Given her long list of top-tier clients including Selena Gomez, Storm Reid, and Emily Blunt, it makes sense that celebrity manicurist and educator Julie Kandalec — better known on social media as Julie K — has become one of the most sought-after nail experts in New York. From "Russian" manicures to vanilla chrome, she's on top of every trend that comes our way, and her helpful tips (cuticle tightlining, anyone?) and penchant for busting common myths (no, your nails don't need to "breathe") have seen me through plenty of DIY manicure mistakes.
Though I love to support my local nail salon, I often only have the time for a quick at-home polish — and I know I'm not the only one searching questions like "how to keep nail polish on for longer" and "best way to paint your own nails". This time, instead of turning to Google, I put everything to Julie — and here's what I learned.
How to do almond-shaped nails like a pro
If Instagram is anything to go by, almond is the nail shape of the season. You need a little bit of length to your natural nail in order to achieve the slightly pointed tip, but you don't have to be a professional to get it right. First, Julie suggests investing in a glass nail file, which is gentler than other types and can be reused time and time again. Her favourite is by GERmaniküre. But if you'd rather stick to what you know (and what you know is closer to something like an emery board), Julie says to make sure you're using a fine grit file. "Choose something between 220 and 600 grit," she says. (This number is usually printed onto the nail file itself.) "You don't want anything less than 220."
For an almond shape, the directive is to file in stages. "Start from the left corner and go up to the centre top of the nail [which should take multiple single passes], then go from the right corner up to the centre top," Julie says. If you're struggling to achieve the shape you want, she suggests filing your nails while you have polish on. "This is a trick I do on set because, sometimes, when there’s a darker colour on there, you can see the shape of the nail better," she says. And remember: "Nails should be dry when you’re filing them, otherwise this might cause microscopic tears," which will eventually lead to breakage, Julie warns.
How to make short nails appear longer
The "Italian" manicure achieved viral TikTok status recently for helping to visually elongate short, round nails. The technique consists of leaving negative space between each side of the nail and your chosen polish to give the illusion of taller nail beds. But there are other tricks to make short nails look longer: "If you have really round nails, try pushing your cuticles back," says Julie. "Cuticles move, so I tend to push back once and then push back again just before polishing. That way, you get as much of the cuticle polished as possible."
When it comes to your tools, Julie recommends a metal cuticle pusher, which can be disinfected. "You could use a wooden stick, but I don't generally recommend them because they are porous and you can't disinfect them," she says. "If you're doing this, it has to come straight out of the package. Use it one time and throw it away."
How to tidy up your cuticles like an expert
Qualified manicurists often enlist cuticle nippers to clear away any loose pieces of skin, but it pays to be careful if you're using them at home. "They are fine to be used at home for hangnails, otherwise picking could make them worse," Julie says. "Anything that's loose can be nipped away. However, make sure your cuticle cutter stays in some sort of container and that it's disinfected properly. Take care not to leave it out or share it with anyone."
If you'd rather not use a tool like this, but you still want to tidy up your cuticles, Julie suggests investing in a cuticle remover solution, which is like a chemical exfoliator for your nails. Always be sure to read the instructions on the label: Some have to be removed with soap and water, while others can be wiped away with tissue.
How to paint your nails seamlessly
Gone are the days of narrow nail polish brushes. Now, most nail brands will opt for wider, flatter nail brushes, which take the chore out of painting your nails. "Paint the left side, the right side, and the free edge [on the tip of the nail] and you’re there," says Julie. "Polishing the free edge finishes everything and seals the colour onto the nail." In fact, she pays close attention to the free edge all the way through, from base coat to colour and topcoat.
How to make regular nail polish look professional and expensive
A gel effect top coat can make any manicure look professional. "Gel-like top coats make the nail appear slightly thicker so you have more of an apex," says Julie. But there's another way to make your at-home manicure look expensive: Ditch the Q-tip cleanup method. "I don't think I've ever used a Q-tip," she says. "The cotton just ends up everywhere." Instead, Julie cleans up any mistakes using an angled eyeliner brush (which she says is stiffer and more precise) dipped into 100% acetone. "Anything less," she says, "and you're not going to get that really crisp, clean line".
Lastly, don't underestimate the power of cuticle oil when it comes to finishing off a manicure. "You can't overuse cuticle oil," says Julie. "It's a manicure's best friend. I'd recommend using it three times a day, night and day. Keep it in your purse or by your nightstand." She explains that cuticle oil helps to keep the nail flexible, which she stresses isn't the same thing as being soft. Julie puts it this way: "If you have a plastic plate and a ceramic dish and drop both on the ground, the plastic will bounce and the ceramic one will break." Cuticle oil helps keep nails malleable. Also remember to apply cuticle oil under the free edge of your nail (just underneath the tip, which can become dry during handwashing), which Julie says is an area that many people forget about.
How to make your nail polish last longer
Two obvious steps to ensuring your nail polish lasts longer are using a base coat, which acts like velcro for any polish you apply on top, and a top coat to seal everything in. But Julie also recommends always practising a "dry manicure." "Water is the first thing that’s going to make your polish chip," she explains. "When soaking the nails in a bowl of soapy water, know that the nail is porous and is going to soak up the water like a sponge. It takes an hour for the nail to fully dry all the way. Even if you dry your hands with a towel, the nail will still hold water." She says that applying polish onto a damp nail is a no-no for one particular reason: "When the nail dries, it's going to contract and the polish will have been put on a nail that has expanded, so it's going to chip faster."
Also, make sure your nails are free of cuticle oils and hand creams before you apply any polish. "You can apply all of that stuff after the manicure," says Julie, "but when you're polishing, the nail has to be almost chalky dry. Using a little bit of acetone will take all the oils off."
How to make your nails look smoother
Julie explains that our natural nail is made up of somewhere between 125 to 150 layers. Lots of things can cause your nail to appear slightly ridged, such as picking your cuticles. "Doing a really light buff on the nail plate is okay," says Julie. "It can lightly smooth some of those ridges away. But if you have more damage — for example, you've peeled your gel polish off or someone took off your nail enhancements improperly — you'll want to be really careful of doing this."
On a healthy nail, a little buffing is fine, says Julie, but also consider a ridge-filling base coat. You might want to consider avoiding metallic colours, too, which Julie says settle in ridges and accentuate them. "Using a cream or light colour is going to be really great, plus a gel-effect topcoat, which is a little more pillowy and will help camouflage those ridges," she says.
If your nail ridges are deeper and you're concerned, consider visiting a doctor or dermatologist for further advice.