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How to Master an At-Home Manicure

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Years ago, while I was in the throes of writing a book, spending a lot of time alone and looking at my hands, I decided that I was going to master the art of the at-home manicure. And so I did.

I consulted a beauty expert, who patiently answered my questions about base coat (yes, it's necessary) and where that glorious pink nail salon creme comes from ("giant industrial vats" appears to be the answer). I took all her information and advice under consideration, and then I got to work.

Along the way, I've more or less perfected the art of the at-home manicure. I also learned a ton more on my own after that preliminary lesson, and now I get to pay forward to you the hundreds (thousands?) of woman-hours I've put into the pursuit of being someone who does her own nails and, let's get real about the priorities here, receives lots of praise for her efforts.


Hand Care Comes Before Godliness

The most important element of a good-looking at-home manicure has nothing to do with nail polish: If your hands are a wreck, your manicure is going to look like hell. Before you even start to worry about painting anything, take the time to tend to your hands.

Start by considering the particular challenges your hands pose: Do you have thick cuticles? Are they ragged and split? Are your nails ridged? Are they soft and prone to peeling? Do they break easily? There are products that exist in this world to address each of those afflictions, and you should avail yourself of them.

A very good way to identify what you need is to spend some time lurking around beauty forums like MakeupAlley or RedditLaqueristas, where there will be countless threads devoted to solutions for literally any manicure-related problem you can dream of.

That suggestion leads to this very important piece of advice, and actually this might be the most helpful thing I can tell you: There is such a thing as nail chemistry, and you will find that some products that people swear by will be utter duds for you. You will probably feel sad, or frustrated, or possibly very angry at the person who told you that you simply couldn't live without the most life-changing ridge filler ever when it comes to pass that the ridge filler does exactly nothing to help your ridgies. (Ridgies, by the by, is lingo for ridged fingernails. There's so much lingo in the nail polish world, you guys.)

A woman filing her nails Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

The point is that you should expect that there will be trial and error when it comes to hitting on the right solution to whatever problem you need to address, from cuticle care to strengthening nails that are prone to breaking or peeling ("peelies").

So here, I present you with an utterly incomplete list of products I've purchased in the past few years to try to tame my thick and splitting-prone cuticles: Sally Hansen Cuticle Eraser + Balm; Lush Lemony Flutter; ORLY Cutique; Bio-Oil; SuperNails Orangewood Sticks; Sally Hansen Cuticle Tamer; Julep Essential Cuticle Oil; countless hand creams, oh god, so many hand creams.

That list really illustrates that trial and error is often the name of the game when it comes to finding the right solutions to your hand care woes. In my case, after all that experimenting, I've found that using a cuticle dissolving product followed by a balm does the trick; my current system involves Sally Hansen Instant Cuticle Remover followed by Rosebud Salve or Trader Joe’s Head to Toe Balm.

I know that you're about to take up pitchforks and torches to protest these gruesome truths I'm laying on you, but there's one other really crucial point to make before I move swiftly along to the next topic. Finding the products to address your specific needs and that work with your particular hand and nail chemistry is wildly important. But it's equally, if not more, important to use them regularly and consistently. I know that's a drag, but it's not as much of a drag as having thick, split cuticles. I speak from experience.


When It Comes to Nail Shape and Length, Uniformity Is the Goal

A set of raggedy-looking fingernails is a no-no.

Before you can paint, you must shape. Ideally, the goal is to have a set of ten fingernails that are uniform in shape and length. If you have longer nails and one breaks, you don't necessarily need to cut the other nine down, but you should clip and/or file the stump so that it mimics the shape of the rest of the nails.

When it comes to shaping, a file is the best tool for the job, and you can let personal preference dictate what type of file you use. Work in one direction, being careful to avoid sawing at the nail; this is especially true for those who have weak, brittle, or peel-prone nails, as working a file across the nail in a back-and-forth motion will weaken it.


Base Coat Is Non-Negotiable*

Let's address that asterisk first: There are some nail polish systems, like Sally Hansen Miracle Gel, that are specifically meant to be used without base coat. But when it comes to standard polishes, using a base coat is a non-negotiable part of a quality at-home manicure.

Base coat will do a couple of things for you — it will help to protect your nails from staining, it will allow you to glide your paints on more smoothly, and it will help to bond the polish to the nail. If you opt for a fortified base coat, it will also help to strengthen and condition your nails.

Remember when I went into that whole song and dance about hand and nail chemistry? I hope you did, because we're about to revisit the subject with a surprise twist: The funny thing about base coats is that they'll work differently on different nail types AND with different brands of polish. You don't need to get a base coat in every brand to go with your polishes, but base and top coats will tend to work better with their intra-brand polishes. So if you mostly tend to wear, say, OPI polish, buy an OPI base and top coat. And use it. Base coat will totally change your at-home manicure life.


There's a Right Way to Apply the Paint

Here we finally are at the painting portion of the festivities! It took awhile to get here, but if you think about what goes on when you get a salon manicure, it will stand to reason that I spent so much time on the lead-up: Most of what a professional manicurist spends her time on is tending to cuticles, soaking and moisturizing the hands, clipping and filing the fingernails. The painting not only comes last in the order of operations, but it's also the thing that takes the least amount of time.

With that said, take your time when it comes to applying your paints. In manicures, slow and steady, literally, wins the race because the steadier you keep your hand, the more measured you'll be with your brushstrokes.

A woman applying nail polish on herself. Photo: Amana Images Inc/Getty Images

There's also a practice-makes-perfect effect, and you should be patient with yourself as you learn and improve your application technique. And there is a specific technique, oh yes siree, Bob! The idea is to drop the brush in the center of the nail, push downward to the cuticle — which will allow you to create that nice half moon-shaped gap between the cuticle and the polish and keep from flooding the cuticle with paint — and then go up and outwards.

This is, of course, much easier to show than it is to describe with words, so go ahead and watch one of the thousands of nail polishing tutorials that exist in this world. Here's one to get you going. (It's the one I used to learn!)


Clean-Up, Top Coat, and Drying

Even the most practiced painters need to do a little cleaning up of stray polish, so don't despair when paint ends up on your cuticles and fingertips. As your technique evolves, you'll find less and less clean-up is needed. To clean stray polish from cuticles and fingertips, use a small angled makeup brush, like an eyeliner brush, dipped in polish remover to get into tight spots without dinging the nail.

If you're consistently noticing that polish is puddling around your cuticles, you're leaving too much on the brush when you start applying it. Some formulas are also just thinner, and therefore runnier, than others, so if you're working with a particularly thin polish, be sure not leave too much of it on the brush.

Now that the polish has been applied and cleaned up, the last step is to seal the deal with a top coat and let those babies dry! Top coats are just as essential as a good base coat because they add a layer of protection to help your manicure last longer. Many top coats are also fast-drying, which is critical if you, like me, seem to have been born with ants in her pants. Drying can be sped along by turning a mini fan on your hands, or by purchasing a UV dryer. Running an almost-dry manicure under cold water will also set polish.


One Last Thought to Leave You With

As our lives become more connected and chaotic, with less and less downtime as a result, and world events often feel overwhelming, a lot can be said for finding tiny pockets of quiet time for yourself. There's a reason adult coloring books continue to be huge sellers, in that they allow us to unplug and lose ourselves in a rote activity. Painting your nails, tending to your hands, making yourself look a little more lovely is time in which you won't be looking at Facebook, worrying about the success of your side gig, or fretting about whether or not last night's date texted you back yet.

In a hi-fi world, painting your nails, spending 15 minutes staring at a wall of color options at your local drugstore, or forcing yourself to sit quietly while your polish dries are all good, and for some of us, important parts of finding small moments of zen.


Watch: What You Should Know About Gel Manicures