want to keep your nails as healthy as possible, opt for a formula that’s free of ingredients such as formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide and xylene.

How should I apply my nail polish?

Begin by pushing back cuticles, filing and buffing the nails for smooth application. Ensure nails are clean and dry by wiping with a touch of nail polish remover to ensure any grease and all traces of previous colour are removed.

If you’re using a strong colour, it’s a good idea to apply a clear base coat first. This will protect the natural nail from discolouration, and also helps the coloured polish go on smoothly. Shake the bottle to mix the polish and to prevent blobs and caking. When the base coat is dry, apply the coloured polish from the base to the tip of the nail in as few strokes as you can – two to three is ideal. Make sure you coat each nail completely.

Most polishes require two coats for a strong, shiny and pigmented finish; wait until the first coat is dry before adding the second. Finish with a clear top coat or glitter, if using.

Ideally, you should let your nails dry for an hour once painted. Usually, it’s fine to do a little reading, writing or typing while nails are drying, but avoid heavy housework or rummaging in your pockets for keys. Tidy up the edges with a cotton bud soaked in nail polish remover, if required, and finish with a drop of nourishing cuticle oil.

How we test nail polishes

At Expert Reviews, we know that hands-on testing delivers the most complete understanding of a product. As such, we personally test all of the nail polishes included in the roundup, either at home or at a salon.
We first note the nail polish type – for example, whether it’s a traditional polish or gel-like – and any particular instructions for use. We then apply two coats using the brush supplied, recording the time each polish takes to apply, how long the polish takes to dry and the coverage produced by two complete coats. Once completely dry, we evaluate the pigmentation and finish of each polish, and then we wear the polish for several days to test for chipping and flaking. Finally, we take note of the available colour range for each product.

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The best nail polish you can buy in 2023

1. OPI Nail Lacquer: The best classic polish under £15

Price: £13 | Buy now from Amazon

OPI is a well-known nail-care brand offering a huge range of shades, many with hilarious names: “We Seafood and Eat It”, “Sun, Sea and Sand in my Pants” and “Freedom of Peach” are some of our favourites. The product itself is well-made and always reliable: the formula is a good consistency – neither too sticky nor too runny – and super easy to apply, whichever colour or finish you’ve chosen.

The easy-to-grip handle aids application, and since it’s quite long, it’s easy to find a grip that suits. You can expect the colour and shine to last for a good seven days with careful application and a good top coat.

Key specs — Size: 15 ml, Colours available: 32, Type: Gel-like nail polish

2. Rimmel London 60 Seconds Super Shine Nail Polish: The best nail polish under £5

Price: £4 | Buy now from Amazon The price is tiny but the results are super-impressive – Rimmel’s classic nail polish in 46 shades, from nudes to brights, really does dry in 60 seconds, for a long-lasting and glossy finish. Applied with care, this bargain polish will remain on the nails for up to a week without chipping, as long as you’ve applied a decent top coat to help it along.

There are plenty of pretty shades and colours for spring and summer: Coralicious or Wedge of Lime are perfect for the beach, while Ethereal is a pretty nude and Double Decker Red speaks for itself. Once you’ve found your shade – or at this price, a shade for every season – you won’t be disappointed.

Key specs — Size: 8 ml, Colours available: 46, Type: Classic nail varnish

3. Dior Le Vernis: The best gel-like nail polish

Price: £22 | Buy now from Boots

If you love a glossy finish, treat yourself to this little bottle of luxury. The depth of colour is excellent – so good, in fact, that you may be able to get away with just a single coat – and it dries to a super-shiny finish. However, it’s the brush that makes this polish a dream to use. It’s wide, with just the right number of brush fibres to ensure it’s never overloaded with product; it can pretty much cover a whole fingernail in one sweep, for neat, quick application.

Dior’s Le Vernis dries in minutes, and with a little help from its corresponding top coat, lasts for up to a week without chipping. It’s a little more expensive than other varnishes on our list, but with great colour and shine, it’s worth every penny.

Key specs — Size: 10 ml, Colours available: 5, Type: Gel-like nail polish

Buy now from Boots

4. Barry M Gelly Hi-Shine Nail Paint: Best gel-like nail polish under £5

Price: £4 | Buy now from BarryM

Offering a fantastic range of 62 shades at a very pocket-friendly price, with British beauty brand Barry M you can have a different colour of the rainbow on your fingertips every week of the year and still have change. We love the fun colours, ranging from berry pinks and on-trend mauves and jades to neon brights; and the high-shine finish lasts well. The bottle itself is on the small side, but the wide brush paints well; you’ll probably need two coats to get the best depth of colour. The gel-like polish dries in just a few minutes, without the need for a UV lamp.

For best results, Barry M recommends finishing with the clear top coat in the same range – but even without, fingertips are colourful and shiny for days. A great budget option with a colour range that puts some premium brands to shame.

Key details – Size: 10ml; Colours available: 62; Type: Gel-like varnish

Buy now from BarryM

5. CND Vinylux Weekly Polish: The best all-in-one polish

Price: £10 | Buy now from Amazon

If you’re short on time, this gel-effect polish from salon brand CND has a built-in base coat, which will save you a few precious minutes. Gel-effect means the polish is chip-free and longer-lasting than a standard polish, and CND’s version benefits from the brand’s “Pro-light” technology, which hardens when exposed to natural light. Two coats are plenty to create a good, deep colour – but you’ll need to use the brand’s corresponding top coat to ensure the polish fulfils its promise of a week’s worth of perfect nails.

Vinylux comes in a good range of colours, and with its all-in-one application and long-lasting finish, it’s the perfect all-rounder.

Key specs — Size: 15 ml, Colours available: 22, Type: Gel-like nail polish

6. Nailberry L’Oxygene Nail Lacquer: The best vegan and cruelty-free polish

Price: £15 | Buy now from Sephora

This relatively new London-based brand of nail polish is vegan and cruelty-free. L’Oxygene describes its lacquers in 15 pretty colours (including dramatic Noirberry and iridescent Pink Sand) as “breathable”, meaning that they’re formulated without toxic ingredients and allow air and water vapour to pass through – a healthier option for your nails, as well as for Mother Nature.

The formula itself is deliciously creamy – there’s no sign of gloopiness here – and it dries satisfyingly quickly, with the glossy results lasting for days.

Key specs — Size: 15 ml, Colours available: 15, Type: Classic nail varnish

Buy now from Sephora

7. Mylee Gel Polish LED Manicure Kit: Best at-home gel nails kit

Price: £68 (plus £8 for additional polish colours) | Buy now from Sephora

If you prefer gel nails to classic polish at the salon, and want to try your hand at gels at home, then this starter kit from gel nails specialist Mylee is simple to use and delivers excellent results, even on a first attempt. To use, apply and cure the base coat using the lamp supplied in the kit. Next, add your chosen gel colour and cure again, finishing with the top coat. The whole process takes around 10 minutes per hand, including application and curing time, and the result is a strong, shiny colour that lasts without chipping for up to two weeks.

Note that the starter kit doesn’t include gel colours – you’ll need to purchase colour polishes separately. However, with more than 200 gel colours to choose from, including metallic and glitter shades, the options are almost endless. The kit is a reasonable investment, but if you visit the salon for your nails often, it should pay for itself in a couple of manicures.

Key details (polish) – Size: 10ml; Colours available: 200+; Type: UV gel varnish

Buy now from Sephora

8. Nails Inc Nail Polish: The best polish brand for variety

Price: £18 | Buy now from Amazon

Whatever type of polish you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Nails Inc’s range. The brand has hundreds of classic polish and gel colours to choose from, including neutrals, neon brights and pastels. As well as single-colour polishes, Nails Inc has an impressive range of glitter, metallic, foil effect, shimmer, matte and holographic colours – and the results don’t disappoint. The polishes are all of a professional standard and offer long-lasting results, free of chipping.

The only downside is a slightly awkward-shaped brush handle, which makes application tricky; but once you’ve, er, nailed it, you’re onto a winner. Nails Inc is your one-stop shop for whatever look you fancy.

Key specs — Size: 4 x 14 ml, Colours available: 100+, Type: Classic nail varnish

9. Leighton Denny High-Performance Nail Colour: Best high shine, kind-to-nails polish

Price: £13 | Buy now from Marks and Spencer

Like skincare for your nails, Leighton Denny nail polishes are formulated using ingredients that nourish the nail bed and help with the most common nail problems. They’re also vegan-friendly, 75% plant-based, and free from formaldehyde, DBP and toluene – all of which can dry and damage your nails if used often.The range comes in a variety of pretty shades, including the sheer shimmer Dragonfly Wings, which would be lovely for summer.

We loved the wide, flat brush that helped easily apply an even coat all over the nail. While the lighter-coloured polishes required two thin coats for full-colour payoff, the polish dried quickly and made additional coats quick and easy. While it’s a classic polish, the varnish delivered a high-gloss finish that resembled a gel manicure – right down to the chip-resistant finish that keeps your manicure looking fresh for over a week.

Key specs — Size: 12 ml, Colours available: 13, Type: Classic nail varnish

Buy now from Marks and Spencer

10. Essie Gel Couture top coat: Best top coat

Price: £8 | Buy now from Lookfantastic

Nail polish brand Essie has decades of experience in making nails look their bright and beautiful best. In addition to being recommended for use with the brand’s own Gel Couture range, this clear top coat will give any polish a strong, gel-like finish. The wide brush has a curved edge, making it easy to apply quickly and precisely, and the top coat itself is formulated for long-lasting strength and shine.

Like all Essie products, the Gel Couture top coat is formaldehyde-free and vegan-friendly. Whatever colour you’ve decided to use to cover your nails, use this top coat to keep it fresh and chip-free with a fantastic shine.

Key details – Size: 13.5ml; Colours available: 1; Type: Gel-like varnish (top coat)

Buy now from Lookfantastic

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