The breadth and scope of polish finishes can get very confusing, especially if you’re only just starting to venture into the polish world. I will confess that alot of polish terms were foreign to me until I started hanging out with polish aficionados. My polish vocabulary (once consisting only of creme, pearl, glitter and sheer) has grown tremendously. So I’ve listed out all of the ones I am familiar with below, along with photo examples. If you’re fully immersed in the lacquer environment, you probably are already familiar with what’s being written here. But if you’re not, hopefully this will help broaden your nail polish vernacular.
One of the two most popular finishes with nail polishes. Creme polishes have no special attributes to them and are smooth and uniform. Although they have no effects, most have a shine that makes them look wet. Most of the OPI France collection and all of the Espana collections are cremes, as is the CND Color Line.
The other most popular finish. Shimmers have, well… shimmer. It gives them depth and radiance. The shimmer can either coordinate with the color of the base polish or be a a differing color. Most common is a silver shimmer but more and more polishes have started coming out with contrasting combinations.
Glitter is pretty self explanitory. There are several types of glitters. Microglitter is much finer in size and chunky glitter is much bigger. Chunky glitter generally needs multiple layers of top coat to smoth out the finish. Opacity also varies. Lippman Superstar and the RBL Frugalista are examples of full coverage glitter where the glitter is the primary componant. China Glaze Ruby Pumps and Emerald Sparkle integrate the glitter into a jelly finish. Other glitters, like Chanel Pepite, is less opaque and is often used as a topcoat.
Holographic polish can be differentiated by the rainbow effect it gives. When light hits the polish, it displays a multi color effect. The OPI Designer Series contains almost all Holographic colors and China Glaze’s Kaleidoscope and OMG collections are also holographic. NFU Oh also has several holographic polishes.
Also referred to as Satin or Frost. This finish is probably the hardest to explain. Some will swear there is a difference between pearl, satin and frost, but I tend to lump them into one category. This used to be a pretty fashionable finish but has lost a lot of its popularity. This category doesn’t contain any shimmer particles and has a pearly sheen to it. It also tends to be the hardest to apply as brush strokes can be very obvious. The OPI Greece and Las Vegas collection had several polishes with this finish.
Sheer is almost a secondary finish and refers more to the opaqueness of the polish. If you have Visible Nail Line (VNL), it’s a sheer. Sheers can come in a variety of primary finishes including creme, shimmer, irridescent, jelly and duochrome. You can find many of these in “bridal” collections such as the OPI Soft Shades or Misa Sugar Sugar collection.
Duochrome generally refers to the colors a polish displays. The polish changes to two distinct colors depending on how the nail is angled. Unlike iridiscent, the change of color is not just the flash, but almost the entirety of the nail. OPI has come out with several duochromes, one of the most cherished is La Boheme. The OPI Victorian and Holiday in Harmony collections contained several duochromes.
An iridiscent color is much like a duochrome but the second color tends not to be as distinct and can only bee seen in the flash. I also find that most iridescent colors tend to be sheers. These polishes are great for layering over darker colors as they often have suprising color change effects.
This is my personal favorite. Foils have a metallic-y finish that contain a grainy glitter to them. Despite the description of grainy and glitter, this finish is smooth and has a high sparkle. OPI Radio City Rockettes contained many foils and China Glaze Babes In Toe-land and Tequilla Toes collections were all foils.
Also referred to as gel and Gloss. This finish has a slightly transparent finish to it that almost looks rubbery. The two most famous green jellies are Nars Zulu and Anne Sui 915. There are also alot of polishes that use jelly polish as a base to their glitters as it’s transparent nature allows the glitter to be very visible.
The glass flecked finish actually likes like there is finely ground glass or diamonds in the polish. This provides a great sparkle that surpasses the shimmer finish. China Glaze Fiji Fling and Summer Days collections contained all glass flecked polishes.
Flakey polishes are actually a subset of the glitter finish, but contain “flakes” of glitter rather than particles of glitter. NFU Oh is probably the best known polish line that contains several of this finish. Generally this finish is layered over another color to bring out the full effects of the flakies as they tend to be close to invisible solo.
String Glitter is another subset of the glitter finish. String glitter alwas reminds me of Christmas tinsel. The size of the strings can vary from very thin wisps to actual rectangular shapes. China Glaze Aurora Borealis, Jumpin’ Jupiter, and Moon over Miami are probably some of the best known string glitters. The Revlon Streetwear line also contained several String Glitters.
The year of 2009 was the year for mattes. It seemed every polish company came out with at least a few of them. Mattes are defined by the dull finish that lacks any shine. While these have been out for many years, it seems that they have not gained widespread popularity until recently. There can be several variations of mattes. Shown to the right is the OPI Suede line that hints at texture. The OPI Matte collection lacks this and looks chalky. Others like KOI and Manglaze add shimmer to their matte base so you get a chalky finish with a little sparkle.
Water is a newer term to cross my polish vocabulary. I believe the term picked up popularity due to the Maybelline Waters collection. This can also be referred to as tint or glaze. This finish is very closely related to the Jelly finish but tends to lack the opacity. Shown to the left is Chanel Glace and Clarte. This finish looks great layered over a silver foil as it still allows the foil effect to show, but with a hint of color.
Also referred to as Chrome. This finish looks as if there is liquid metal on your nails. It’s highly reflective. Sometimes this is lumped in with the Satin/Pearl/Frosts, but I think there is enough difference that it should have it’s own category. Although China Glaze’s Khrome and Romantique collections have several different metallic colors, I find that silver tends to be the most common.
Neon actually refers more to the color than the actual finish. Neons are blindingly bright colors and although they usually are cremes, they can have shimmer. Generally companies come out with neons in summertime. Examples of neons would be Essie’s 2009 Neon collection and Color Club’s Electro Candy collection. Neons have a reputation of being hard to apply and most neon lovers will recommend starting off with a layer of white before applying.
Again, Band-aid But Better (BABB) refers to a color more than a finish, but I thought it warrented being listed. This color is a very pale pink, peach or beige that mimics the color of a bandaid (hence the name). It can be a creme or a shimmer. Personally, I think this should be renamed to Not Better than a Baindaid (NBTABA) as I’ve never thought of bandaids as fashion to emmulate. Chanel Jade Rose is an example of a BABB.
Vampy refers to any polish that is dark, although I’ve most heard it most describing dark, blood red colors. This has also been referred to as Goth, but those that are into polish will refute that as goth tends to be a frame of mind and not a color. And let’s face it, since Chanel has come out with blacks, dark colors have stopped being goth and instead, become chic. Two of OPI’s more sought after vampies are Vampire State Building and Hollywood and Wine.
One last color referral for you. Almost Black, or “blackened” polishes are where the color is so dark, it gets overwhlemed in blackness unless the sun hits it just right. Most of the time these colors look black indoors and then light up outdoors. I had to dig through alot of swatches to come up with examples as this is not a color type that I usually buy. For some reason, I kinda feel cheated out of color. Lippmann just recently came out with Don’t Tell Mama, which is a perfect example of an almost black. I’d show you pics, but I almost bought it.