Nail polish brand comparisons

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Nail polish brand comparisons

So it's been a while now since I started using nail polishes fairly heavily…and, like everyone else on the planet, I've formed some opinions. In the past two years I've used several polishes and top/base coats from Borghese, China Glaze, Del Sol, Nubar, OPI, Sally Hansen, and Zoya. So which is best, and for what?

I can't really say which one is “the overall best”. They've all got plusses and minuses. Zoya has an incredibly wide range of colors and finishes, but they're thinner. China Glaze is the brand most prone to drying out and going all gudgy, but they work well as nail stamping polishes…and they utterly amazing holographic polishes. Nubar isn't available in many retail outlets, and it's among the more costly; but they have a goodsized array of stunning duochromes. And so on, and so on….


This brand doesn't seem to have the cult following or popularity on blogs that I most frequently visit, but a few blogs talked enthusiastically about Stellar Notte polish - and they regularly release some cute-looking mini bottle kits, so one day I bought one of their holiday kits that was marked down to 50% off. (Admittedly part of the reason I got it was so that I would have one more bottle for the Zoya polish exchange - I really didn't want the yellow-orange glitter that was in that set.) A few months later I got two polishes on sale, along with a bottle of Brillante top coat.

The bottles are very attractive. The colors run the range from pinks to creams to reds to purples and darker browns, and the occasional blue (Stellar Notte is dark navy with silver microglitter.) Borghese polishes retail for about $8, putting it in the top quarter of my personal comfort-range for a bottle of nail polish.

Both La Scala Rose and Stellar Notte required two coats for full opacity, and they took a while to dry. I wasn't overly impressed with either of them. I was even less impressed with the top coat! It smeared the color beneath, so that on two nails I had to reapply or deal with "wrinkled" nail polish on those digits. The top coat didn't really noticeably extend the life of my manicures, either: I had dings and scratches and "bald spots" at three days.

The bottles are very pretty; and the sets of mini-bottles of glitter-topcoat in various colors are decent. But overall, I won't be buying any more from this brand. It just didn't work for me.

China Glaze

China Glaze takes its name from their use of kaolin (or china) clay in the nail colors. It hardens and strengthens nails. Since my nails are prone to splitting or cracking if you look at them sidelong, I was interested to find out if these colors would really give my nails a little boost in the durability department...and they seem to keep my nails from splitting or tearing as easily, so there's a plus. They've got colors and finishes to suit just about anyone. China Glaze is available at salons, retailers and etailers.

Most China Glaze polishes are on the thicker side. Most colors won't be totally opaque with a single coat; but a single coat will generally provide better coverage than the other polish brands I use. I've used their Fast Forward top coat, which not only dries quickly but extends the life of the manicure significantly...just be careful, as it has a pretty strong smell.

China Glaze colors retail for about $6, but I've found them at many etailers for $3 or thereabouts - putting them on par, costwise, with many drugstore polishes (just place a largeish order to get the best shipping price - unless it's something you just cannot find locally, and have been lemming the bottle for a long time. Another selling point is that if you're into nail art or stamping, most China Glaze colors work well as nail stamping shades...which is good, because those special polishes are costly and they only come in a fairly basic array of colors and finishes (and most special nail stamping polishes cannot be used as regular polishes because they take too long to dry.)

I like having a nail color that's not only not super-expensive, relatively easily attainable, and has a wide variety of finishes...but is also a multitasker. In addition, China Glaze does the most amazing holographic polishes I've seen. I just hope that they release another holographic collection sometime in the not-too-distant future - the OMG collection was so immensely popular that people were talking about these colors and lusting after them three years after the collection's release.

China Glaze makes up a large portion of my collection: as of November 2010, they're the second-most-populous brand in my collection.

Del Sol

Del Sol makes an entire line of UV-activated colorchanging items: shirts, mugs, keychains, tchotchkes...and nail polish. These aren't duochrome, in that you see different colors at different angles. Del Sol polishes literally change color when exposed to sunlight.

While they are available in Del Sol boutiques, there aren't many of those around outside of Caribbean resorts and destination-cities. They are available online, and retail for $10 a bottle...which is pretty pricey. I got my first Del Sol colors one summer when they were running a 50%-off sale, if you bought at least 10 polishes. The polishes themselves are...okay. They're not horrible, they're not amazing, I'm glad I have some, but I probably won't buy any more for a while. My favorite is Spike, which applies as a frosty green and changes colors to a frosted mauve, to a frosted mid-violet. Using a top coat on these is tricky: you have to find one that -=doesn't=- block UV rays, or you'll lose the colorchanging properties altogether. It took three coats for me to get full pigmentation and a dramatic-enough colorchange to satisfy me. About half of the ones I tried were a bit streaky, and application wasn't very smooth or even. Three coats was needed not just for opacity and depth of colorchange, but to even out the application.

I own about ten of these colors, and I sent in three of them for the 2010 Zoya Polish Exchange.

If you'd like to give these a try, be aware that you'll need a topcoat that doesn't block UV rays. And if you live in a coastal rainforest where most sunlight is kind of weak and filtered through clouds, your colorchanging experieriences may vary (as in, it may be an even subtler shift.)


I found Nubar because I wanted to try and find duochrome nail polishes (polishes that appear to be different colors, depending on the angle they're viewed at.) Nubar has a good selection of duochromes - the best I've found. There are two drawbacks: 1) the polishes require three coats before they will really showcase the duochrome effects well, and they're usually not opaque without three coats; and 2) the polishes can be a little on the thinner, more watery side.

Nubar is $7.50 a bottle, and Nubar doesn't have sales often...nor are their polishes available through any etailers. I've only ever seen them sold through Nubar's website, never in any stores or salons. They do have some nail-art colors and kits; and the more expensive bottles have both a brush and a dotting tool - which is nice. I've purchased a few non-duochrome Nubar colors, and they were nice enough; but they still had a thinner consistency and required more coats for full opacity. There's also the price per bottle.

Nubar markets a top coat, Diamont Shine, which I've used for their duochromes. It doesn't seem to mute the duochrome effect too severely, though any top coat will do that to some extent.


I first tried Sephora by OPI shortly after I got started using mineral makeup. The application was amazingly smooth and even, the polish dried well, there was a wide range of colors...but the price! $9 a bottle seemed a little bit steep, even if they did have what seemed to be the best brush of all the polishes I'd tried. When I learned about etailers, my OPI collection started to grow a bit. I tried their Designer Series, some nail treatments, and a few dozen polishes.

Once I found China Glaze and tried them, I felt a little bit less compunction to purchase OPI, unless some of the limited-edition bottles went on supersale at Sephora. Then in May 2010, OPI wrote and starred in a one-company play How To Shoot Yourself In The PR Head: it sued etailers for selling without a proper distribution license in place (many of whom are still selling OPI as of November 2010, even the collections released after the lawsuit), and it sent takedown notices to bloggers who were posting promo pics of not-yet-released collections...which is what those bloggers had been doing for years, providing OPI with free publicity and building anticipation for their new collections. OPI does have good formulas and treatments, and most of the polishes apply and last well. But if I'm going to be forced to pay $9 a bottle...never mind. (And unlike China Glaze, OPI polishes are generally too thin to make effective stamping polishes.)

I do have one much-loved shade from OPI that I haven't found a match for: Nomad's Dream. It's a peach-taupe with green duochrome. If anyone knows of any matches, or has any pull with China Glaze, to get them to reproduce this color...drop me a line.

Sally Hansen

Sally Hansen has been a midrange drugstore nail polish for as long as I've been aware of them. They generally retailed for about $4 a bottle when I first started using Sally Hansen polishes extensively back in the early 2000s. SH had released both the Nail Magics (holographics) and the Nail Prisms (duochromes), and I bought quite a few of each. I also tried some of their nail treatments (Gel topcoat). Their formula wasn't the most fantastic in the world, and the polishes wouldn't last much more than a day before they began chipping or peeling - even with one of their topcoats. I didn't really buy any colors other than the Nail Prisms.

Some time in 2008, Sally Hansen changed their formula, their bottle, and their brush. They also increased the price over the years, going from $4 a bottle to $7.50 a bottle for their "Salon Formula" colors. I like the look of the new bottle - it doesn't tip as easily as the Nail Prisms bottles that I have. The brush is great, too. The rounded tip makes it a lot easier for me to get the polish right down to my cuticle without slopping too much of it onto the cuticle itself. I have had the best luck with their frosts and shimmer finishes, but their metallics show the brushstrokes a bit too well, and the cremes didn't apply too evenly. I loved the HD collections that came out - one set opaque enough for full coverage with two coats, the other set a bit more sheer, making it ideal for layering - and like most nail-polish fans on the planet I fell in love with Hidden Treasure flakie polish.

Due to a combination of price and performance, I don't know that I'll be getting too many more Sally Hansen polishes. I really, really, REALLY do love the brushes in the Salon Formula collection. If I could do it, I'd rebottle all my China Glaze polishes into bottles with that style of applicator. And if Sally Hansen comes out with many more frosts or flakies or duochromes, I'll be all over those.


Zoya makes polishes that wear well and apply decently. They're available online, or in salons. And if you're patient and smart, you can keep a wishlist and get Zoya's nail polishes for half-price or less by watching for their sales and exchanges (usually only available through their web site, not necessarily at salons that carry Zoya or Qtica products.) Zoya has an amazingly broad range of concurrently-available colors - wider than any lineup I've found - and their web site tells you how opaque a polish is, so that you can avoid unintentionally buying something that's relatively sheer. Zoya makes up the bulk of my nail polish collection, and I don't doubt that I'll be buying more as time goes by.

That said...there are some caveats.

  1. Zoya is more about the subtler effects. So when a color description says "metallic", don't expect a foil-finish metallic like China Glaze's Khromes. Expect a finish that's too shimmery to be called a creme, not quite shimmery enough to be called a frost or pearl, but not a hard-and-fast metallic. When a Zoya color is marked as a "duochrome", you'll probably see more overt duochrome effects in the bottle than you'll see on your nail (except for Ki, which is Unabashedly Multichrome. And I love it.) They do have some glitter polishes (search for Ultra Glitter), and several others that contain microglitter (the Wicked and Magique collections), but most of their glitter polishes do not look like China Glaze's Emerald Sparkled or Ruby Pumps (two much-loved polishes that are definitely Glitter Polishes.) Kotori, which is described as a sparkly metallic navy blue, is more like a shimmering navy. It's lovely, it's a deep blue, there's noticeable shimmer...but I personally wouldn't call it "sparkly". That said, I own Zoyas in all finishes and opacities - cremes, sheers, shimmers, metallics, sparkles, duochromes - and they're all gorgeous, even if the metallics aren't quite as "metallic" as I expected.
  2. Zoya polishes are among the thinner polishes out there. You'll need two coats of just about any color, even their darkest shades like Raven and Ki, to get full opacity. These colors are gorgeous, but they will not work as nail-art or nail-stamping they're unitaskers. And at a retail price of $7 a bottle, they're not inexpensive unitaskers.

I recommend that anyone who wants to try a good quality nail polish, check out both Zoya and China Glaze.

If you're looking for good nail-stamping polishes but aren't happy with the range of colors available from the various nail stamping houses, I suggest you check your stash for polishes from China Glaze...or buy some China Glaze. Almost any ChG polish will work for any type of nail art; but their metallic and holographic polishes are truly excellent for nail stamping.

If you want work-appropriate colors that have just a little something extra, or want colors that aren't just colors but have a little shimmer, a little gold duochrome, a little bit of an extra something...check out Zoya. Their metallics are soft enough that you could wear them - especially Brizia or Pasha - to just about any office environment and not be called on the carpet for wearing ostentatious nail polish.

If you want some really good dramatic, lovely duochrome polishes, check out Nubar's amazing duochromes. That's where they excel - and lucky for us, they aren't limited-edition. They're here to stay.

I can't really recommend Sally Hansen as a brand, but I can recommend specific polishes: Ring My Shell, Hidden Treasure, Spectrum, Byte, LCD, Beachy Keen, any of the long-discontinued Nail Prisms (the duochromes!!). If you see a color on someone's nail blog and absolutely positively must have it, go for it. Just make sure to wear both base and top coat (of your choosing - don't bother buying one new just for Sally Hansen.) Sally Hansen's nail treatments and top coats have not worked well for me...except to repair runs in stockings, or to cover up new bug bites so that they don't itch (and then I won't scratch them, and then they can heal.)

I can't necessarily recommend Del Sol, though if you happen to be in an area that has a Del Sol boutique and they're on sale and one of the polishes catches your eye...go for it.

I did not have a good experience with Borghese - neither the polishes, nor the top-coat. The quality just wasn't all that fantastic, compared to Zoya or China Glaze...especially when you factor in the price. (The bottles sure are pretty, though.)

OPI has some good quality polishes. I just dislike their public relations, I dislike their treatment of their customer base, and I can find comparable (or better) quality for less money.

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