I guess it's no real secret that I'm into doing my nails. Having manicured hands stops me from biting my nails, for one thing, and I am lucky enough to be in a profession where I can rock all kinds of weird nail art. That wasn't always the case; I sometimes think that my interest in nails is just one more after-effect of having first a high school and then a job where anything but clear polish was verboten — kind of like how I still don't own a single pair of brown leather shoes because those were the shoes I had to wear, with white socks, every weekday from ages 12-17. That and as a writer I spend a lot of time looking at my hands, I suppose.
I also spend a lot of time trying to make my polish last. I've tried different top coats, base coats, colors, brands. Glittery polishes and mattes, quick-drying this and that. It's frustrating when you spend 20 minutes painting your fingernails and then get a chip when you're taking out the trash the next morning. I am by no means an expert, but there are a few things you can do to extend the life of your manicure. And you know who pretty much is an expert? My cousin Dallas Sauers, who is an experienced nail technician currently putting herself through college working as the manager at a nail salon in Pittsburgh. She started working after school there when she was a teenager. If I ever have a question about nails, chemicals, salon workers' rights, anything at all, really, I go to her. Because she's the best.
So for this week's DIY, I broke down my typical manicure process, which generally, depending on the polish formula and age, results in a manicure that lasts about 7-8 days. And then I asked Dallas what I could be doing better, and she very sweetly chimed in with all kinds of advice about colors, equipment, gel manicures vs. nail polish, and what you can do at home vs. what's best left to a professional. I used a dusty rose Essie polish to demonstrate. I did my nails on Wednesday, and now that it's Friday, I have had no chips. Touch wood. We'll see how it performs as the widening gyre of New York fashion week sucks me in.
Here are my manicure tools. They are small in number, but mighty. You'll need some NP remover, nail clippers, a file, a base coat of your choice — I use OPI's Nail Envy, on Dallas's advice, although I'm a little less enthusiastic about it than she is — a color, a top coat — Sally Hansen Insta-Dri is in my opinion the best — and some cuticle oil. I use castor oil, but you could use olive oil or cooking oil or probably just about any kind of lipid.
Before starting in with the bases and the polishes, soak your hands in warm water and soap. (Alternatively, take a shower.) Don't use any products containing oil on your hands immediately prior to a manicure. After a few minutes, when your cuticles are soft, push back your cuticles — Dallas recommends a metal cuticle-pusher tool like they use in salons, because they're easy to clean. You can also use an orange stick. I actually generally do it with my opposite hand's thumb nail, kind of like how they use diamonds to cut diamonds, or whatever — and if you want to, trim your cuticles with the clippers carefully. (If you don't like trimming your cuticles, feel free to skip this step.) Also trim your nails. Shorter nails attract fewer chips. File. Sometimes I do this step — the cuticle preparation and nail shaping — at night, and sleep with castor oil on my hands and socks over them to give my nails a bit of moisture before polishing them the next day. The oil has time to work its way into my skin and nails this way, and before I start in with the polish, I just rinse my hands with soap and water.
Dallas says: "First things first: clean your nails with acetone before applying the base coat. If you want to invest in a little something extra for preventative measures, I suggest OPI's CHIP SKIP, which is applied before the base coat." When doing your nails, you want as little oil as possible on your hands. Oil interferes with the adherence of the polish, and causes chips. Dallas also suggests Sèche Vite top coat, a matter on which she and I respectfully disagree. Sèche Vite isn't, like, bad or anything it's just not my personal favorite. But you do you.
You know how you use primer before painting a wall? Use a base coat before painting your fingernails. It helps the polish last longer, and a good base coat is protective of the nail. Dallas adds, "Also, make sure you cap the ends of your nails with each coat including base, the two layers of color, and top coat. This should help with chipping by not allowing water or oils to get between the polish and your natural nail." To cap your nails, brush each layer all the way onto and slightly over the tip of your fingernail.
There are many variables that affect the durability of a manicure. The polish formula, for example, the age of the polish, and the color. Dallas finds at the salon that matte colors generally don't last as long as colors with a glossy finish. (That could explain why I have two bottles of matte fuchsia pink, one by the pricey brand Essie and one by the drugstore brand Sinful Colors — neither of which will last more than about a day on my hands. Which sucks, because, I mean, fuchsia pink. Dallas adds, "It is unfortunate because matte colors are my favorite." That said, not all mattes won't last; your mileage may vary.)
Dallas also says the amount of air in the bottle is a factor, and the amount of time that has elapsed since the bottle was first opened. Nail polish is made with volatile chemicals that begin evaporating as soon as it is first opened, changing the nature of the formula inside. (Pro-tip from Dallas: get nail polish thinner from a beauty supply store to help keep older polishes fresh. It is an urban legend that a few drops of NP remover will restore a gummed-up old polish; it won't.) And the more air there is in there, the gunkier the polish, generally speaking. "When this happens, it can become thick and small air bubbles can get into the polish. You could unknowingly apply air bubbles onto your nail, causing more chips. Another reason [why two polishes by the same company might not last the same amount of time] could possibly be the color itself. Sparkly colors last longer, I'm sure anyone who has used sparkles has figured this out. Any color with shimmer (not quite glitterly, but still sparkles) will last longer."
While how you apply your polish color doesn't really affect its durability, I find it helpful to do my dominant hand first, steadying the heel of my non-dominant hand on a book as I go. I also leave my thumbs 'til last, so I can dart in and clean up any mistakes around the cuticle with the tip of my opposite thumbnail. A couple thin coats of polish are better than one thick coat. Other than that, getting polish right just takes practice. A lot of practice.
Brush on your top coat. I like to make sure the top coat wraps all around my polish, so I carry top coat over the tip (like Dallas suggests) and I'm not too fussed about it if I also get a little top coat on the skin under my nail tips or on my cuticles. Once it dries, it'll peel off your skin like wood glue in shop class, without affecting the top coat on the actual fingernail. No matter how quick-drying your polish and top coat claim to be, it takes a long time for a manicure to truly harden. As anyone who's done their nails in the evening and woken up to a manicure with blanket imprints knows, there's dry-to-the-touch and then there's dry. "In totality, four layers of nail polish will take about 2 hours to dry," says Dallas. Drying drops can help speed things along, but they won't in and of themselves help your manicure last any longer. "If you're on a tight schedule and don't have time to put your cooking, cleaning, and love life on hold for two hours, then you can apply a drop of cuticle oil on each nail. This does not help dry the polish faster, but if you do happen to hit your nail on something, it will slide off instead of stick. This is my favorite trick. If you don't have nail oil, cooking oil works just as well." And when your manicure is dry, or dry to the touch, it's good to slather oil all over your hands to restore some of the moisture that the water and the soap and the chemicals in the polish all took away. Pay special attention to your cuticles and nail beds. Oil before polish is bad, but oil after polish is very, very good. For this step, I use castor oil, but again, any oil would do I'm sure.
Dallas also had this to say about what she called the "latest craze" in ultra-long-lasting nails: gel manicures. They're the manicures that go on like nail polish and are then cured under U.V. lights. Although gel manicures are generally only done in salons, OPI and CND are both pushing at-home versions. The polishes are expensive (think $20 a bottle) and the U.V. lights used in salons can cost $600. (The at-home versions start at around $40.) A gel manicure can last up to 20 days. Here's Dallas's take; she says gel manicures are best done in a salon:
CND is the best brand for the gel manicures. OPI's Axxium line is absolutely terrible. It doesn't last, it's more expensive, and it's harder to use. Gel manicures are not really like acrylic nails, they just happen to be made of the monomers and polymers as acrylic, which of course enhances its durability. However, the product itself is 100% different. It's goes on exactly like a nail polish. Gel nail polish is the absolute best solution for a natural manicure that lasts. I would say the only drawback with gel nail polish is that it goes on your natural nail, whatever the length. There can be no artificial extension to make your nails longer. However, I've found that this isn't really a problem, because after two weeks with the gel on, your nails will be at a nice length because it allows your natural nails to grow. It is a common misconception that gel nail polish aids in growth time and/or strengthening. It doesn't.
Oh, and that U.V. light, by the way? Like a lot of things involved in the nail business, it's slightly cancerous. "The wattage and time is so small that you are not likely to get cancer from it, but it can never be fully ruled out. I'd say you have a greater chance of getting hit by a bus." Unlike the fumes from nail polishes, which can be harmful to salon workers who have to endure prolonged exposure, though, at least the U.V. lights that cure a gel manicure are only potentially harmful to the customer who's putting her hands under them.
The more you know! May all your manicures last long enough to be worth the time and effort they take to apply. Do you have a manicure tip? Share it in the comments.
If there's something you'd like to see as a DIY project, just email me me your suggestions. In the meantime, to check out past DIYs — including how to dye your own stuff, how to knit a Prada-inspired purse, and how to make alterations to a dress — click here.