If I were a superhero, my tragic flaw that ultimately leads to my demise would have to be somehow related to my fingernails. I’m not exactly sure how my arch-nemesis would use that against me, but he’s probably pretty crafty and can figure something out. The truth is, I’m a nail biter, nail picker, cuticle harasser, etc., and my nails have always plagued me. For a while in college I would get acrylic french manicures, just so I would have something there, but it destroyed my nail beds, making the problem worse, and I really don’t like the look on me. So some time around my senior year of college (when I was also exploring the great, big world of cosmetics), I found that I was obsessed with nail polish too!
When I got swept up into the hype of buying all these pretty nail polish colors, I realized it was kind of dumb to have six different kinds of greige nail polish, but really crappy nails to paint. So I did something about it. My nails are in no way fantastic, but I’ve figured out some tricks to get them healthier and better looking with a little bit of maintenance and care. I also do all of my manicures at home to save on time and money. Since I’ll change out my polish two to three times a week, it’s much easier and cheaper to just do it while watching some TV.
And if you’ve been neglecting your nails and find that you are hiding your fingertips while showing off your shiny new ring, these tips will help you to put your best hands forward!
I want to start by debunking a myth. You can have a beautiful manicure without growing your nails long! So if you have weak nails that always break or a job that requires them to be trimmed back—fear not! Take a look at this pretty manicure, and her nails aren’t even to the edge of her fingertips. You can see through the sheer polish that she’s only got a little bit of the “white” nail grown out.
Or just add glitter—it makes everything better! / Photo credit to Glitter and Nails
So what’s the takeaway here? I believe that the keys to a very impressive and polished manicure (pun intended!) are healthy cuticles, a smooth, even edge to the nail, and a nice shiny finish.
Here are my nail rules that I try to adhere to when I am working on getting my nails in good shape.
- Always have something on your nails. If I take off polish with no time to redo, I will make sure to apply a clear base coat to hold me over. Having polish on your nails will protect from any snags, and you won’t be able to mindlessly pick at them. I also find that I don’t mess with my cuticles as much when I have my nails painted. If you’re not into colors, try a light, sheer color or a nude. It’s amazing the difference a coat of polish can do! Here’s a good little picture of how to paint your nails if it’s something that still intimidates you. Since I’m still not that skilled, I use this cleanup method to make my manicures look much better.
- Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize! The key to getting great looking cuticles like in the photo above is to not let them dry out, which will reduce the hang nails and rough cuticles. Make sure as you rub it in that you gently push your cuticles back. A good way to get this habit started is to apply lotion or hand cream every time after you wash your hands. Reading a document at work, riding (not driving!) in a car, waiting for a doctor’s appointment, or just sitting on the sofa watching TV, I will apply some kind of moisturizer. The key seems to be using it frequently, not what you use, so just find something that works for you! If you need some ideas, I’ve included some of my favorite products below.
- Don’t forget about bedtime! Along with moisturizing frequently during the day, make sure you apply a nice thick cream on your hands (focusing on your cuticles and pushing them back), so that it can really sink in overnight. If you have trouble remembering to lotion during the day, make sure to do this to make up for it. If I’m feeling like pampering myself, I’ll use a sugar or salt scrub in the shower, making sure to go over the cuticles, and then apply a thick lotion at bedtime. This keeps my leathery paws a little softer.
- Give your nails a little file. If you’re taking care of your nails, you should start seeing some length develop! They might not grow out looking great at first and they might be uneven, so you’ll want to file them down. While it might feel like you’re filing away all of your hard work, you will see that this greatly improves the look. What you have now is an even and smooth nail edge, which looks chic no matter what the length is. I find that the the squoval—square tip with slightly rounded edges like above—is very flattering. A little cheat is to file with with your polish on. Right before you remove an old polish, file your nails down to the shape you want as it’s easier to focus on the shape of the whole nail that way (instead of getting distracted by the white nail, which isn’t always even, so not a good guide). I find that once I get my nails cleaned up, I don’t have to file for every manicure. Here’s a good video on how to file.
- Use a base coat and top coat. Whenever I see someone complaining that their polish doesn’t look good or it chips off too easily, its probably because they skipped these steps. I’m a big fan of top coats: the quick-drying ones help your nails dry faster so that you can more easily paint your nails, they lock in your color to help it last longer, and they provide a beautiful shiny finish that makes it look professional, even if it’s DIY. If you only want to use one of these, I vote for top coat. Base coats don’t get as much love, but I always use them—they protect from staining, can extend the life of your manicure, and many have treatment properties to help weak or brittle nails.
OK, these rules sound pretty harsh and like I spend all day thinking about what is best for my nails. I really don’t, and I cut myself some slack a lot of the time. They are just nails, after all. But these are the rules that I try to stick to if I need to get my nails in shape for a special event, vacation—or engagement pics! Even if my nails are in a bad state, being diligent with my nail care yields some noticeable results after about a week.
If you don’t see a difference right away (or if your first manicure isn’t perfect), don’t throw in the towel! You’ll get there; the key is to keep up the treatments and moisturizing, and your polishing will get better with practice. If you’re not confident with your nails and feel insecure about attracting attention with nail polish colors, try a nice dark wine or brown shade—they look excellent on short nails!
And finally, I would like to share a few of my favorite products with you.
Base & Top Coat
Photo from Amazon.com
This is the treatment base coat I have been loving for about a year. It’s definitely improved the strength and length of my nails when I use it consistently. It also works well to keep polish on longer. This is also what I apply when I don’t have time to do a full mani and just need something clear on my nails.
I actually use two base coats for my manicures, so if you’re feeling adventurous you can try this too. It’s called a “Stickey Sandwich.”
Nailteques Base Coat (for treatment) + CND Stickey Base Coat (for staying power) + first coat of color polish + CND Stickey again + second coat of polish (and third coat if necessary) + top coat. I get about a week of chip-free wear out of manicures like this.
Photo from sallyhansen.com
I know many ladies don’t like to paint their nails because of how long it takes to dry. That is no more with quick-drying top coats! Use a decent sized “bead” of liquid to seal in your nail polish, and it will be dry to touch in a few minutes. You can’t go digging around in your purse or taking a shower right away, but you don’t have to be as careful. I don’t think this does much for my staying power, but it does have a lot of shine to it that makes my manicures look awesome. Other good options are Seche Vite or Poshe Super Fast Drying, but this is cheaper and works just as well on me. If your QDTC gets too thick and goopy, don’t throw it out! Get some nail polish thinner, add a couple of drops, and shake it up. Voila—just like new! This thinner can be used for any nail polish that has become too thick over time. (Never, ever, ever put nail polish remover into nail polish to thin it! It will ruin it. Just use the thinner.)
Photo from lushusa.com
This stuff is the bomb for an overnight cuticle cream. I wouldn’t use it during the day because it’s too greasy. (Also, some aren’t a fan of the smell, but I don’t mind it.) I put a generous amount of this on before bed, and any dry or cracked cuticle areas around my nails will be gone in a night or two. That reminds me…I ran out of this and need to pick some more up!
Photo by Sallybeauty.com
This is another good option for an overnight cream. It’s definitely too thick and goopy for a daytime lotion, but it smells awesome! It’s a lot cheaper than the Lush one, too.
Photo from essie.com
Photo from sephora.com
I like to use cuticle oils during the day, because the application is more controlled than with a cream. I got the Essie one a few weeks before our engagement pictures and used it obsessively throughout the day at my desk (it smells awesome!). I keep the Sephora pen in my purse because it’s easy to use on the go. The oil is a little thicker than the Essie but definitely gives your nails a good look without looking too oily.
Photo from Bathandbodyworks.com
I keep one of these in my purse and one in my car. The smell is strong but really good—I had a coworker tell me it smells like cupcakes! You don’t need much to get your hands feeling soft, and you can usually pick these up for a good price at a Bath and Body Works sale.
Photo from Burtsbees.com
Another good option for the purse/desk. This isn’t as goopy as the Lush lemon cream, so it soaks in better for a daytime moisturizer. I just hate the packaging—the tin is so hard to open!
Photo from Big Daddy Beauty
I’ve exclusively used a crystal nail file (as opposed to an emery board) for the last few years and it is amazing! The crystal is gentler on the nail and will “seal” the edge of the nail so that you don’t have any rough spots or bits of the nail that might snag. I keep this Nail Tek file in my purse because it has a case, and I can quickly file down a broken nail so that it doesn’t get worse, or file an edge before it becomes a break. And I’ve had this same one for years and it still works great.
Photo from tweezerman.com
OK—the controversial one. Technically, you shouldn’t cut back your cuticles as it can cause an infection if you cut too far, and your cuticle is used to protect the base of your nail so cutting back too far is a no-no. That’s why I keep talking about this pushing back—it’s the better route. I actually keep my clippers at work to clip rough skin or hangnails, and while it’s probably not the best, I figure removing it quickly is a better option than biting or tearing it later. Just be careful with them and don’t cut too deep. And see this post if you want more info.
And here’s the proof for you that my nails are able to clean up pretty good! I kept them short and got a gel manicure at a salon right before we left for Florida so I wouldn’t have to worry about one single chip or smudge! Gel manicures aren’t in my regular routine, but for a trip or special photo they are the way to go.
This genius covering up the word “Engaged” / Photo by Concept Photography
This is my plan for the wedding too: I’ll work on taking care of my nails the best I can before and do a gel manicure in a salon. Even though my DIY manicures are pretty good, they’re no comparison for the smoothness and shine that you get off of a gel!
Are nails the bane of your existence? Do you have any nail-care tips to share?
Or any other questions—I might be able to point you in the right direction!