We’ve been told that practice makes perfect. Well, perfect doesn’t stick around for a long time because I used to be damn good at doing my own nails, making the routine a Sunday night tradition. After two year of dropping the habit, now when I attempt to paint my nails, my polish gets gunked up, I undoubtedly will smudge the lacquer before it dries, and my cuticles look all-around blah.
Needless to say, I could always use a lesson, so when I was invited to a nail master class with legendary celebrity manicurist Deborah Lippmann (she did Amy Adams nails for the Golden Globes, FYI) I immediately RSVPed for my seat.
Lippmann's approach to doing nails is somewhat unique, as she developed a “waterless manicure,” allowing you to go from caring for your cuticles to cleaning to buffing to moisturizing, and then painting your nails without a drop of H2O. And she’s used this method while painting the nails of celebrity A-listers like Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence. Have you ever seen their beautiful nail beds? Zoom in on that red carpet pic, for real.
A regular backstage at New York Fashion Week, Lippmann is not only a delightful presence, but she’s always spewing out the tricks. Here’s a few of the many things I’ve learned about cuticle care and how to ace the at-home mani in about 20 minutes.
1. Your cotton balls need a makeover. I always use the ones that look like fuzzy marshmallows, but Lippmann suggests buying the cotton pads that come as a roll. You basically just rip off as much as you need and they don’t leave behind any fuzzies. Sally Beauty sells cotton squares that kind of look like the section you’d rip off.
2. Oh, and how you remove said polish needs a makeover. Your first thought is likely to dump the polish on the cotton pad and then give your nail a heavy duty scrub down. False. Just don’t do it because it’s too harsh on your nail. Lippmann says to saturate the cotton square with nail polish remover—she suggests her brand's version which includes moisturizing aloe and lavender—and then press it on the nail. Leave it be for a few minutes and then pull it off while putting a bit of pressure on your nail. The polish should slide off, though you’ll have a few spots to clean up.
3. Glitter isn’t polish, so rubbing is definitely not going to remove glitter. So what you’re going to need to do is saturate the nail as before and then eventually the glitter will get an edge and it will lift off.
4. The space that is white on your nail is called the “free edge.” This is what keeps your nail strong, so Lippmann says you should have 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch of free edge. And when you’re filing this portion of the nail, be gentle.
5. When you file your nails, don’t saw back and forth. It should be one forward motion. Sawing back and forth will cause your nail to peel. Lippmann also says you should take your time filing and that it should take longer than it normally does.
6. To figure out the shape of our nail and to create a shape that will elongate your nail, Lippmann says to match the shape of your cuticle to the tip of the nail.
7. When painting and caring for the cuticles of the opposite hand—AKA not your dominant hand—you should always lay that hand flat against a surface so it’s not a “moving target.”
8. If you don't have time to paint your nails, but you still want to make them presentable and super glossy, buff! Taking a product like the Smooth Operator 4-Way Nail Buffer ($12; net-a-porter.com), dust the entire surface of your nails with each fabric, but only use Fabric #4 if you're sure you don't want to wear polish. Nails need a bit of texture on the nail bed for polish to adhere well.
9. When you're using a cuticle pusher after you use a cuticle removing treatment like the Cuticle Removing Exfoliating Treatment ($20; sephora.com), be sure to be very, very, very gentle at the base of the nail. If you push too hard on this area, Lippmann says you can damage the way your nail grows for life.
10. Lippmann says that after using a cuticle exfoliating treatment and the cuticle pusher, your goal should be to not have anything cuticle to clip because the dead cuticles and the dead skin should lift during the previous process.
11. The biggest mistake people make when trimming cuticles is that they grab onto the skin and pull. Eeek, potentially causing a hang nail. She says the correct method is to squeeze the skin with the trimmers and then release.
12. Don't forget hand creams with SPF and hand exfoliators. Caring for your hands will help your manicures look even better. Lippmann took this time to demonstrate her new product called Marshmallow ($29; barneys.com), which is a hand exfoliator that is made with both AHA and BHA and marshmallow root extract.
I kid you not, I could keep going, too. Lippmann continued by showing us the importance of using cuticle cream and then cleaning the nail before even applying polish. I never realized how many steps I was skipping, but I guess it makes sense why my at-home manis were kind of crap.
So the next time you're struggling to book an appointment at your salon, try a DIY. And if you need some polish shopping suggestions, you can check out the gallery above.