10 Steps to a Salon-Quality Manicure at Home

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There's something elegant about a perfectly polished set of nails, but at $15–$50 a pop, you can end up spending a "whole lotta dough" on salon manicures over the course of a year ... and that's not even including tips! If you've messed up do-it-yourself manicures in the past, don't despair. Our 10 easy steps can help you get salon-quality, beautiful hands at home for a fraction of the cost.

The Perfect Manicure, Step-by-Step

Step 1: Gather the essentials. Be sure to have the following tools and products ready to go:

  • Nail-polish remover and cotton swabs or pads.
  • Nail clippers, if your nails need a trim before you polish.
  • Emery board and nail buffer.
  • Cuticle pusher and nippers.
  • Callous/cuticle remover.
  • Hand/nail moisturizer.
  • Base coat.
  • Nail polish.
  • Clear topcoat.

Step 2: Remove any previously applied nail polish. An acetone-based nail-polish remover is a bit more harsh than non-acetone removers, but the acetone removers get the job done faster, and no matter what kind of polish remover you use, it's going to have a drying effect on the nail area and cuticles. It is crucial that you minimize contact with any nail-polish remover for the well-being of your nails and cuticles (i.e., don't soak your nails in it unless you are removing a gel-based polish).

Step 3: Shape nails. Clip the nails, if necessary, after soaking for just a few seconds to prevent the nail from splintering when it is dry, then gently file them into shape. A slightly rounded nail shape or square-rounded edge is generally the best way to go.

Avoid metal or extremely coarse nail files to prevent splintering—opt for a gently abrasive emery board or crystal nail file instead. Smooth the tops and sides of the nails with a slightly abrasive buffer to ensure an even surface, but don't forget, if you buff the nails too smooth, the polish won't adhere as well and can literally slip right off. Consider nail buffers from Revlon, Tweezerman, and Ulta.

Step 4: Soak away. Ahh … the relaxing part. Place your hands in a bowl of warm (not too hot) water and add a bit of your gentle face cleanser to the water. Avoid putting detergent or soapy cleansers in the water because they can be drying and make your cuticles look worse. Soaking the cuticle before trimming is crucial, but over-soaking actually damages skin and nails, so keep it to three minutes or less.

Step 5: Apply callous/cuticle remover. When cutting away the thickened skin around the nail, applying a bit of cuticle remover can make all the difference in the world. By far the best and the least expensive one out there is Be Natural Cuticle Eliminator. Despite the name, it's powerful stuff, so don't let it sit on the cuticle area for more than a few seconds.

Step 6: Remove excess cuticle and callouses around the nail. Very gently push the cuticle back away from the nail with a cuticle pushing tool, but don't push it too far because it can damage nail growth or fray the cuticles. Be careful NOT to pull, lift, tear, rip, force, or cut into the cuticle in any way. Do NOT clip into the cuticle; merely nip off the free edge with a pair of metal cuticle nippers. It's better to under-do this step than to overdo it because the cuticle helps protect the nail bed from bacteria and damage. This is also the time to remove hangnails around the sides of the nail as well, but again, be careful not to cut into the nail itself or to cut into the skin too deeply; otherwise, you will look like you were tuning up your car, not giving yourself a manicure.

Step 7: Moisturize. Massage a rich cream or silky oil into the cuticles and all over the hands to hydrate and replenish skin. Try Paula's Choice Cuticle & Nail Treatment for a spa-like finish—your nails, cuticles, and hands will love it!

Step 8: Prep for polish. Moisturizing ingredients of any kind left on the nail will prevent polish from adhering properly. Using a cotton swab or pad, apply nail-polish remover over the nail's surface to remove any residue. While it helps to avoid getting remover on the cuticle because you want to keep that area moisturized, don't worry if you do because you're going to apply moisturizer on your nails again once the polish is dry.

Step 9: Paint nails in layers. If you have weak or brittle nails, use a base coat of ridge-filling nail polish to shore up the nail. A base coat also protects nails from staining and prevents chipping. Next, apply your color polish in layers, allowing each layer to dry between coats. Two coats of color polish, followed by a top coat to add shine and luster should do the trick. Use a lighter shade of polish if you're a novice at painting nails; any mistakes will be less noticeable!

Touch up your manicure every couple days with a single layer of top coat. This can make all the difference in keeping up the appearance and durability.

Clean up any mistakes—and Voilá! You're almost done. It takes time for nails to fully dry, so you must be patient. A fan helps, but do not use heat or the polish will chip and peel. Also, do not put your nails too close to the fan or you can get bubbles in your polish.

Step 10: Reapply moisturizer and during the day reapply sunscreen! Keeping your hands and the nail area healthy requires moisturizer and sunscreen. You can't have great nails and hands without these two essential items.

You can definitely get a brilliant manicure doing it yourself, if you have the right tools lined up and you use the right techniques. Of course, there's nothing wrong with getting a professional manicure for special occasions or just to be pampered, but knowing how to do it yourself can save you a lot of time and money! Get more information on manicures, including gel manicures, here.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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