What effects does it have?

  • Hands

    Changes nail appearance

What is it?

Painting finger or toenails with polish/varnish.

It's also known as Nail polish or Nail lacquer.

How long does it last?

Varnish will start to chip over time, lasting between a few days and two weeks depending on the type of varnish used. Nail varnish can be easily removed in a few minutes. When varnish has been removed small visible traces may remain.

More information

You can apply nail varnish at home or have your nails painted at a nail salon. Salons will be able to provide more advanced techniques like UV-cured gels and shellacs which give longer lasting results.

To paint your nails at home, you will need the following:

  • a nail buffer
  • a nail file
  • nail clippers
  • some nail varnish remover (usually acetone or ethyl acetate)
  • some makeup pads or cotton wool to apply the remover with
  • a bottle of base coat
  • a bottle of coloured varnish (optional)
  • a bottle of top coat

Nail varnishes, including base and top coat, usually have a built in brush attached to the lid which means you don’t have to buy any additional brushes or clean them.

Applying nail varnish involves several simple steps:

  • remove any existing nail varnish: put a small amount of nail polish remover onto a makeup pad or cotton wool ball and rub any remaining nail varnish off from your nail. If you would like to be able to remove your nail varnish quickly and easily, it is possible to buy base coats that contain PVA or liquid latex, which allow you just peel off your nail varnish when you are finished with it.
  • clip, file, and buff nails: cut the ends of your nails to the correct shape and make the lengths even. You can then use a nail file to smooth the end of the nail. Finally, you can use a nail buffer to smooth the top surface of the nail to make it shiny and ensure that the varnish applies well. You may want to use this opportunity to trim hangnails.
  • apply base coat: this is a transparent layer that helps to keep the colour away from your nail to prevent staining. It also helps the varnish adhere to your nail.
  • apply colour coats: use as little varnish in each coat as possible. You may find it helps to hold the brush over the bottle for a few seconds to allow the excess to drip off. Usually two or three coats will provide a good result. You can skip this step if you like or apply a colour which is similar to your natural nail colour if you want a subtle effect.
  • apply top coat: this is another transparent layer, which helps protect the colour layers from damage and can give a shiny appearance.

If you make any mistakes with your brush and paint something you didn’t mean to, you can use a small amount of nail varnish remover to remove the excess. Try and keep nail varnishes away from your skin as much as possible, as over time this can cause dermatitis or allergic sensitisation 1.


  1. 1 Bryson, Paul and Sirdesai, Sunil (2015) “Coloured Nail Cosmetics and Hardeners,” in Draelos, Z. D. (ed.), Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 217–225.

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Page last updated: September 2017