Getting a good manicure at home takes a lot of practice and skill (and frankly a level of coordination I just can’t achieve). Even if you’re a DIY pro, at-home manicures never seems to last as long as when the actual pros do it. The simple solution would be to go to the nail salon, but that’s not always time or cost efficient. I decided to talk to six professional manicurists to get their insider tips for a better at-home mani.
It turns out I was committing a few common faux pas that shorten the lifespan of my mani. And apparently there are a lot of BS tips out there (why am I not surprised…). For example, that trick where you dunk your freshly-painted nails in ice water to quick dry—false. Now, I’m wondering what else I have been doing wrong.
Here are nine ways to keep your nails looking perfect when you DIY your manicure, according to the nail experts.
1. Select the right shape.
Despite all the trendy shapes (like the coffin or the stiletto), it turns out that rounded nails are your best bet to avoid rips and snagging. “Due to it’s smooth shape, it’s less likely to catch on things,” says Essie’s global lead educator Rita Remark. “If you prefer to wear your nails square, just make sure to round the edges on either side of the nail.”
2. Make sure to buff the edge of your nails.
Once you land on the final shape, it’s important to make sure nothing is left hanging on the edge. “When nails are filed quite a bit, it’s important to use a nail buffer to get all remaining nail debris out from under the nail and from the sides of the nail along the cuticle line,” says Carly Narva, a manicure enthusiast and the VP of merchandising at beauty retailer Violet Grey. Another pro tip: Make sure to file in one direction especially with the sides—this ensures you aren’t disturbing the fibers of the nails.
3. Prep your nails properly before you paint.
Most nail salons sit you to soak before pushing the cuticles and filing, but the pros say dry manis are more sanitary and help your polish last longer. Remark says soaking in water causes the nail to expand. Then when it dries the nail contracts, causing your polish to chip. Instead, she says, cleanse the nails with nail polish remover or alcohol before polishing.
Some salons will use vinegar for a pre-mani soak, but that’s also a no-go, according to editorial nail technician Honey, who explains that the acid in vinegar could make your nails brittle. “I use vinegar on feet to make sure there is no bacteria, but not usually on the hands. A dry manicure is best,” she says.
4. Don’t shake the nail polish bottle.
We’ve heard this tip time and time again, yet many of us continue to shake our nail polish when it’s separated, and then wonder why we don’t end up with a seamless manicure. “I prefer rolling the polish if I’m polishing nails immediately,” explains celebrity manicurist for Kiss products, Gina Edwards. Many bottles have a small metal ball inside that helps stir the product around. “Shaking creates bubbles in the polish and can be seen if you apply shortly after,” she says, adding that if you do shake, you should wait an hour before you polish.
Honey uses a roll-and-shake combo. “Some people say not to shake or roll because it makes bubbles in the polish, but I do a combination of the two at the start of a manicure,” she explains. “By the time I am ready to use the color, the bubbles have settled.”
5. Two thinner coats are better than one thick coat.
While it’s tempting to go for the gusto with one thick coat, don’t. Globs of polish just means longer drying time and a higher risk for smudging. “Thick coats are a no-go!” exclaims nail styling artist Gracie J. “Thin and even coats work best for a seamless look.”
Celebrity manicurist Sarah Chue breaks it down a bit further. “Many thin coats will allow polish to dry in between—use only three layers max of color,” she says. “In general, one layer of base coat, two coats of color, and one layer top coat. Sometimes if you’d like more pigment or the color seems a bit sheer, a third coat of color is tolerable.”
Remark agrees. “Almost any polish you’ll find on the market is formulated to be polished with two coats, so use this as a rule of thumb for polishing at home,” she says, adding, “if the polish texture is sheer, oftentimes it will look good even with one coat. However, if it’s an opaque color, it will absolutely require at least two coats.”
6. Apply product in three strokes.
One swipe and you’re out? Not so fast. “The professional way to apply is middle then sides,” says Edwards. “However, as long as you get full coverage on the nail, it’s really a comfort level for the individual.”
7. Avoid heat when drying your mani.
As for drying, air-dry or use a blast of cold—not hot—air to assist. “Heat actually keeps your polish from firming. Cold air does the opposite,” says Chue. “[If you’re in a rush], try quick-dry drops after a few minutes of drying.” For her at-home manicure, Narva likes to wait 5 to 10 minutes and use one drop of Tenoverten’s Non-Toxic Quick Dry Drops ($18) on each nail, holding hands facing downward so the drop covers the entire nail.
8. Fix mistakes ASAP.
Got a little overzealous with polish? It’s a quick fix. “Use a stick with a flat edge, dip it in acetone, and work it around the eponychium after each nail,” explains Gracie J (eponychium is the cuticle area). “That way you don’t wait until the end, when the polish has already dried up in the crevices.”
For smudges, you can gently use your finger to push polish back into place before adding a layer of top coat. “If it’s beyond fixing, like when you get those dents, it’s best to just wipe it off and re-do,” Gracie J adds.
9. Make manicure maintenance an everyday thing.
After all your hard work, a few good habits can extend the life of a DIY manicure. “I always recommend that my clients wear gloves when washing dishes or cleaning the house,” shares Gracie J. “I also tell them to use cuticle oil. It helps keep the skin around your nails healthy and promotes healthy nail growth.”
Narva is a huge fan of hand creams—two of her favorites are from Omorovicza and Tatcha. “Both are super hydrating but do not leave an oily finish,” she says.