Tried & tested: Up to scratch

Too soft, too hard, too thick, too thin, too bright, too dull, too flaky, too ... Nail varnish: our panel chips in
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Since Uma Thurman donned Chanel's Rouge Noir in Pulp Fiction, nail varnish has been the ultimate accessory. There is now a glut of varnishes on the market in a vast array of colours, with a range of prices to match. But however enticing they look in the bottle, not all of them offer a flawless finish: some need numerous coats, others take forever to dry, or chip within hours. So is there, we wondered, a perfect polish out there?


Specialist judgement was provided by professional manicurist Frances Oates, owner of the Nail Salon, London SW1, and fashion stylist Charlie Harrington. Further comments came from nail varnish aficionados Melanie Bourne, Nick Taylor, Suzi Feay (the IoS's well-manicured literary editor) and myself, a 365-day-a-year nail varnish wearer.


The testers wore each varnish until it chipped. The quest was to find the most user-friendly, quick-drying, chip-resistant, value-for-money polish around.


pounds 3.75

Thoroughly unimpressed, Nick said this "looked half-starved even after two coats", and Suzi found it "cheap and dull". I agreed: my nails looked rather wishy-washy, too, although Frances pointed out that, "You always need three coats with Bourjois". Melanie was kinder, putting its chipping down to "normal wear and tear".


pounds 2

It was really the packaging of Miss Selfridge Rich that endeared it to the panel. Melanie and Suzi described the tiny bottle as "dinky", while Nick called it "a sweet Baby Spice thing of a bottle". Frances reckoned the size was ideal. "Varnish starts going thick when you're about half- way through the bottle, so the smaller the better," she said. Suzi found that she needed three or four coats for any impact, while Nick found that his only lasted a day before chipping. Melanie liked the "smooth fine brush", but Charlie said: "It's cheap and it looks it". Our conclusion: quality isn't the consideration here, as the petite bottle makes it ideal for a one-night wear and, for that, it's good value for money.


pounds 5.90

Agnes B got the thumbs up all round and was our overall winner. Comments ranged from "the varnisher's varnish" (Nick), to "easy to apply and looks good with just one coat" (Melanie). Suzi was impressed with the ease of application, Frances loved the "high shine" and I was won over by the vibrancy of the colour. Suzi noted that "after five days and one repair it still looked good" and found it easy to remove, although Melanie felt a clear base coat would help prevent the slight staining to her nails, and Frances agreed. Charlie was delighted to find "a designer product without a designer price tag".


pounds 4.29

L'Oreal claims its new nail varnish will last "two times longer", and the panel's enthusiastic reaction suggest the claims are valid. Charlie loved the colour, and Suzi remarked: "You get bored with it before it chips." Melanie declared that it was her favourite, and according to Frances, "it glides on and gives a perfect covering with just one coat." There was no doubt it had the edge when it came to durability and the only drawback that I noticed was the Tippexy feel it had on drying. That was a small price to pay, though. For ease of application and removal, the quality of appearance and its remarkable resilience, L'Oreal came in a close second.


pounds 10

Melanie's delight in the "beautifully sophisticated Art Deco-type bottle" was shared by the rest of the panel - Suzi "loved it" and Nick said it was "interesting". Frances found the top "a good shape to hold" and liked the varnish's "thick consistency". Nick felt it "applied itself almost without pressure". Charlie liked the "matt, creamy appearance" but was worried about the price - particularly as the wonderful thick coat had a tendency to peel off in large strips.


pounds 11

The chic Chanel bottle was much admired, making it an easy winner in the presentation stakes. Charlie thought this limited edition shade (be warned stocks will soon be snapped up) the perfect colour to complement this season's grey. Frances said Chanel varnishes had long been among her favourites and this didn't disappoint. But Suzi disagreed, finding it "smeary and uneven", while Melanie thought it "too thick". I was surprised that it chipped after a day or two. The general consensus was not bad, but not Chanel at its best.


pounds 11

"(Our) colours are comparable to actual automobile finishes used in production by the world's great auto manufacturers." A novel idea but not one the panel was entirely convinced by. Suzi and Melanie agreed that the colour was a bit garish. "It seems a bit Essex girl to want your nails to match your car," added Suzi, "and it sort of wore off after two days". But Frances's expert opinion was: "amazing, heaven to work with, it seems almost on auto-pilot".


pounds 12.50

The Nars square bottle, reminiscent of Chanel's, is good-looking but flawed in design. Without the removable outer lid of its French competitor, Charlie found the square lid "awkward to hold" and the varnish "difficult to apply". The colour was wonderfully rich, though Frances thought it "a bit tacky", and Melanie pointed out that "when it chipped it was very noticeable". In the end, it didn't add up to value for money.


pounds 3.45

Nick called the packaging "dull" and Frances thought it was "quite old- fashioned" though she was impressed with the "long, smooth brush". Melanie and I admired the polish's staying power but found it peeled rather than chipped off, and appeared to take some of the nail with it - ironic for a product claiming to "strengthen and promote nail growth".


pounds 13.50

Jil Sander, at pounds 13.50, was the most expensive of the bunch. I loved the consistency and the colour, but still found it hard to justify the price. Suzi was impressed with the brush, which made application easy, and Nick with the fact that it lasted three days before chipping. Frances noticed that "it came up lighter than in the bottle" and decided it her least favourite. Melanie concluded: "I'd expect more for my money."


pounds 2.19

Rimmel comes in a glamorous bottle, but Charlie found the polish "smeary in application" which she said made "three coats a must"; Frances found the brush "clumsy"; and Nick thought the dark purple colour was "loud and brash". Melanie was put off by the staining left around her nails. Only Suzi had something positive to add: "It lasted a few days," she said, "so it's good value for money, if you like the colour." The only problem was, none of us did.


pounds 1.45

The spectacular thing about this varnish was its price. The quality might not be outstanding, but it was easy to apply and dried quickly. Frances agreed and said, "if you were in a hurry, one coat would be enough." Melanie said hers chipped "before the night was out", but Frances suggested sealing it with a coat of Mavala Colorfix, which, she said, "could make any varnish last up to a week". Finally, Charlie was full of praise. "Spectacular has such a great range of colours," she said, "and it's unbelievable value for money."


Miss Selfridge available from branches nationwide; Agnes B, 0990 901090; Bourjois, 0800 269836; Chanel, 0171 493 3836; Shu Uemura, 0171 493 4349; Jil Sander available from Harrods, 0171 730 1234; Nars and Paint Job available from Space NK stores in London, 0171 379 7030; Spectacular, 0181 900 1515; L'Oreal LaquiResist, Rimmel and Cutex all available from chemists and department stores nationwide.