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Tips for at-home manicures

As a former licensed manicurist, I know a thing or two about making nails look their best! While filing and dealing with cuticles play a large part in nail maintenance and health, it seems the polish is what people are usually most concerned about.

Nail polish - doing your own manicureThe shape of things to come

Shaping your nails is usually necessary as, if left to their own devices, they can grow in a kind of kooky and crazy way.

A round, square or oval shape is common, depending on the size and length of your fingers:

  • For fingers that might be shorter and rounder, a bit of length past the fingertip will elongate the look of the finger. A rounder shape will also give the look of length more so than a shorter, squarer shape.
  • A square shape is popular and can be good for people with active hands. This shape flatters longer fingers.
  • The squ-oval, a combo of the square and oval shape, is what most professionals see as the perfect shape for most clients.
  • Many years ago a pointed nail shape was in, but it is not at all durable and I don’t recommend it. (I cannot imagine whom it would flatter, either.)

Remember, when shaping your nails, do not saw back and forth and do not — I repeat, do not— file down into the sides of your nail beds. File only at the free edge, the white part of your nail.

When choosing a nail file, the higher the grit, the softer the file. Most double-sided cushion files tell you the number of grit on the actual nail file. For medium grit, 180-240 is about right. Glass nail files are great for both natural and artificial nails. I advise against metal files, however, as the can be very harsh and split the nail. Experiment with different files/emery boards until you find the one that is comfortable for you. You can always ask for a recommendation from your manicurist.

Cuticle care

When doing your nails at home, the same basics apply as when you visit the manicurist.

You’ll need to push back cuticles and clip anything that is sticking up or is loose with a sharp, sterile cuticle nipper. I always preach cutting as little as possible — only trim if necessary, and certainly don’t make the mistake of cutting off your cuticle all the way around your nail bed.

Why? A cuticle acts in much the same way gums do for your teeth: they are an anchor and a filtering system. If you cut them all off, you are opening yourself up to infections and other dangerous nail calamities you don’t even want to know about. The more you cut your cuticles, the thicker and yuckier they will grow back! 

Salons that cut away all your cuticle do this to get you trapped in a vicious cycle — they cut them off, they grow back, look ugly, and you go back to them to get them cut off. Don’t fall for this!

With a little care, you can have healthy, happy cuticles. Moisturize them at night before bed with hand cream and if you have particularly dry or rough cuticles, use a cream or oil specifically for this purpose. Massage the cuticle area on each finger. This helps moisture sink in and promotes growth of the nail from heightened blood flow to the area. Keep hand lotion in various places in your home and workplace. Whenever you lay eyes on this lotion, apply it. You’ll be amazed at what a difference a little attention to your cuticles will make in the appearance of your hands.

I prefer soaking fingers in warm (not hot) water to soften cuticles and make them easy to push back. Some have said this weakens nails, but for the short two minutes you will be soaking, I promise you, damage is not being done. I have had many a manicure where my fingers were not soaked — and just rubbing oil or lotion on cuticles is not enough lubrication or softening to push them back effectively.

After a short soak, apply a cuticle remover and using an orange stick covered in cotton from a cotton ball or a bit of tissue, or a pumice cuticle pusher, gently push back cuticle. Use a towel to wipe away any excess cuticle from your nail bed.

Pretty polish

Now that you’ve filed and done your cuticles, it’s time to apply nail polish. Clean the nail with polish remover (I like non acetone) until it gets a matte look. Any oily residue left on nails will keep polish from adhering properly.

Having a manicureAlways start with a base coat. Jin Soon of Jin Soon Natural Hand and Foot Spas in New York suggests using regular base coat for healthy nails; nail strengthener for weak or brittle nails; and ridge filler for nails with deep, visible ridges or surface irregularities. Apply from left to right without touching the cuticle. According to Jin, “Because it has a higher proportion of binder than nail polish, base coat is a primer that sets the stage for a better application of the nail polish. This enables it to hold particularly well to the bare nail surface. It also protects your nails from color stains.”


If you are wearing a colored polish, apply two coats on top of your base coat. I like to do a sheer first coat, as it can dry faster and then apply a slightly heavier second coat to ensure good coverage. And don’t worry if you paint outside the lines with your colored polish. A nail polish corrector pen or a Q-tip work great to touch up any wayward polish.

A topcoat is always a must, as it keeps nails looking shiny and prevents chipping. Because the base coat and topcoat have different purposes, I advise against products that claim they are both. Base coat has a bit of sticky consistency so it helps polish adhere to the nail, while topcoat is a protector. You can apply topcoat every other day to keep your manicure looking sweet and stylish, too.

The art of nails

After a few months of practice, you’ll likely find that you can make fast work of at-home manicures. Once you know the basics and a few professional tips, doing your nails at home doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

Make an appointment with yourself for a pampering, gorgeous at-home manicure. You may not want to tell your friends you did it yourself, they’ll be calling you for a mani!

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