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What is Nail Enamel?

By Lauren Romano
Updated May 21, 2024
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Nail enamel is another name for nail varnish or, the more popular name, nail polish. It typically comes in a small glass bottle that has a brush attached to the twist-on cap. The nail enamel is the liquid in the bottle that one brushes on his or her nails to add color. After a few minutes, the liquid hardens and dries, forming a thin shell-like layer over the nails.

The four major ingredients in nail enamel are filming agents, solvents, coloring agents, and resins and plasticizers. Each company has its own formula, which is why there are so many brands and types available. There is a huge variety of colors, ranging from clear to bright neon. Some even glow in the dark.

The main purpose of nail enamel is to work as an accessory of sorts to whatever outfit someone may be wearing. It is also a way to cover nail imperfections such as dents, chips or discoloration, which can look unsightly and cause embarrassment or self-conscious feelings. A little nail polish remover can easily remove the color so another color can replace it.

When applying nail enamel, a base coat typically goes first to even out the surface of the nail and prevent darker colors from discoloring the nails. The next step is to apply the polish, which needs to go on in thin even strokes to avoid it looking uneven or bumpy. After it dries, the top coat goes over it. The purpose of the top coat is to add extra shine to the polish as well as prevent it from chipping, especially on the tips of the fingernails which come in contact with many types of surfaces.

Some nail enamels are an all-in-one, which means they contain the base coat, polish and top coat together without separate applications. Another type of nail polish is quick drying, which dries quicker than the typical nail polish. There is also strengthening nail polish, which is best for those who have weak nails, and long lasting polish, which has a formula specially designed to prevent chipping.

The best way to choose a nail enamel is to evaluate the condition of the nails and decide which polish would be more advantageous. To choose the shade, an everyday color will be best, in addition to several other colors that complement the wardrobe. The polish is typically good for about a year until it needs to be thrown out, but it is important to make sure the caps are screwed on tightly to prevent them from drying out.

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Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On May 31, 2012

I always apply a base coat before polishing my nails and a top coat after the polish has dried. I used to think that you could just use a clear coat of polish for both the base and top coats, but I found out that there is a difference between this and the products actually designed to protect your nails.

An actual base coat is sticky, so the polish adheres to it well. A clear coat is just as hard and smooth as the polish itself, so polish won’t stick to it very well.

Also, a clear coat on top of colored polish doesn’t seem to protect against chipping as well as a top coat. I think that top coats contain ingredients designed to harden, so it will protect your polish longer.

By lighth0se33 — On May 31, 2012

@StarJo - The term you should be watching out for is “frost.” If a bottle of polish states that the shade is a frost, then it will not be able to cover your natural nail fully.

Frosts are meant to be used on top of bolder colors as an accent. If you apply an orange frost on top of a bright solid orange, then you get a nice, strong color with a frosty effect. If you apply orange frost by itself, it barely shows up.

I learned this after trying to apply five coats of a frost enamel. It was so thick that it never dried, and it just mushed right off of my nail when I touched it.

Even if a bottle of polish doesn’t have the word frost on the label, you will be able to tell by the look of it. Take a look at several that do claim to be frosts, and you will see what I mean.

By StarJo — On May 30, 2012

Some types of nail enamel don’t show up as well as others. I have been having trouble telling which ones will be bold enough before buying them and trying them out.

Are there certain nail enamel ingredients I should be looking for, or is there a certain term that will be present on the label to let me know whether a color will show up bold or not? Even if a shade looks intense in the bottle, sometimes it will require three or four coats to really cover my natural nail color.

I’m tired of wasting money on polish that doesn’t deliver. I would appreciate any tips on this subject.

By wavy58 — On May 29, 2012

I have been painting my nails for decades, and I have found that the best kind of nail enamel remover is non-acetone. It is less harsh on your nails than the acetone variety, and it is plenty powerful enough to remove several coats of polish in a few swipes.

I made the mistake of using my friends acetone nail enamel remover once, and it actually removed a layer of my natural nail. My nail turned white and felt rough to the touch.

I always use non-acetone remover at home, and if I’m having my nails done in a salon, I request that they use the same. Acetone polish remover is dangerous and bad for your natural nails.

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