There’s something about a fresh, precise manicure that I absolutely love; it makes me feel like I have my life together even when I don’t. But let’s be honest, weekly trips to the nail salon can get expensive and there’s nothing more irritating than smudged polish on your way home. So while I definitely indulge in spa pedicures, I’m a huge fan of an at-home manicure.
I can hear my sister right now being like “but I can never do a good job at home!” and trust me, I was totally there, too. For me, it’s all about having the right tools….and practice! For example, I used to work as a makeup artist and would get questions all the time about how to create a perfectly blended smoky eye. My response? It’s all about the right blending brush! It would be way harder to create the same look using just q-tips or foam shadow applicators (not impossible, but definitely harder). I applied the same logic to doing my nails at home. I invest in high-quality products and tools – they make it much easier to keep up my flawless manicure at home!
My simple nail routine (complete with wine of course!) has become a legit weekly self-care ritual that I genuinely enjoy, plus I save money on salon appointments while still having fabulous nails. So read on for my step-by-step guide and details on some of my favorite tools!
1. Out with the old
Remove existing polish using a nourishing non-acetone polish remover and cotton pads. I also like to keep nail polish remover wipes handy for when I’m in a hurry. Plus, no need to worry about spills. Looking for something more gentle? This soy-based remover with lavender essential oil looks promising.
2. Trim / file / buff
I prefer my nails pretty short, so I trim them every week. With practice, I’ve gotten pretty good at clipping to the shape I like and use a file just to clean up any edges. I also use a light buffer to smooth out any rough or uneven spots. Because filing can pull the nail from side to side, I try to limit that as much possible and mainly rely on a sharp pair of nail clippers.
3. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize
Generously apply cuticle oil (I love the Apricot oil by Essie) to each nail and rub in to soften. I do this instead of soaking in water mainly because I’m lazy, but usually because I don’t have time. Just keeping it real. Next, apply hand lotion liberally and really massage everything into your skin. I know this is a little bit backward (usually the lotion is applied later in the process), but this works so just bear with me!
4. Cuticle work
Never cut your cuticles, it’s unnecessary and dangerous. Don’t believe me? Last year, Bex was getting a manicure and the nail tech cut her finger while trimming her cuticles. Her finger got infected (staph!!) and Bex ended up on heavy antibiotics for weeks. Seriously, don’t cut them – at home or at a salon. Instead, pick up a cuticle pusher and gently push them back off the nail bed. You can use the pusher to scape any dead cells off as well.
5. Clean up, round 1!
Now we wash everything off with a gentle soap or scrub. Ideally you want to remove the oils from the lotion so your nails are a clean canvas for the polish. I like to use a small scrub sponge to really make sure I get any residue or leftover filings out of the way.
6. Prep and prime
This is probably the most crucial part of any manicure – the base coat. I technically use two different versions. One is OPI Bond-Aid that acts as a balancing agent that’s supposed to prepare the nail for adhesion. It’s actually meant for use with acrylic and gel nails, but using this underneath a proper base coat is a game-changer. My at-home manicures generally last between 7-10 days and I believe it’s all because of the Bond-Aid.
Then I apply a strengthening or ridge-filling base coat. I’m partial to the OPI Nail Envy Nail Strengthener, but it’s pricy ($20) so the ORLY version is a good dupe ($7). Try to avoid generic 2-in-1 top and base coats. They just don’t quite have the same oomph when it comes to making that color stick.
7. Color coat #1
Alright, finally, the actual nail polish. This first coat of color doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be very thin and just cover the nail. Think of it like the crumb layer of frosting a cake, you need this coat so the next one goes on clean and smooth. If you’re having a hard time with the hand-eye coordination and getting polish all over the place, try this – rest both elbows on a hard surface. Makes a world of difference. Allow this coat to dry for 2-3 minutes before moving on.
8. Color coat #2
With the “crumb coat” applied, you’re ready for the big impact coat. It should be easier to apply because you’re basically tracing the first coat, but you’ll want to make sure to use even strokes. My technique is as follows: press the brush toward the center-back of my cuticle, then go down one side, down the middle, then down the other side. Again, allow 2-3 minutes to dry. If you need a third coat make sure to use a light hand, otherwise the polish can get too thick and take forever to dry.
9. Top coat
Whether you opt for a matte or shiny top coat, the trick to this step is applying a thin layer. Also, I try to bring the brush across the tips of my nails to really seal in the color. I’m a longtime fan of the classic OPI Top Coat for a long-lasting shine, but also love the look of the Sally Hansen Big Matte Top Coat.
10. Clean up, round 2!
This is probably the second most important step of my process. Even with years of practice, I don’t always color in between the lines. Having a nail polish remover pen for easy touch-ups is such a time saver. Using the pen to clean up any smudges is really what makes an at-home manicure look professional. You could also do this step by taking a bit of a cotton ball and wrapping it around the cuticle pusher, but honestly, with wet polish on my nails, I’m not messing with cotton balls.
Pro-tip: if your polish remover pen dries out, let the tip soak in nail polish remover and you’re good to go!
I genuinely don’t know if quick-dry products actually work, but I do feel more confident after a quick spray of the Target Nail Polish Drying Spray. I’ve also tried the OPI drops which were pretty good. It might seem like an unnecessary step, but all these little things (including the Bond-Aid) add up to extra days with a perfect manicure.