Water-Based Vs. Oil-Based Nail Polish: Which Is Best For You?

If we're being honest, water-based vs. oil-based isn't the first thing we look for when browsing nail polishes. Most of us are too smitten by the various shades to double-check the ingredients. However, as you up your home manicure game, you might start to become more interested in the qualities, advantages, and disadvantages of each type. Looking at the bottle, there's not much difference between each kind of polish — until you inspect the contents more closely. 

Water-based nail polish is (unsurprisingly) formulated predominantly using water along with suspended color particles. Generally, it contains fewer chemicals like solvents when compared to more traditional polishes, using plant-based resins over synthetics. This has earned many of them significant popularity within the clean beauty movement. Brands like Sophi and Suncoat are free from nearly all harmful ingredients (Sophi is also cruelty-free and vegan). 

On the other hand (pun intended), we have oil-based polishes. These paints use something other than water as a base. Typically, it's an oil or a solvent. However, just because they don't use water as their primary base doesn't mean they're all heavily chemical-laden. Oil-based nail polishes make up many of the products you'll find in drugstores or salons, such as Opi or Essie and they're not all created equal in terms of safety. Regardless, there are a few important distinctions between water-based and oil-based nail polishes that you should be aware of. 

Differing formulas lead to different durability

When it comes to clean beauty standards, water-based polishes come out on top. They have fewer chemicals, are usually safer, and have less of an odor. Because they don't contain potentially harsh ingredients, water-based polishes are a better choice if you're prone to skin irritations or have ever experienced an allergic reaction to your manicure. They're also more sustainable and eco-friendly thanks to their plastic resin-free formula. Many water-based brands are vegan and cruelty-free too.

The downside of a water-based, gentle, and safe formula is that it won't last as long. Everyday activities, like showering and hand washing, can wear down your mani much faster. Likewise, to get your perfect shade without it being transparent, more coats are required, meaning these polishes aren't ideal for all trends, like the soft goth design for instance. You'll have to apply several thin coats of water-based polish both to achieve the optimal color and to obtain durability that's resistant to cracking and chipping. 

The same can't be said for oil-based polishes, which tend to stay on much longer after just one or two coats. Their higher concentration of pigments, binders, and solvents makes them stronger and with better adherence capabilities. Water-based polishes usually dry faster, though. Some of them are even marketed as quick-dry polishes, which set in as little as 10 minutes. Oil-based products take longer to dry due to the thickness of the formula. However, it's easier to achieve an opaque and more even finish.

Removal, costs, and other considerations

Water-based polishes aren't difficult to remove, which is a major silver lining of their decreased durability. You can put away the acetone as a gentle remover, or a five-minute soak in hot, soapy water should do it. Oil-based polishes are another story, needing a little acetone to break down the paint resins. When you finally sweep the last streaks of polish from your fingers, you might be ready for another manicure. 

Oil-based polishes are more widely available and affordable. You already know that making healthy choices often come at a higher price, and like other eco-friendly products water-based polish is generally more expensive. If you're looking for toxin-free nail polish, hands down, water-based brands are the way to go. However, it's easy to opt for oil-based when you just want a great-looking mani that lasts longer than a week. 

That being said, water-based nail polishes are continuing to make a comeback since their somewhat dismal introduction in the early aughts. Now, decadent brands like Butter London have painted water-based products in a positive light and are tempting many manicurists to give them another try. Which one is better? This might be one answer you can actually find at the bottom of a (nail polish) bottle; so break out the brush and try both!