Product Smackdown: Gel Nail Polish Topcoats

A few weeks ago, we alerted you to a new manicure trend that had us all kinds of excited: gel nail polish topcoats. These miraculous inventions allow you to achieve the long-wearing power of a gel manicure, without the harmful UV light or super-damaging removal process, in one easy-to-use, at-home topcoat — or so they claim.

So, we asked a few well-polished R29’ers to donate their tips to the cause and test out three of these new topcoats. We also asked one staffer to function as our control and use our old friend Seche Vite, to see how it compared. 

Each tester used polish from the same brand, Jin Soon, and painted their nails at the same time and with the same amount of polish. We took pictures of their nails the day after they painted them, then again eight days later. Read on to find out if these high-tech topcoats were able to live up to the hype.

Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Set, $45, available at Nordstrom.

Who: Megan McIntyre, senior beauty editor
The Contender: Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Set

“I swear my tips must be allergic to lacquer. Within hours — sometimes minutes — of getting a manicure, I have smudges or full-fledged chips. I gave up on professional manicures and do my nails exclusively at home. I don’t do gels, simply because they absolutely kill my already-fragile nails, so I had resigned myself to a life of chipping and constant reapplications, but then along came Deborah Lippmann.

“This kit comprises a basecoat and topcoat that work in conjunction to keep polish in place. The first thing I noticed when I opened up the basecoat was the smell — I kid you not when I say it made my nostrils tingle from the chemical odor. I applied two coats of polish, and after that dried, I applied the topcoat, once again almost getting knocked unconscious by the smell. I waited a full 10 minutes for that to dry before I dared to move my hands or attempt to pick anything up.

“Now usually this is the part where I tell you about how everything smudged, or I awoke the next morning to a chip, as per my usual. But miraculously, my nails were pristine the next day. Not only that, they had a mirror-like shine the likes of which I have never seen. I kept expecting the polish to chip and dull, but by day five my nails still looked freshly-painted. After that though, things went downhill — by day 10, three nails had chips and that covetable shine had dulled considerably.” 

The Result: “While it didn’t stay on the full two weeks that a traditional gel mani would, it lasted double the time my usual polish jobs do. It definitely is pricey for a basecoat and topcoat, but if you’re someone like me who only does her nails at home and has trouble making her lacquer last, it is definitely worth dropping the extra dinero. I’ve already replaced all my other prep products with this. It’s that much of a game-changer.” 

Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Set, $45, available at Nordstrom.

Dior Gel Coat, $25, available at Sephora.

Who: Isabel Cafaro, executive assistant
The Contender: Dior Gel Coat

“I’m a serial nail painter — I paint my nails at home at least once a week, sometimes more. I have a rather extensive polish collection, but I’m always extremely disappointed with the topcoats I buy, to the point where I have eliminated the base and topcoat steps altogether. 

“For a while I’ve been debating if I should jump on the Shellac bandwagon, but having memories of my gel nail experiences back in the day, I don’t want to end up with soft, brittle nails every time I get the polish removed. All the scraping and soaking makes me nervous. So, I stick to the regular, at-home, two coats of polish weekly routine, which never lasts me more than a day before I get a chip that is beyond repair.

“Using the Dior Gel Coat was a dream — finally a topcoat I can get behind! It went on smooth and bubble-free, dried fairly quickly, and, the best part, made my manicure last for five days before the chipping was actually noticeable and drove me crazy. Despite the tiny chips and cracks (mostly on my index and middle fingers), as well as inevitable nail growth, I was able to wash dishes, open boxes, and type away on my keyboard without destroying my polish — the topcoat was that durable. And what about removal, you ask? I just used my usual nail polish remover and it came right off!  Easy. 

The Result: “I don’t think there is one thing that I disliked about this polish protector. What I look for in a topcoat is longevity, and this definitely passed my test. I’m running to the store to buy it now!”

Dior Gel Coat, $25, available at Sephora.

Julep Freedom Polymer Top Coat, $18, available at Julep.

Who: Kayla Gish, account manager
The Contender: Julep Freedom Polymer Top Coat

“When I try doing my nails at home, it tends to look like a 3-year-old did them. The color is streaky and I can never sit still long enough to let them dry, so they always smudge. When I moved to NYC and found out you can get a mani/pedi for $26, I retired those skills and decided to treat myself to a professional polish job a few times a month. These manicures usually last me about 10 days when I use my Sally Hansen clear gloss in between. I’ve never tried gel nails, so I was excited to test Julep’s topcoat out and see what all the hype was about. 

“The great thing was that this is activated by natural light, so I didn’t have to use a UV light. I also liked that it dried within about five minutes after I finished. The topcoat went on smoothly and evenly, but didn’t add as much shine as I’m used to. I went through my normal activities that week of typing at work, walking my dog, and re-applied every few days per the instructions. I really didn’t have a problem chipping, but my nails tend to grow fast, so there were bare areas around my cuticles by the end of the week.”

The Result: “Overall, my nails chipped less and held the color longer than if I did my nails at home. However, it definitely did not hold my mani intact as long as it usually stays when I get them done professionally. If I were great at doing my own nails, I would buy this product, since my nails didn’t chip and it dried really fast. But sadly, this experience did not inspire me enough to trade in my weekly pro manis for a DIY one, so I think I’ll stick to my go-to Sally Spa on 3rd Avenue.”

Julep Freedom Polymer Top Coat, $18, available at Julep.

Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat, $5.99, available at Ulta.

Who: Jem Michael, project manager
The Contender: Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat

“I much prefer to paint my own nails from the comfort of my couch with my TV on, which I do every week or so. I’ve gotten pretty good at it and I don’t see a huge benefit in paying the money to sit around in a smelly shop. My nails always end up chipping in about three days anyways, just the same as when I do them myself.

“I don’t typically use a topcoat — I’m lazy and I feel like they take a long time to dry — but I actually liked the Seche Vite. The smell wasn’t too bad and it gave a nice shine. It was a bit thick going on, but it dried pretty quickly, so I didn’t mind. Unfortunately, on the second day I had to move a couch, and I ended up chipping a nail, but all the rest of my nails lasted until about the fifth day. It was also pretty easy to take off with nail polish remover.

The Result: “This topcoat dries quickly, adds a good shine, and extends your manicure by about two or three days. It’s no gel, but it is easy to remove, so I felt it was totally worth it.” 

Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat, $5.99, available at Ulta.

Photographed by 

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1 Comment

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