I don’t know about you, but my finished at-home manicures look like a 6-year-old took a paintbrush to my hands. No matter how hard I try, my manis just wind up being amateur compared to a salon treatment.
Thankfully, to get the essential tips (no pun intended) on how to execute your nail primping at home—and give the illusion that you got them done professionally—I consulted Gwen Stefani’s manicurist (the pop star is the queen of cool nails, after all).
“Life gets busy, of course, but keeping your nails healthy and pretty is something you can work on at home,” says nail artist Shelly Hill, who also works with Nicki Minaj and Amal Clooney. “The trick is having the proper tools, quality 5-free—or more—polish, and working on your technique.”
“Life gets busy, of course, but keeping your nails healthy and pretty is something you can work on at home.”
Don’t know 5-free from fat-free? It just means that the top five sketchy ingredients (like formaldehyde) that are in most mainstream nail polishes have been removed. The number can go up if more toxins are taken out. For example, the Los Angeles salon that Hill manages, Base Coat, now has its own line of 8-free polish.
Once you’re up on the better-for-you brands, it’s then just a matter of the actual application. (Easy, right? JK.) Hill has picked up some brilliant tricks for, ahem, nailing your at-home mani every time—yes, even when you’re using your non-dominant hand.
Ready for a celeb-approved, DIY manicure? Keep reading for Hill’s pro tips.
Handle your cuticles
That pesky skin that grows around your nail beds is a major part of what can make your mani look less than professional. Grooming your cuticles is easy, though.
“You can use your thumb nail and gently push them back after you shower or wash your hands,” says Hill. She then recommends using a cuticle oil to keep your nail beds looking fresh (though any nourishing body oil from your beauty shelf will do the trick).
Shape to perfection—with the right tool
Simply cutting your nails with a clipper isn’t going to make them look, well, salon-chic. Shaping’s key in order to truly be Instagram-worthy—and the pro secret is investing in a glass nail file. (You can find them for under $10, so it’s a budget-friendly addition.)
“These are so much better for you and the environment [than emery boards],” says Hill. “Glass files refine the nail and can be used in any direction without tearing or causing damage to the edge.” She notes that coarser files can actually be rough on the layers of keratin that make up your nail plate, which results in an uneven edge (no thanks).
Paint like an artiste
Now for the hard part: applying the polish. (Just me?) Always start with a base coat—not only will it protect your nails from chemicals, but also gives the color something to adhere to for longer-lasting wear.
“The easiest way to paint is to take your brush and start in the center of your nail, as close as you can get to the cuticle area at the tip,” says Hill. “Then go from the bottom left side near the cuticle to the top in a slight circular stroke, and repeat on the right side. Finish that with one last stroke over the middle of the nail to make it even.”
This takes practice to get perfect, Hill admits, but there are some tricks she’s picked up along the way. “Make sure you’re using thin layers of polish,” she notes. “Wait about five minutes between each layer to help with the overall dry time, and have an old makeup brush dipped in nail polish remover on hand to clean up mistakes.”
Seal the deal
Now, you want your work of art to last—so applying a top coat is crucial. “Not only does this make your manicure last longer, but it gives a high-gloss shine to an otherwise dull appearance when polish dries,” says Hill. “Top coats also protect color from UV and other environmental discoloration.”
And to really milk that mani, wear gloves. “When gardening, doing dishes, cleaning—anything that can affect your nails,” the pro advises. “Gloves will make your nail polish last for a good 10 days—it makes a huge difference.” After all, it is a masterpiece—you might as well take extra care to protect it.
If you want to get really creative, try this major nail trend that takes its inspiration from healthy Instagram. And check out the beauty obsessions of non-toxic pioneer Deborah Lippmann.