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Nail Lacquer vs Polish: What’s The Difference?

Nail lacquer and nail polish are terms often used interchangeably, but there are a few differences between the two.

Nail lacquer and nail polish both serve the primary purpose of adding color and/or shine to your nails.

Nail Lacquer vs Polish: nail lacquers from OPI and essie.

However, the formulas differ in durability and drying time, so understanding these differences can significantly impact your overall nail care experience and help you achieve the desired look without much effort.

In this post, we’ll explore the unique properties and benefits of nail lacquer vs polish to help you make the best choice for your nail care routine.

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Nail Lacquer vs Polish

Nail lacquer is a type of nail polish with a thicker consistency than traditional nail polish and is typically more durable than regular nail polish. Due to its thickness, nail lacquer tends to last longer and is less prone to chipping.

On the other hand, nail polish is a thinner nail varnish usually designed to provide your nails with color and gloss.

Because of its thinner consistency, you’ll often find that multiple coats of nail polish are needed to achieve your desired look.

However, this also means that nail polish often dries more quickly than nail lacquer, making it a convenient choice if you’re short on time.

OPI Nail Lacquer in the shade Makeout-side. Nail polish bottle next to one coat of color on thumb.

You can see in the image above that just one coat of OPI Nail Lacquer in the shade Makeout-side provides quite pigmented color.

Whether you apply nail polish or lacquer, using a base coat before applying it will help the nail color adhere better to your nails and extend its longevity.

Once the polish/lacquer has dried, complete your manicure with a clear topcoat to provide a chip-resistant seal and enhance the glossiness.

Some nail products combine base coat and top coat all in one formula, like essie All In One Top & Base Coat, for added strength and shine. You apply it before and after your nail color.

Both nail lacquer and nail polish come in a wide range of shades and finishes, and both can be removed easily with non-acetone or acetone nail polish remover.

OPI nail lacquers in the shades Alpine Snow, Apple Red, and Makeout-side.

What Is Nail Lacquer?

Nail lacquer is a specific type of nail polish that offers long-lasting wear and usually a high-gloss finish. It’s a perfect option for those who want longer durability without the commitment.

Nail lacquers are usually made with a thicker and more resistant base than nail polish, resulting in a more durable coating that’s less prone to chipping.

This solvent-based nail coating can be applied easily with a brush and doesn’t require curing under a lamp to dry like a gel manicure.

When it comes to application, nail lacquers provide an even and smooth finish thanks to their typically gel-like consistency.

Please note that depending on the brand, nail lacquer can take longer to dry than regular nail polish due to its thicker consistency.

Nail lacquer can be removed with regular nail polish remover, and unlike gel nail polish, it doesn’t require any special tools or a trip to the nail salon to remove it.

Sally Hansen Good, Kind. Pure Nail Polish Color in the shades Rose Petal and Peony Origins, and Insta Dry Nail Color in Cherry Fast.

Nail Polish

Regular nail polish, also known as nail enamel or nail varnish, is the most commonly used type of nail coating. It’s a quick-drying solution that can be applied easily in the comfort of your own home.

Nail polish is a popular nail product that you can use to add color and shine to your nails. Regular polish contains pigments, solvents, and other ingredients that work together to create a vibrant and glossy finish.

Nail polish typically dries relatively quickly, and its drying time can be accelerated with the use of a fan or LED light.

Regular nail polish requires a solvent, acetone or non-acetone-based, for removal. You can find nail polish removers in various forms, such as liquids or pre-soaked pads, making the removal process quicker and less messy.

Nail Polish Finishes

Nail polishes come in various finishes to suit your style and preferences. Some common nail polish finishes include:

  • Creme: Creme nail polishes are what you think of when you think of traditional nail polish. Creme polish comes in a variety of colors and is known for its classic, glossy finish.
  • Matte: Matte nail polishes have a flat, non-shiny finish that provides a more subdued and sophisticated appearance. This finish is ideal for those who prefer a more subtle look.
  • Glitter: Glitter nail polishes incorporate small glitter particles, giving your nails a sparkly and eye-catching appearance. Glitter polishes can be worn alone or layered over other colors for added dimension and shine.
  • Shimmer: Shimmer polishes contain fine pigments that create a shiny and iridescent effect on your nails. This type of nail polish finish adds depth and dimension to your nail look.
  • Jelly: Jelly polishes have a more transparent finish that provides a glossy and glass-like appearance that is very eye-catching.
  • Metallic: Metallic polishes offer a bright, shiny finish ranging from subtle to dramatic. Metallic nail polish finishes have become increasingly popular in recent years.
  • Holographic: Holographic nail polishes contain hologram-like particles that catch the light, creating a rainbow effect on your nails. If you’re feeling adventurous, these are a great way to make a bold statement with your nails.
  • Thermal: Thermal polishes change color when exposed to heat or cold, offering an entertaining and interactive manicure experience. Thermal polishes work better on longer nails.
  • Pearl: Pearl nail polishes combine a glossy finish with subtle shimmering pigments, giving your nails an elegant and sophisticated look.
  • Sheer: Sheer polishes are semi-transparent and provide a delicate, subtle color that complements your natural nail bed. Perfect for when you want to add a hint of color without looking too bold.
  • Glossy: A glossy nail polish finish offers a shiny, clear appearance that looks smooth on your nails. It creates a classic and polished look.
  • Textured: Textured polishes often have a design or pattern built-in. They add texture and dimension to your manicure for a unique look.
Essie Nail Lacquer in the shades Cascade Cool, Pencil Me In, and Ballet Slippers.

Types of Nail Polish

Regular Nail Polish

Regular nail polish is a classic go-to option for many. It comes in a wide range of colors and shades and can easily be applied at home. However, it may chip faster than other options.

Nail Lacquer

As previously mentioned, nail lacquer is a type of nail polish known for its durability and chip-resistant qualities. With a thicker formula, it’s longer-lasting compared to regular nail polish.

Dip Powder

Dip powder is an alternative to a gel manicure that uses colored powder and a bonding agent. It requires no UV or LED light and is a long-lasting option like acrylic nails.

Breathable Nail Polish

Breathable nail polish has a unique formula that allows oxygen and water vapor to pass through. This can be beneficial for your nails’ overall health, as it helps prevent discoloration, peeling, and brittleness.


Shellac nail polish is a patented form of polish from the brand CND that combines the ease of regular nail polish with the durability of gel polish. It requires UV light to cure and harden, resulting in a shiny, chip-resistant finish lasting up to two weeks.

Acrylic Nails

Acrylics are artificial nails applied onto natural nails using a liquid monomer and a powder polymer.

Acrylic nails create a strong and durable nail surface, making them ideal for those looking to extend their nail length. Acrylics can be finished with a variety of nail colors and designs and are best applied by a professional.

Poly Gel

Poly gel is a type of hybrid nail polish often used by nail technicians that offers the strength and durability of acrylics while maintaining the flexibility and ease of application associated with gel polish.

This hybrid polish is an increasingly popular choice for nail extensions and intricate nail art and is cured with an LED or UV light, like gel polish.

Removing Nail Finishes

When it comes to removing nail lacquer and nail polish, it’s essential to use a gentle yet effective method to avoid damaging your nails.

While acetone is the most common ingredient in nail polish removers, it can cause your nails to become brittle. So, an acetone-free remover is a better choice for maintaining the health of your nails.

When dealing with shellac and gel polish, a UV lamp is used to cure the product, making its removal slightly more challenging.

You are best off returning to your nail salon to remove shellac or gel polish. Otherwise, you can follow the steps recommended by The American Academy of Dermatology Association to safely remove gel polish at home with minimal irritation.

Acrylics and poly gels should be removed at the salon. Acrylic nails are highly durable and require a professional nail tech to remove them safely.

Poly gel is also quite resilient, making it difficult to remove at home without causing damage to your nails.

After you’ve removed your nail finish, it’s important to condition and moisturize your nails. This will help them look healthier and stronger in the long run.

Try CND SolarOil, enriched with sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, and vitamin E, to condition your nails and cuticles.

Popular Brands: OPI vs Essie vs Sally Hansen

When it comes to nail lacquers and polishes, three popular brands stand out: OPI, Essie, and Sally Hansen. Each of these brands has its unique features and a loyal customer base:

OPI is a well-known nail brand with an impressive selection of colors and finishes. Their nail lacquers are known for their long-lasting formula, rich colors, and easy application. (OPI gel nail products are for professional use only.)

One thing that differentiates OPI is its collaboration with various popular franchises, like Barbie and Hello Kitty. This makes it a great choice if you’re looking for unique and limited-edition nail lacquers.

Founded in 1981, Essie has a long history in the beauty industry and is loved for their easy-to-apply formula and consistent quality. Essie’s nail polishes are a great option if you’re after a salon-quality finish for an at-home manicure.

NOTE: To make things even more confusing, brands often use the terms “nail lacquer” and “nail polish” interchangeably. On both OPI’s and essie’s websites, they describe their nail colors as “nail polish,” but the product name on their bottles is usually “nail lacquer”.

Sally Hansen is a popular, affordable option for nail color enthusiasts. Their extensive collection includes not only nail polishes but also treatments and tools.

If you’re on a budget but still want excellent results, Sally Hansen might be the perfect option for you. (I love Sally Hansen’s Good. Kind. Pure. line of nail polishes.)

Frequently Asked Questions

How does OPI nail lacquer compare to other brands?

OPI nail lacquer is known for its extensive shade range, quick-drying formula, and long-lasting wear (it provides up to seven days of wear).

Pricing is competitive with other brands like essie, Olive and June, Butter London Nail Lacquer, and Zoya.

What is the difference between nail lacquer vs gel?

Nail lacquer is applied similarly to how you would apply any nail polish without the need for curing under a lamp.

Gel polish is cured under a UV light, making it last much longer than lacquer, and is more chip resistant. Removing gel requires soaking the nails in acetone, while lacquer removal can be accomplished with regular nail polish remover.

Do all nail lacquers require a UV light?

Most nail lacquers do not require curing under a lamp, unlike gel polish. This makes lacquer a more accessible choice for at-home use.

Is nail lacquer a top coat?

Nail lacquer and a top coat serve different purposes. While nail lacquer is often a colored, decorative finish, a top coat is used to seal and protect the colored layers beneath it, providing added shine and durability to your manicure.

How do you remove nail lacquer?

To remove nail lacquer, use a nail polish remover containing acetone or a non-acetone formula. Gently soak a cotton ball in the remover, press it onto your nails, and then wipe it away to remove the lacquer.

Is nail lacquer harmful to nails over time?

When appropriately used, nail lacquer from trusted brands should not harm your nails.

However, overusing nail products or frequently changing nail colors without proper nail care in between can weaken your nails. Ensure you maintain a healthy nail care routine to prevent damage.

What is the purpose of nail lacquer thinner?

Nail lacquer thinner is used to restore consistency to thickened nail lacquer. A few drops of thinner can rejuvenate your lacquer, ensuring a smooth application and prolonging its use.

The Bottom Line: Nail Lacquer vs Polish: Which One is Right for You?

Nail lacquer offers a durable, long-lasting finish and is more accessible for at-home use than gel nail polish. Yet you can often get just as good of a manicure with nail polish, with its vast range of colors and finishes.

Nail polish is a quick and easy option when you want to change up your look frequently. You can even use nail lacquer and polish together to get the best of both worlds!

No matter which you choose, it’s important to invest in a good quality base coat and top coat for the best results.

Keep your nails healthy by avoiding too frequent polish changes or overuse of nail products.

Thanks for reading!