Gel Base Coat Vs Top Coat – A Complete Guide

Adding a base and top coat when doing gel nails may feel like a tedious extra step, but they are in fact a very important part of the process. In this article, we offer a complete guide to a gel base coat vs top coat and explain the differences.

Photo Credit: progressman/Shutterstock.

What Is A Gel Base Coat?

The first thing you should apply to your nails when doing a gel manicure is a gel base coat. 

This clear polish is designed to stick to your nail. Since it is specially designed to do so, it does this better than the gel color polish. It also provides a better surface for the color coat to adhere to. 

  • Clear
  • Strengthening
  • Sticks to nail better than gel color polish
  • Provides a better base for color polish

Additionally, the gel base coat also helps strengthen your nail. When fully cured, the gel polish will be stronger than your nails. However, the gel base coat is not specifically designed for strength and so it will not be as strong as the subsequent coats.

What Is A Gel Top Coat?

Once you’ve got the desired color you should always apply a gel top coat. Like the base coat, this polish is transparent. 

It is designed to provide a shiny finish that makes the color pop. In addition to this, it also provides a strong barrier that protects your manicure from everyday wear and tear.

If you’re looking for a strong gel top coat, check out our carefully curated list of the 11 Best No Wipe Gel Top Coats.

Gel Base Coat Vs Top coat – The Main Differences

Though the two polishes look very similar, their purposes are quite different. 

Some of the important distinguishing factors include:

  • Ingredients
  • Effects
  • Application
  • Price


Both top and bottom coats use some of the same ingredients. What makes them behave differently is the ratio of certain ingredients. 

Base coats have more ingredients that cause them to be sticky. Base coats will often have beneficial ingredients for the natural nail as well. 

Top coats on the other hand have more ingredients that make them durable. These chemical differences have a large effect on how they act.


Since base coats specialize in providing an adhesive middleman between the natural nail and the color coat, they aren’t as protective. 

Top coats are much better at protecting the color coat than providing a sticky layer. 

Their effects are collaborative. Without one or the other, the manicure would not last as long.


As for their application processes, they are fairly similar. 

Both require UV light to cure. 

Neither the top coat nor the base coat takes much longer to cure than the other. The only thing that would make one take longer to cure is if the coat was applied too thickly.


The price greatly depends greatly on brand and size. The bigger the bottle of polish is, the more it will cost. 

Some brands are more expensive for various reasons. Usually, this is because some brands’ base and top coats are of higher quality. 

You can often find the base and top coats in package deals. This can make them slightly less expensive. 

Can You Use A Top coat As A Basecoat?

When you’re in the middle of doing your nails and run out of base coat it can be tempting to use your top coat instead. While you could do so, it will hurt your manicure in the long run. 

As discussed above, the base coat and top coat ingredient lists are rather different. By using a top coat polish as the first layer you are losing a lot of adhesion. 

Your manicure won’t stick to the natural nail as well. It might chip or peel before the usual time.

Using a top coat would likely still be better than using nothing, however. 

Instead of nothing, you can prevent the color from staining your nails. That said, if you run out of base coat your best option is to run to the store for more. 

Can You Use A Basecoat As A Top Coat?

The opposite circumstance is also not a great idea, though for different reasons. 

Using a base coat as a top coat will be nowhere near as protective as a true top coat. While it wouldn’t cause your manicure to peel early, it would expose it to more surface damage.

Additionally, the base coat would not provide as much of a glossy finish to the manicure. Your manicure would look less professional without a real top coat. There is also the chance that the base coat would not seal the manicure. 

All that said, a base coat replacement could be better than no top coat. Unlike the previous circumstance, this one is more up to your personal preference. 

If you must use a base coat as the last layer, test it on a nail or two before applying it to all of them.

Are Basecoats And Top Coats Really Necessary?

At this point, you know how helpful base and top coats can be. It should come as no surprise that they are necessary. 

At the same time, if you don’t mind sacrificing the longevity of your manicure you can skip these two steps. 

Since the main attraction of gel manicures is their longevity this isn’t much of a consideration.

Essentially base coats and top cats have the following benefits:

  • Extend the lifetime of your manicure
  • Protect your natural nails
  • Protect your manicure

Base coats and top coats are instrumental in extending the lifetime of your manicure to its designed length. Half of the reason gel manicures last so long is because of their chemical makeup. 

The other half is a proper application of a base and top coat.

Not to mention their protective qualities. Between preventing staining and damage, you don’t want to skip either coat.

Can You Use A Gel Base And Top coat Alone?

If you don’t want a colorful manicure you can certainly use just a base coat and top coat. In fact, using just these two layers is a great way to get a clear gel manicure.

To do this, simply follow these instructions:

  1. Prepare your nails as normal.
  2. Apply one layer of base coat.
  3. Cure for the recommended time.
  4. Apply one layer of top coat.
  5. Cure for the recommended time.
  6. Repeat steps 4 & 5.
  7. Wipe off the tacky layer if the top coat is not a no-wipe polish.

Using just the base and top coat will not affect the durability and longevity of the manicure. The only difference will be the lack of color and thickness.

Can You Use Different Brands For Gel Top Coat And Base Coat?

Using a different brand top or bottom coat will work well enough as long as it’s still gel. 

There will be differences between the two brands’ formulas. This can cause them to be less effective, but not enough to make it not worth doing.

Your manicure might not last quite as long as it could with products from the same brand. However, it will be much better than skipping the base or top coat. It will also be better than substituting a base for a top coat. 

One thing to keep in mind when mixing and matching is that the curing times may be different. Always make sure you follow the instructions for each brand. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is the base coat or top coat more important?

While both coats are important, a base coat is more important. If you do not apply a basecoat your manicure will not adhere to your nail as well. Additionally, the color coat (dark colors especially) could stain your nail.

What happens if you put gel top coat on regular nail polish?

If you put a gel top coat on top of regular nail polish you will seal it before it can fully dry. Regular nail polish needs to air dry over time whereas gel top coat will cure in less than two minutes under UV light.

Can I use a regular base coat with gel polish?

You should not use a regular base coat with gel polish. This can reduce the lifespan of your manicure. The gel polish will not last as long as it should because the regular nail base coat is not as strong as the gel base coat.