How To Nail The Perfect At-Home Manicure, With Tips From An Expert

Whether you prefer French tips, a gel finish or powder dip nails, booking in for a manicure is an indulgence and not all of us have the time, money or patience for a refresh every other week. But thanks to salon-approved brands like O.P.I, Essie and Sally Hansen making their way into Boots and Superdrug, Instagram-worthy nails are, well, at our fingertips.
While formulas are better than ever, when it comes to painting your nails yourself, the wrong techniques and bad habits can lead to polish-stained cuticles, smudges and chipping. From following the expert-approved three-step method and investing in a top and base coat to upcycling old makeup brushes for quick clean-ups, here's how to perfect the art of the manicure at home, with help from manicurist Ami Streets.
How to shape your nails at home
A salon standard manicure starts with perfectly shaped nails, says Ami. "To achieve a great shape and the best finish, always opt for a soft nail file (R29 rates Tweezerman's Neon Hot File, Buff, Smooth and Shine Block, £12) to prevent tearing or splitting your natural nails."
And the technique really matters. "File in one fluid motion with long, light strokes in one direction. Start from the outside edge and continue in a side-to-centre movement," explains Ami. "This method will give you a smooth finish in addition to giving you more control over the shape," whether you go for square, squoval, almond or stiletto. But whatever you do, don't 'see-saw'.
"Filing back and forth weakens nails, making them prone to splitting," adds Ami. "Also, avoid metal or coarse nail files – both are too harsh for natural nails and can cause damage."
Buff before polish
For nail colour that lasts well beyond three days, it pays to eradicate all traces of dirt, oil and polish residue to give it a clean base to cling to. Once you've given your nails a once-over with a swipe of acetone (Ami suggests using a free-from formula, which will do less damage), it's time to buff. "Buffing is essential for perfectly prepped nails," explains Ami. "Be gentle and sparing, using a soft and smooth four-way block or buffing file. Buffing brightens, smooths and creates natural shine in addition to removing ridges, giving you a perfectly prepped base to paint on."
Be careful not to over-buff, though. "Too much buffing can cause heat build-up and friction, which will damage and weaken your nails," explains Ami. Three to four swipes on each nail is ample.
How to paint your nails professionally
Firstly, always apply a clear base coat, like Ciaté Base Coat, £10, to your nails before painting to prevent staining. Then go in with the colour. "Aim to paint in three strokes," says Ami. "Starting in the middle of the nail, use the shape of the applicator brush to push towards the cuticle in a clean line." Then repeat on each side until the entire nail is coated.
R29 recommends picking a nail polish with a flat, wide brush, which will hug the whole surface of the nail, providing great colour payoff in fewer strokes. Try Givenchy Le Vernis Nail Polish, £15.30, Nails Inc Nail Polish, £15, and Rimmel 60 Seconds Nail Polish, £2.99.
For brilliant shine, finish with a clear top coat. "Always 'seal' your polish by running your top coat along the top edge of your nail after application, too," adds Ami. "This helps to minimise chipping and extends wear-time."
...and here's how to paint the other hand
Painting the other hand is no mean feat but you can minimise mistakes by assuming the professional nail tech position, explains Ami. "Sit at a table with your elbows rested and your hands supported on the surface. Think of an arm rest or rolled-up towel for extra comfort, as in salon. This will help keep you steady while you paint. Avoid overloading the brush with too much polish and aim to apply in the three steps, as mentioned above. Practice makes perfect."
How to make nails dry faster
"The secret to a rapid-dry manicure is to perfect the art of layering," says Ami. "Keep each coat of polish as lightweight as possible. I'd also suggest opting for quick-drying formulas." Try Barry M Speedy Quick Dry Nail Paint, £3.99. "Good quality polish and top coat will ensure your manicure dries super quickly with great shine. Complete it by applying oil to your cuticles after a couple of minutes. The oil not only hydrates nails and cuticles but will also help you avoid any smudges during drying time." R29 also rates O.P.I Drip Dry Lacquer Drying Drops, £12.32, to speed things up even more.
Alternatively, applying a cool breeze works just as well. "This on-set and in-salon trick can easily be transferred to home by simply using your hairdryer on the cold setting," says Ami. "A blast of icy air can help to set nail polish in an instant. Hold about six inches away from your hand for around a minute for best results."
How to stop nails from chipping
Top coat is your best friend when it comes to extending polish wear, but not just after you're done painting. "To extend wear and avoid any chips, reapply your top coat and cuticle oil every one to two days," says Ami. "A little maintenance means your manicure will really last and continue to look perfect."
How to clean up nail polish smudges and mistakes
This is where your old makeup tools come in handy. Instead of a cotton bud, which will only end up in landfill, take a flat eyeshadow brush, dip it into acetone and carefully run it around the edges of your nails or the skin on your fingertips to clean away any excess polish.
Refinery29's selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission. Transparency is important to us at Refinery29, if you have any questions please reach out to us.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series