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11 best nail polishes for a perfect at-home manicure

Get salon-worthy results with these colourful and high-shine formulas

Clare Austin
Wednesday 17 March 2021 15:54
<p>Doing your nails is a (relatively) cheap and cheerful way to lift the spirits</p>

Doing your nails is a (relatively) cheap and cheerful way to lift the spirits

With nail salons having spent much of the past 12 months shuttered, fans of a manicure have been forced to take matters into their own hands (pun intended).

A valid act of self-care, time spent doing your nails is a link to more frivolous times and a way to get creative. It’s also a (relatively) cheap way to lift the spirits.

The lipstick index, a term coined by Leonard Lauder, describes how in tough times consumers will favour buying “essentials” such as lipstick over expensive luxuries. But, now that face masks have lipstick under house arrest, perhaps nail polish could take its place.

In fact, Sonia Hully, founder and CEO of Nailberry, says that during the course of the pandemic the brand saw an increase in online sales.

“We found that a lot of people were ordering two, three or more nail polishes at a time,” she explains, adding that she believes time spent at home has made people more adventurous. “You have the opportunity to play with new colours and try something you wouldn’t usually dare too.”

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When it comes to painting your nails Lou Stokes, Orly’s UK ambassador, recommends two essential steps: “A good base coat will not only protect your nails from stains, but it will also fill ridges, strengthen nails and aid durability.

“While a top coat is essential to add shine, prevent chipping and peeling and give your manicure a flawless finish.”

In terms of trends Tina Michael, founder of Shoreditch Nails, says: “We are seeing a lot of natural manicures, so perfectly shaped, short nails with clean cuticles. Designs like coloured French tips or dots on a clear nail have also been popular.”

But what if you make a mistake? Michael recommends “using a brush or wooden stick dipped in remover to clean up the nail rather than cotton wool.”

For our round-up, we focussed on “regular” polishes (i.e. not the at-home gel kind that require a UV lamp). We wanted to include polishes that treat the nails with added nourishment; have a vibrant and true colour payoff; and last more than a day without chipping.

We tested using a base and top coat (unless otherwise specified) and exposed our nails to all of life’s usual wear and tear for a minimum of four days.

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Margaret Dabbs treatment enriched nail polish, 9ml

Podiatrist and business woman Margaret Dabbs became famous for the medical grade pedicures and manicures performed at her eponymous clinics. Her product range is equally in-depth: all the nail polishes combine treatment with colour, containing vitamin E to strengthen and protect, as well as wild rose extract to boost nail health.

After removal, our nails didn’t look as dried out as they usually do after polish. We also loved this polish for its rich tones, which give a deep and even cover in just one coat. In this test we channelled 80s power dressing with “snap dragon”, a classic vibrant red.

Dior nail glow, 10ml

Best for: Improving nail appearance

Another of the Dior polishes, namely base coat “abricot”, has been all over social media of late, but we also have a lot of love for its nail glow which promises a one-stop French manicure in a bottle. It is designed to be used on its own: no need for top or bottom coats.

It works to revive the colour of your nail, reversing any yellowing and creating a French polish effect by whitening the tip and adding a healthy sheen to the rest of the nail. It imparts a gorgeous healthy glow making our nails look high-maintenance in just one coat. A life-enhancing translucent hot pink colour in the bottle, we love it for how quickly and easily it takes our nails to polished perfection.

Barry M gelly hi shine nail paint, 100ml

Best for: Value for money

The joy of Barry M is its accessibility and enthusiasm for colour, glitter and sparkle. The brand’s nail polishes deliver an endorphin rush of possibility in the variety of shades and textures available for what is pretty much a pocket money price.

Promising an extra-glossy finish, we trialled gelly hi shine, a gel manicure on the cheap – except the results looked far from budget. We found it had a good consistency, with a nice smooth finish. There are no tell-tale brush marks left on the nail and it stayed put for four days without chipping. Another plus point was the concentrated colour: the shade you see in the bottle, here the bright white “cotton”, is true to the shade that appears on your nail.

Mavala nail colour cream, 5ml

Best for: Cutting down on waste

In cute miniature bottles, Mavala is good for those who like to change their nail colour as often as their outfit. The 5ml bottle is small enough that you might actually get through it and has been specially designed to minimise solvent evaporation, avoiding those half-empty dried-up bottles of impulse bought polish.

Despite its small size it contains two stainless steel balls which, when the bottle is shaken, mix up the polish to optimise the colour and consistency. We were also impressed with the formula which includes air pockets to allow nails to breathe.  We love the glossy pinky brown elegance of “velvet”. The formulation is quite thin and sheer so this one definitely needs a couple of coats.

Chanel le vernis longwear nail colour, 10ml

Best for: Glossy finish

We have long-been fans of Chanel nail polish because of the quality of the finish it produces, even in our tester’s most amateur of hands. The smooth consistency of the polish glides on to the nail making it easy to brush into precisely the right place. And the glossy shine dries to a lacquered, almost mirrored, finish. We find it hard-wearing too and can go up to a week without chipping.

From Chanel’s range of classic and high-fashion shades one perennial standout is the 90s gothic toned “rouge noir”: the cult red-black made famous by Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.

Essie expressie quick dry nail colour, 10ml

Best for: Speed

The Queen herself is said to be a fan of Essie’s classic soft pink “ballet slippers” (£7.99,, but for this round-up we chose something a bit more vibrant. “Dial it up” is a pearlised washed-out purple from Essie’s latest collection of Y2K-inspired shades and we rated it immediately.

Not only does it come with Essie’s patented angled brush – which has been designed to aid fast application with both hands – it also claims to dry in one minute (though the time on our stopwatch read 65 seconds). Immediately afterwards we painted our nails, we put it to the test by putting on our coat and shoes, and grabbing our phone, bag and keys. It felt wrong not to wait longer before handling things, but we needn’t have worried because there was no smudging whatsoever.

Ciaté London sun switch nail polish, 13ml

Best for: Novelty

Ideal for the easily bored, this fun polish changes colour when you go outside. After applying, the shade is as you see in the bottle but when you step outdoors the polish reacts with UV light and subtly alters into a new hue before reverting to the original once you are back inside.

We tried “treasure chest” and noticed it goes on as a sheer gold glitter before transforming to a deep bronze. Having only expected a slight change we kept gazing in awe at the genuine switch. Mostly we were thankful it worked even on the most overcast British days. Our tester was also impressed by the broad, flat brush that really aids application.

Nails.Inc nailkale base coat, 14ml

Best for: Ridged nails

This superfood base coat made us feel super-virtuous with its real kale extract and vitamins A, C, E, F, and H, plus aloe vera, ginseng and pomegranate. Formulated to promote growth, it has an anti-break and anti-split shield, which gave impressive protection to our tester’s usually weak nails, and brightened them in the process.

In addition, it improved the appearance of ridges, filling them in to reveal a much smoother surface. While it is excellent as a nourishing base coat, we loved it on bare nails for an everyday mirrored gloss that does good while also looking great.

Nailberry l’oxygéné nail lacquer, 15ml

Best for: Easy application

This oxygenated nail lacquer has a breathable formula that allows air and moisture to pass through the polish. We felt that this has a near-perfect consistency: thick but not gloopy. We found it brushed onto nails at a satisfyingly slow pace which, in combination with the broad, flat brush, allows you the time and precision to get your application in just the right place.

However, make sure it’s totally dry before attempting any tasks: its thickness means it takes a while to completely set. We tried the “almond” shade as it’s a modern, glossy white with just a hint of pink: simple and subtle, yet stunning.

Shoreditch Nails the Liverpool Street, 10ml

Best for: Eco-friendliness

Shoreditch Nails is a small independent business comprising two East London nail salons and a range of polishes with names inspired by their neighbourhood: think “Brick Lane” and “Hoxton”. Made with 85 per cent bio-sourced, mineral and plant ingredients, it is vegan, cruelty-free and the company gives away 2 per cent of its annual profits to charity.

The polish paints on beautifully smooth and glossy, and we were impressed with the small but perfectly formed selection of shades. Our tester hasn’t been able to stop wearing “Liverpool Street”, a fabulous neon pink that suits all skin tones.

Orly breathable treatment and colour, 100ml

Best for: Coverage

One of the many small joys to be found when researching nail polish are some of the names you encounter. Orly’s collection includes “detox my socks off”, “the snuggle is real” and, our choice, the forest green “pine-ing for you”.

Names aside, this breathable treatment polish contains a nourishing cocktail of argan oil, pro-vitamin B5 and vitamin C. Another plus point is that it doesn’t need a base or top coat, which is even more reason to be impressed with the great coverage: we thought it was top notch. It dried pretty quickly and didn’t chip or flake easily even with all the hand-washing.

The verdict: Nail polishes

For a good, all-round classic nail polish that is kind to your nails and delivers on colour payoff, we chose Margaret Dabbs’s treatment enriched nail polish. For fun and quality at an affordable price Barry M is hard to beat and Chanel’s le vernis is a consistently reliable way to create beautiful nails if you don’t mind spending a bit more.

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