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Best nail polish 2021: The best nail varnishes to buy from £3

Philippa Pearne
14 May 2021

Want a stylish, long-lasting manicure? Check out the best nail polishes from £3

If dreary grey days are bringing you down, a DIY manicure is an ideal way to add a splash of colour into your life. Nothing beats a session of filing, buffing and painting and when you've got the best nail polish on your side, there's no stopping you.

Not all nail varnishes are made equal though and sometimes, all that hard work is short-lived, with shoddy formulas that contribute to dry, brittle nails or colours that become chipped within hours of application. If this is something you're desperate to avoid, you're in the right place.

We’ve done all the hard work for you, testing and reviewing the best nail varnish that really gets the job done. Check out our buying guide and mini-reviews below for the best nail polishes on the market and find a formula that does everything you want it to without compromising on the results.

Best nail polish: At a glance

How to choose the best nail polish for you

What are the first signs of a good nail polish?

Pay attention to the packaging and how comfortable the top is to hold in your hand as you apply. Some polishes have awkward-shaped handles, which aren't fun to use.

Next, think about how you like your polish to go on. If you like to apply it on each fingernail in one sweep, choose a polish with a wide brush. If you want to be more precise and get into awkward areas for a perfect finish, a thinner brush is best.

If you’re keen to keep your nails as healthy as possible, opt for a formula that’s free of toxic ingredients such as formaldehyde resin, camphor, ethyl tosylamide and xylene.

What different types of polish are there and is one better than another?

Classic nail varnish: Classic polish is the most common form of varnish you can buy. It's relatively thin and usually smooth and glossy (unless you buy a matte or glitter version). Its thin consistency means it is easy to apply and remove but isn't always as long-lasting as other types. The main benefit is that it's quick and easy to use and can air-dry in as little as 30 seconds.

Gel nail polish: This formula is longer lasting than classic polish and mostly chip-resistant (usually for up to two weeks). The main difference is that with proper gel polish, you also need a UV or LED lamp to set it, as the formula contains photoinitiators that must be cured in order for it to fully dry. This makes gel polish a more expensive investment upfront, but it requires less maintenance long-term and can, in fact, save you money – especially if you would usually get this done at a salon.

Gel-like polish: Most brands now offer a gel-like polish formula that doesn't require any special treatment but takes a little longer to air dry than classic polish. If done correctly, gel-like polish looks slicker and lasts a tad longer than the classic stuff. But as the formula is much thicker, more difficult to apply and takes longer to dry, it's harder and more time-consuming to recreate that perfect salon finish.

How much should I spend?

We say no more than £30. Why? Because no matter how high-tech the formula, it isn’t worth spending more than that on a little bottle of nail polish. Besides, there are plenty of brilliant nail polishes from high-street brands that tick the boxes without blowing the budget.

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The best nail polish to buy

1. Dior Le Vernis: The best fast-drying nail polish

Price: £22 | Buy now from Boots

If you love a particularly glossy finish, treat yourself to this little luxury. The depth of colour is excellent – so good, in fact, that with some deeper shades you’ll only need to apply a single coat – and it dries to a super-shiny finish. However, it’s the brush that makes this polish a dream to use. It’s wide, with just the right number of brush fibres to ensure it’s never overloaded with polish; it can pretty much cover a whole fingernail in one sweep, making for a neat, quick application. When you take all of that into account, the fact that it dries in minutes is the cherry on top that you’ll be grateful for as you’re rushing out of the door. And, with a little help from its corresponding top coat, you won’t be crying over chipped corners, either. It’s worth every penny.

Buy now from Boots

2. OPI Nail Lacquer: The best polish under £15

Price: £13 | Buy now from Amazon

OPI is a well-known brand, so it should be no surprise to see it make our list of best nail polishes. Not only is there a huge range of shades to choose from, many with hilarious names ("We Seafood and Eat It", "Sun, Sea and Sand in my Pants" and "Freedom of Peach" are some of our favourites), but the product itself is as reliable as they come. The formula is neither too sticky nor too runny, and even though the brush is on the slim side, the polish is simple to apply neatly. The easy-to-grip handle aids application too – and, since it’s quite long, it’s easy to find a grip that suits you. Those who hold their nail polish like you would a pen, we’re looking at you! The colour lasts for a good seven days after applying a decent top coat and stays glossy in that time too.

3. CND Vinylux Weekly Polish: The best all-in-one polish

Price: £9 | Buy now from Amazon

If you’re short on time, this gel-effect polish has a built-in base coat so will save you a few precious minutes. Gel-effect means it’s chip-free and longer-lasting than a standard polish and this one benefits from the brand’s “Pro-light Technology”, which hardens when it’s exposed to natural light. Two thin coats are plenty – but you’ll need to use the brand’s corresponding top coat for the product to fulfil its promise of a week’s worth of perfect nails. It comes in a wide range of colours, although not as extensive as some, but we can only hope that CND is working on this to make it the perfect all-rounder.

4. Nailberry L’Oxygene Nail Lacquer: The best vegan and cruelty-free polish

Price: £15 | Buy now from Feel Unique

One for the nature lovers among us, this relatively new London-based brand of nail polish is vegan and cruelty-free. The L’Oxygene lacquers are described as “breathable”, meaning that they’re formulated without toxic ingredients and allow air and water vapour to pass through. In short, it’s the healthy option for your nails. The formula is deliciously creamy – no sign of gloopiness here – and although you might expect such a lesser-known brand to offer limited shade options, the L’Oxygene range comprises 60-odd shades of colour. It dries satisfyingly quickly and the glossy results last for days.

5. Rimmel London 60 Seconds Super Shine Nail Polish: The best nail polish under £5

Price: £3 | Buy now from Boots

For a high-street brand – and oh-so cheap bottle of nail varnish – this is super-impressive. Although the “one stroke application” on the label might be a little ambitious (multiple strokes to cover the nail and get a strong pigment is more accurate), it does actually dry in 60 seconds and its promise of “long-lasting colour” is pretty precise. Anything up to a week is what we’d refer to as long-lasting, and this nail varnish shows no sign of chipping within that time – as long as you’ve applied a decent top coat to help it along. The shade options aren’t the most exciting – “Let’s Get Nude” looks more like foundation in a nail polish bottle – and we recommend you buy it in the shop rather than online as some of the shade representations are slightly off. But once you’ve found your shade, you won’t be disappointed.

6. Nails Inc Nail Polish: The best polish brand for variety

Price: £22 | Buy now from Amazon

Whatever type of polish you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Nails Inc’s range. Even though there are hundreds of standard and gel colours to choose from, it’s the company’s textured polishes that are particularly impressive. Whether you want glitter, metallic, foil effect, matte or holographic, Nails Inc is your one-stop shop for whatever look you fancy. The best bit? The results don’t disappoint. Many textured nail polishes look all-singing, all-dancing in the bottle, but don’t live up to expectations on application. Not so with Nails Inc polishes, which are all of a professional standard and offer long-lasting results, free of any chipping. The only downside is the awkwardly shaped brush handle, which makes for tricky application – but once you’ve, er, nailed it, you’re onto a winner.

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