I was never much of a nail polish girl. But the nail art trend hit its zenith in 2012, coinciding with two events in my own life: I was about to start work on my first book, which meant I was spending a lot of time staring at my hands and desperate for any and all methods of procrastination. I was also writing for a website alongside a beauty expert who I’d befriended, and what’s the point of having beauty editor friends if you can’t make them teach you things? So I asked her to tell me everything I needed to know in order to pull off awesome home manicures.

She taught me well — so well that I can’t recall the last time I paid for someone else to do my nails, in fact! Along the way, I picked up even more knowledge just from trying stuff out. Here are some of the surprising things I’ve learned about base coats and top coats along the way.

The Two Golden Rules

Always — always, always, always! — use both a base coatand top coat for the best at-home manicure results. Not only will they help with the smooth application of your paint, protect against chipping and aid in the drying process, they’ll also protect your nails from staining. If you regularly wear darker varnish shades, you’ll definitely want to use a good base-coat to ensure that your nails don’t stay navy blue even after you’ve removed that polish.

It’s also, unfortunately, true that base- and top-coats are at their best when they’re with their own kind. That doesn’t mean that you should run out and by a top and base coat in every brand, but it does mean that if you tend to be loyal to one or two brands, like OPI or essie, more than others, it’s worth investing in the under- and outer-wear products those brands offer.

Essie All In One Is Pretty Amazing

Conventional wisdom dictates that a separate top- and base-coat is the ideal when it comes to home manicures, but much to my surprise this essie all in one twofer is an amazing product. It’s especially great for the globetrotting varnishista who doesn’t want to tote two bottles when one will do.

Sally Hansen Is A Diamond In The Rough

For people on a budget, or just for those who love a bargain (guilty as charged!), Sally Hansen Mega Shine top coat, which will run you about six bucks, is a stellar option. And it really is as as quick-drying as it claims to be, which is good for the more impatient among us (guilty as charged!) to bear in mind.

butterLondon Is Worth Every. Single. Penny.

If you only ever buy one base  and top coat, make it butterLondon’s Nail Foundation Flawless Base Coat and Hardware P.D. Quick Top Coat. At $19 a piece, they will definitely put a dent in your wallet — but isn’t it worth it to avoid dents in your mani?

Seche Vite Is The Pits

Seche Vite is like the mean girl in middle school who was thoroughly hated but everyone thought was so well-liked that no one ever piped up to say, “That girl is terrible.”

Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But it makes my point nicely; Seche Vite is one of those top and base coat brands that you read about on every beauty blog and women’s magazine round-up of best at-home manicure products that, in my experience, doesn’t live up to the hype. Skip it. And definitely skip Seche Clear, which is absolute basura.

READ MORE: 3 Nail Polish Removers That Actually Don’t Smell Terrible