Giving Yourself the Perfect Manicure

I like having colorful, neatly-painted nails. But manicures don’t last very long, and the cost of having them redone can add up. Here are 10 tips for polishing your nails at home and achieving beautiful, professional results.

0. Before you begin, file your nails into shape and buff them gently. Follow the instructions on your nail buffer for best results.

1. Choosing the right brand of nail polish is crucial to a good manicure. While it’s true with many products that you get what you pay for, this is not necessarily the case with nail polish. The less expensive brands like Brucci, New York Color, and Apt. 5 actually work better for me than the offerings from the well-known cosmetic companies; I think it’s because they’re thinner. An exception to this rule is Wet & Wild; I don’t recommend it, as it tends to clump.

2. Preparing the surface of your nails properly ensures a smooth finish. Set out your materials somewhere free of pet hair and dust. Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds in comfortably hot water, gently pushing your cuticles back with your fingertips. The hot water will soften your skin and make this easier. Now here’s the tricky part (at least for me): don’t dry your hands. Flap them (yes, you will look silly) and let them air dry. This is important – fibers and lint from cloth towels, paper towels, and tissues, invisible on unpainted nails, will create a lumpy finish when you paint over them.

3. Nail polish is thinner at lower temperatures. You can get more use out of it and keep it from solidifying by keeping it in the refrigerator. Since it’s not the most delicious smell, however, I’d recommend putting it in a freezer bag or sealed container.

4. With nail polish, it’s better to add than to subtract. Make sure the brush isn’t too loaded down with polish. In general, if the brush is saturated with polish, but there’s no drop forming on the end, you’ve got the right amount. Brands and colors look better with two thin coats, some with three.

5. Painting your dominant hand is obviously more difficult, as you have to use the other. Begin with this, so that you can use the unpainted nails of your non-dominant hand to clean up any mistakes you might make. Start with the pinky finger and work inward toward the thumb. I find it best to do this on the edge of a table or counter so that I can get my already-painted fingers out of the way while painting my thumb.

6. Moving slowly and smoothly, rest your brush against the cuticle, and let the bristles fan out to accomodate its curve. Then, in an even stroke, pull the brush toward the edge of the nail. To make sure the polish covers the maximum nail surface, and to keep it from collecting at the base of the nail, pull each cuticle back gently with the ball of your thumb after applying each layer. Going from pinky to thumb makes you less likely to smudge the fingers you’ve already painted while doing this.

7. Another advantage to using thin layers is that you can mix your own colors. I love to wear all sorts of jewel tones on my nails, mostly greens and blues and purples, and I often layer them one over another (always allowing the previous layer to dry first). But even if your style is more conservative, sometimes you buy a color that just isn’t quite what it looked like in the bottle. A thin layer of another color underneath may bring it closer to what you had in mind. I have a rich purple with just a little too much fuchsia in it; layered over two coats of midnight blue, it’s just right. Another look is a thin coat of sea green over a layer of copper or bronze: this looks like old metal with a patina on it, and as a classicist, I like that a lot.

8. Heat is disruptive to newly painted nails; cold is good for them. Allowing your nails to dry in the sun can result in a bubbly surface. Conversely, after a minute of air drying, dipping your nails into cold water sets them. This doesn’t mean that they are completely dry – particularly not if you’ve got several layers on – but that the surface is solidified. Do this after each coat; then air dry your hands as in step 2. Finish with a thin layer of clear top coat, applied in the same way as all the other coats. I like Hard as Nails by Sally Hansen as a top coat.

9. This is the hardest part. You can paint your nails flawlessly, gorgeously, but it’s all for nothing if you smudge them before they’re dried. Go back to that pet-hair- and dust-free place. Lay your hands flat, or flap them. For at least 20 minutes, try not to run your hands through your hair, put on or remove clothing, or rummage in bags. Think of it as an excercise in stillness and patience.

10. By far the easiest and most painless way of removing nail polish is the sponge-in-a-jar method. Buy the ones for natural nails, non-acetone. Some of these are dressed up with a seriously noxious cherry scent, but some are almost inoffensive. Put your nails into the holes in the sponge, and twist them for a few seconds. Then take an orange stick, put it into the sponge, and use it to guide the sponge into the area around the cuticle. Use a nail brush and some soap and hot water, and begin the cycle anew.

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