How to Give Yourself a Manicure at Home

by Andrea Karim on 4 April 2012 5 comments
Photo: damon.garrett

Manicures (and pedicures, for that matter) are one of those "little luxuries" that many of us skimp on for a variety of reasons. Some people simply don't have the time, some people don't like to spend the money — me, I personally don't enjoy having strangers fondle my feet for 45 minutes.

Fortunately, mani-pedis can be easily accomplished at home, so there's no reason to go without a professionally polished set of fingers — here's how to save money and time with a little DIY. (See Also: 10 Budget Beauty Products You Can Make at Home)

What You'll Need

At a bare minimum, you will need the following items:

  • Nail clippers
  • Nail file
  • Cuticle trimmers
  • Nail brush (for cleaning)
  • Nail buffer or polish
  • Moisturizing lotion

Any additional items, like stickers or adhesive crystals, are encouraged (but not covered in this guide).

Step 1: Clean Your Nails

The first and most obvious step for getting great-looking nails is to clean them. This means removing old polish with nail polish remover and cleaning behind your nails with a nail brush and soap.

Step 2: Treat Your Cuticles

Other than getting an even coat of paint on your nails, one of the trickiest parts of performing a professional manicure is working with your cuticles. If you are prone to hangnails, you can minimize cuticle problems by carrying a good pair of cuticle trimmers (I like the ones by Tweezerman) with you at all times. I keep a pair in my desk at work, because I get hangnails every five seconds or so. As soon as one appears, I nip it in the bud.

Never tug at or bite your hangnails — that's a great way to rip your skin and cause an infection.

If your cuticles are in bad shape, you can use a cuticle dissolver to help soften dead and damaged skin for removal. If you have more time (like, overnight), a gentle product like Burt's Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream will help you scrape away dead cuticles in the morning — no trimming required.

Step 3: Shape Your Nails

There are lots of people who believe that nails should only ever be filed, never clipped. Whatever. You can use whatever tools you like to keep your nails at their optimal length. And don't think that taking care of your nails means that you have to grow them to extreme lengths — short nails look fine and can be easier to manage, especially if you have an active lifestyle.

Step 4: Scrub Your Skin Smooth

This is an optional step, depending on what shape your hands are in. A cheap homemade scrub can be pulled together using a teaspoon of sugar and a tablespoon of olive oil. Soak your hands for five minutes in warm water, then smooth the skin with a pumice stone or some scrub. Rinse well and dry.

If you have seriously dry hands, consider a pair of spa gel gloves for an overnight treatment.

Step 5: Buff or Polish

There's no rule that says that you have to wear nail polish, although colors are so varied and fun that it can be hard to resist. Regardless of whether you choose to use colored nail polish or not, you should start with a base of clear polish. It gives you a smoother surface to work with, and keeps highly pigmented polishes from staining your nails.

First Coat: Clear Polish

Clear nail polish comes in a variety of formulas now — you can get polish that moisturizes your nails, helps your nails grow longer, thickens your nails, and more. Clear polish is a smart, simple way to give nails a classy appearance, and it's easier than working with colored polish (because if you paint it on a little crooked, no one will notice).

Second Coat: Colored Polish

Nail polish comes in such a variety of colors these days that it can be easy to amass a giant collection of hues. However, the frugally minded will pick five or six colors that are fun, but also flattering. Your skin tone may clash with many standard colors (I can't wear red nail polish, myself), so try to figure out your best colors before buying.

O.P.I. nail polish is widely available and has a giant color selection. If you prefer your polishes with a little less in the way of toxic chemicals, many women swear by Butter London polishes (although they aren't cheap, at about $14 a pop). If you want something that dries a bit faster, look into Sally Hansen Insta-Dri nail polish. Easily found at most drug stores, they have a decent color selection, and because the polish is so thick, sometimes one coat will be enough. It doesn't REALLY dry instantly, of course, but it dries much faster than conventional polish.

Painting Technique

The art of painting your nails without slopping polish all over your hands is a delicate one. Here's a tutorial to help you learn how (skip to 1:20 to get to the good part).

Watch video

Top Coat: More Clear Polish

If you want to keep your color from chipping, you'll need a good clear top coat. The top coat is the key to a lasting manicure, and it's the thing that nobody seems to make time for (I know; I'm lazy, so I rarely put one on). But it will make the difference between a manicure that looks good for a week, and a manicure that looks good for a day.

Alternative to Polish — Buffing

Buffing is a cheap, natural way to add shine to your nails. Basically, you begin by using a fine-grained file to smooth out the ridges on your nail — rather like sanding a rough board. Buffing boards come with four different textures — starting with the roughest, you sand the entire surface of your nail, and then repeat using the slightly smoother board surface. By the time you are done, you will have shiny, pretty nails, but beware — buffing is, in fact, removing part of the surface of your nails. Buff too often, and you can actually buff right through your nail. So buff infrequently, and with great care.

Step 6: Moisturize Your Skin

Many nail salons have a tendency to moisturize your skin mid-mani. That's well and good, but I find it easier to wield the nail polish brush if my hands aren't slippery.

One of the best ways to ensure a flawless manicure is to do it at night, before bed. Once your nails are reasonably dry, you can moisturize your hands with some high quality lotion, and fall asleep with your hands in a highly awkward position (lying flat atop your covers). By the time you start tossing and turning, your nails should be fairly dry.

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Guest's picture

Personally I think doing a manicure at home is much better than going to a salon. Not only is it cheaper, but it is more sanitary. The tools used are not used for anyone else and you know how they are cleaned. Sounds like a win-win!

Andrea Karim's picture

Yes, much more sanitary to DIY! Although I don't know anyone who has personally contracted any infections from a salon, the idea of using other people's nail tools does skeeve me out a bit.

I will admin that most salons do a MUCH better job than I can ever hope to, especially on my fingernails, which are a challenge. :)

Meg Favreau's picture

I agree with you on the other people handling me part. I've gotten a mani-pedi once -- for a wedding -- and while the results were nice and the process was pretty calming, I couldn't get over thinking about how this stranger was removing the dead skin from my feet.

Guest's picture
Sophia

Every so often I go to a cosmetology school to get my nails done. It's five bucks. I definitely find the hand massaging by a stranger weird, but five bucks for nice nails works for me. They use disposable emery boards and cuticle sticks, as well as gobs of hand sanitizer, so ick factor is minimal. I trim my own nails, but that's more out of preference.

I've never had a pedicure. It isn't so much someone touching my feet (I'm female, I see a gynecologist, I can deal with someone touching my feet), but that my feet look so terrible right now. I have been attempting to make them look nicer, perhaps in preparation for having a pedicure, but nothing is helping. *sigh* Socks are good.

Andrea Karim's picture

It's kind of ironic that we have to prepare ourselves to look good for an appointment that is meant... to help us look good, isn't it? A really good moisturizer to heal heel cracks, followed by a good scrubbing with a pumice stone, can do wonders.

I once went to get a pedicure, and the lady whipped out one of those callous-removal devices - kind of like a cheese slicer. My feet looked AMAZING afterward, but I never had a chance to go back to that place. And I never could bring myself to use the device at home - I understand that it's very dangerous.