Beauty 101: Your Nail Questions, Answered

This week, our Beauty 101 series is focusing on all aspects of nail care, from cuticle woes to nail biting habits to polish problems. You had questions, and your fellow commenters have the answers:

As always, I'm not able to use every comment or email that came in, though I do appreciate all of them, and I encourage you to read through yesterday's thread for hundreds of extra tips on everything from painting nails to beating the nail biting habit. And now, a few tricks and tips from your fellow readers:

Painting Tips:

From commenter grapesoda00001:

Paint your thumbs LAST. Doing so will help prevent smudges and/or, help you paint better as you're not gingerly holding the wand to prevent smudges. As a bonus, by the time you get back around to your thumbs, fingers should have dried a bit which will also make it easier.

From Dana, via email:

Polish - practice practice practice. Just keep doing it, it gets easier and you will be able to do your dominate hand with your non-dominate hand without even noticing a difference in time. Trust me, this works. Put up with it not looking great for awhile and persevere. when I paint my nails I put one coat on, wait for it to totally dry, then put another coat on, then wait for that one to dry and put another one on. 3 coats is best, 2 coats will do if you put the clear top coat on (nail polish color usually looks better with the 3rd coat though). I put the clear coat on the next day because it gives the 3 coats a chance to harden completely. Putting a clear coat on if the other ones haven't hardened completely can resoften them.

From Jennifer, via email:

With regards to the at home manicure, here are the steps I follow to get professional looking manicures:

1. Clip and file the nails.
2. Wash hands. Use a pH Balancing Agent like Bond Aid from OPI (costs the same as a bottle of nail polish). You can usually buy a small bottle of it at Sally Beauty. Do NOT touch anything after this.
3. Apply an even coat of OPI clear Base Coat.
4. Do NOT roll the bottle of color polish around to "loosen" it up or "remove the air bubbles" before applying it. Shaking it or rolling it around can actually cause bubbles in your polish. Apply 1-2 coats of nail polish. Try to use 2-3 brush strokes for each nail. If the color needs another coat, paint all your nails first before applying the second coat. Repeat as necessary. (I try to limit to 3 coats or less.)
5. Keep a Q-Tip (or kebab skewer wrapped in cotton for better precision) dipped in non-acetone polish remover handy to wipe off any polish that smears.
6. Give the color a few minutes to dry, then apply a layer of clear top coat (again, I prefer OPI).
7. Voila! Sit tight for 15 minutes while your polish dries and hardens.
8. Optional: you can apply another layer of top coat every day afterwards to make your manicure last.

When I follow these steps, people ask me where I had my nails done. It looks professional and I do think that better brands really do make a huge difference in how long the manicure lasts (I'll get a week or more mileage using professional brands over store brands, which tend to chip after a few days).

Another trick I've learned, is that if you do happen to smudge your polish before it has fully dried, applying just enough nail polish remover to the smudge on your nail to thin the polish works wonders. You can just reapply the color and top coat without starting over completely.

Learning to paint with your non-dominant hand can be frustrating, but if you sit at a table and stabilize your arm/hand, go SLOW, and keep a Q-Tip with polish remover handy, you'll make fewer mistakes and still fix the few that happen.

I know that matte polish colors are all the rage right now, but the metallic/sparkly colors are more forgiving with regards to mistakes. If you're still practicing, I'd recommend starting with those before taking on the matte polishes at home. They are unforgiving!

Okay, I hope this helps. I rarely have my nails done at the salon anymore because I've found its just as easy and I can get the same quality at home on my own (with the right tools and supplies).

From Stephanie, via email:

When applying polish, i brush off the excess in the neck of the bottle and put the brush to the base of my nail, but not touching the cuticle. just start in the middle of the nail then work your way out doing complete strokes from base to tip. now painting the sides of my nails are sometimes tricky because the skin on the side of the nails sometimes get in the way. if this happens, i quickly wipe it off with the edge of the polish bottle topper. if you dont want to do this, you can get a q-tip, dip it in remover then take it off.

From commenter mangojojo:

Nail polishing is one of the few makeup things that I can do properly, but most of the things I know have been commented about already so I'll just add what I think I haven't seen yet.

Laying the hand that you're painting flat on a table helps to keep it still. Resting your other hand on the table as your painting also helps.

Q-tip dipped in polish remover works well, but I quite like the "manicure clean up pen" from Sally Hansen. It's easier to use than a Q-tip because the tip is like a highlighter tip, so it's stiffer and more precise so you're less likely to mess up with the polish already on your nail.

Buffing is a must for a nice finish, and good quality polish goes a long way. I like to use Sally Hansen "hard-as-nails as my base coat. It stops my nails from cracking and chipping (which my brittle nails tend to do when I don't have them painted) and keeps the polish on. OPI is the polish I like to use - it doesn't boast fast drying, but the colour is solid and it goes on smooth and stays. I also use the OPI topcoat, which is very important in keeping the polish from chipping.

I find it generally lasts me at least a week or 2, probably could go longer except my nails grow fairly fast so after a week there's already a noticeable gap in the colour at the bottom of my nail.

At the end of the day though - nothing makes your nails look nicer than lots and lots of practice!

And if anyone is interested in painting their own French tips - do not use the sticker guides. They rarely fit the exact curve of your nails, especially if your nails grow out differently (my nail on my index finger grows out round, my ring finger grows out square, and my middle finger falls somewhere between round and square). It is easiest to just paint the tip on sideways, carefully following the curve of your nail.

From commenter Iriellem:

Buffing your nails before painting them will help your nail polish last longer. Also, with nail polish, you really do get what you pay for, so something good quality will last you much longer.

In terms of painting your nails with your non-dominant hand (and getting it to look half-decent) it really is all about practice. Go slow, and you'll get it eventually. Also, I find OPI polishes easiest to use because the brush is thicker and the handle is shorter then most, allowing for a bit more control.

From commenter forgetfulgirl:

Prevent chipping:

Apply 2 thin coats of your polish after base coat. Let them dry completly before adding the next layer. Paint a top coat when dry and then apply a top coat every other night to prevent chipping.

To get polish to dry quicker, run nails under freezing cold water.

I paint my nails at night time, so if I apply my polish and it goes on my fingers, I can just take a shower and the polish will come off the skin. Painting them at night time normally means I can watch TV while they're drying so I won't smudge them.

On Filing:
From commenter LadyFabulous:

I don't recommend using metal files because they can be harsh and weaken the nail. I tend to use emery boards. These can be found in loads of different textures but you can usually get away with two: medium and fine. Using the medium side I work the file across in one direction in sort gentle strokes and gently curve the edges. If you like square nails you can leave the edges a bit sharper, but file them so it will be a soft/sharp edge. If you like your nails rounded you don't have to worry about an edge at all and if you like the squoval look slightly round out the edge but keep the top square.
Use the fine side of the file to soften the edges and clean up any rough spots. I use the fine side to do the sides as well and very slightly file the nail up the edge and across towards the nail bed.

An ultra fine emery board can be subbed for a buffer (I'm not a fan of them really) or you can get a 4 sided buffer. If you have really bad ridges then start with the rougher side and work your way across the nail bed in a side to side motion, but not using a lot of force. With the buffer go from using the rough side to the fine side. If you like a naked natural nail, use the polisher side and you're done! But if you want to polish your nails, use a cotton puff soaked in remover to remove all that nail powder.

From commenter kabuk1:

I use a crystal file(a Ruby Stone from Sally beauty supply) & file from the sides to the center. Don't use a regular emery board unless you're filing your nails down to remove length. Emery boards leave a ragged edge to the nail, allowing splits & cracks. ALWAYS finish with a crystal file if you shorten with an emery board, it seals the edge & prevent splits.

From Elizabeth, via email:

ONLY FILE YOUR NAIL IN ONE DIRECTION! This is honestly the most important rule. It help prevent your nails from splitting. Obviously you don't have to remember which direction you did it in every single time.; just the one time you are filing do it in one direction. Then file to your desired length, and then gently tip the file underneath the nail to get the left-over nail part.

From commenter louwheeze:

1. ONLY FILE DRY NAILS! If your nails are wet at all they will just crush/bend under the pressure of the emery board.

2. Use a soft emery board (not the metal ones). I like the cute "washable" ones from rite aid though I've never bothered to wash them.

3. Only file in ONE direction! Never do a sawing motion as it weakens the nail (I find it leaves it really jagged).

4. I start on the outsides to straighten them (so they follow the line of your cuticle).

5. Then round that edge towards the center. This website has good tips for how to get specific shapes (i like oval best). [www.nailsmag.com]

5. Use the pointy edge of a cuticle pusher to clean out under your nail (this will pull any of the extra nail out).

6. File any remaining extra stuff off. and touch up any places that are rough.

From Katharine, via email:

Filing & Shaping: I use clippers to get my nails to the general length I want, then use a file to shape the corners, and even everything out. Always file in the same direction. If you file from one side, then the other, it will weaken your nails. Use a decent file, one that's a fine grit. It will take longer to shape, but it's easier to control how much you take off with each swipe. Cheapies from Walgreen's generally won't work, but the 4 in 1 files are usually decent. Play around until you find a file you feel comfortable with.

From Elizabeth, via email:

To put it simply, get yourself a glass file and be happy for the rest of your life. They can be harder to find and a little pricier than drugstore emery boards, but emery boards and metal files will ravage and splinter your nails (ESPECIALLY if you have weaker nails that are prone to splitting, like I do), while glass files take down length much more smoothly.

Cuticle Care:
From commenter RainbowBrite:

Good looking cuticles go a long way. Don't cut them! I put some Sally Hanson Cuticle Remover on them and push them back with an orange stick. I do have the little cuticle clipper thingies, which are best for cutting hangnails at the sides of the nail beds. If your cuticles are in bad shape, be patient. Pushing back with the orange stick may be ragged the first couple of times.

From Amelia, via email:

On cuticle care from my great aunts who ran a beauty shop for 50 years:

Every time you shower, take a bath or wash dishes (by hand, ha!), after the skin has softened a little, gently push back your cuticles with the pad of your finger. Always use hand cream after.

From Katherine, via email:

Moisturize your nails and cuticles with any lotion you like. I use Seche Silk. Gently push back your cuticles with an orange stick. If you have cuticles that grow long, practice using a cuticle nipper or Revlon makes a cuticle blade. I like the blade, as it's easy to run around the my cuticles lightly, without shredding them all to hell. Like everything that requires you use your less dominant hand, it take practice. If you already have ragged cuticles, just moisturize and push back. Then leave them alone to heal on their own. Once your cuticles are taken care of, run a pad with remover over your nails, to remove any residual oils and lotion. brush on one coat of your chosen basecoat. Don't worry if it gets all over. That will actually help with cleanup, as the polish won't soak into your skin. You can also wear basecoat alone, for strength. Just add another coat. Only worry about your cuticles once a week, or every two weeks. Any more than that, and you will make them angry. There's a reason why most people only get manicures twice a month, with polish changes in between.

Consider Vitamins:
From Sadie, via email:

If your nails themselves are a problem, thin and weak or brittle, take vitamins. I prefer Solgar Skin Hair and Nails. My nails are OK - I take these vitamins for my hair and skin - and when I'm taking them, my nails grow twice as fast and are as hard as iron.

On Breaking The Nail Biting Habit:
From commenter RosieComeOutTonight:

How do I stop biting my nails? For me, the only thing that worked was giving myself a manicure every week. Stick to dark polish, because it looks good on short nails. Something about having the nail "white" hidden behind the polish makes it less tempting to bite. Plus, if you do, you have to re-do your manicure. I've been a nail biter for over 20 years, and I don't think I will ever quit, but this helps me keep it under control.

From Crystal, via email:

I chewed my nails off from the time I was a toddler until I was 22. I
finally decided I had had enough of it and started wearing a rubber
band on my wrist. Everytime I caught myself chewing on my nails, I'd
snap the rubber band. My coworkers knew how hard I was trying to quit
so if they saw me gnawing on my nails, they'd snap the rubber band for
me. It only took about 2 months before I was completely cured. It
worked SO well that now I can barely stand to chew my nails if it's an
emergency (like a ripped nail that's headed for the nail bed without a
pair of clippers in sight).

From Me:

You know how Frodo's nails looked in Return of the King? All short and crappy and painful and gross? That's how my nails looked from 1981-2009. Not as dirty, mind you, but just as short. I tried everything to stop biting my nails over the years, mostly because I hated having to hide my hands in public, but even when I grew them out, I'd end up biting them off in a fit of panic without even realizing it. Finally, the week before New Year's Eve, I decided to set up a manicure, and I informed the woman that I was a nail biter trying to break the habit (mostly to prepare her for the non-existence of my nails). I then set up weekly manicures for a month, to force myself to stick with it (I'm now going every two weeks), which made me more aware of when I was putting my nails in my mouth. It's still hard at times, but it does get much easier. If you can't/don't want to get them done professionally, maybe you can ask a friend or family member to give you a weekly manicure, instead, as it really does help. Once your nails are cleaned up (and the ragged edges are gone), there's less of a compulsion to bite or pick at them. Not that I don't still mess with my nails: it's just that these days, I just pick the polish off, instead.

And If All Else Fails:
From commenter malishka:

Here's my best tip about nails: do whatever you think feels right, and then, when people ask you why your nails look so awful, tell them that you let your little sister do it.

That worked like a charm the last time I did my nails, in 1989.

Didn't see your question answered? Perhaps you might find it in yesterday's thread, which is filled with tips and tricks from your fellow commenters. Disagree with some of the advice given here? Feel free to set the record straight in the comments. And, as always, suggestions for next week's Beauty 101 topic are welcome.

Earlier: Beauty 101: I've Never Been Able To Paint My Nails
Beauty 101: Your Lipstick Questions, Answered
Beauty 101:Your Hair Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Waxing/Shaving Questions, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Foundation And Concealer Concerns, Answered
Beauty 101: Your Eyeliner Woes, Solved