We spoke with celebrity manicurist Deborah Lippmann, whose nail care brand is adored (and adorned) by all of your female friends. The cuticle expert gave us her top ten tips—one tip for every digit—to get your nail care game where it needs to be:
- Don’t cut straight across
When cutting your fingernails, be certain you’re using one of those smaller, rounded-blade clippers; they’re the ones designed for fingers, and they work well on your smaller toes. (Check out our favorite nail clippers.) The large, straight-blade nail clipper in your dopp kit is for your big toe.
When using the rounded fingernail clippers, you still need to cut the nails at an angle, since the curve of the blade doesn’t match the curve of your nail. “A common mistake men and women make when trimming their own nails is the angle at which they approach it,” says Lippmann. “Clipping straight-on can bend and ultimately damage the nail.”
Instead, you should be clipping the nail three or four times as you travel across the top.
- The nails should (literally) reflect your cuticles
If you’re unsure of what shape your nails should have, just look at your cuticles. Imagine your nail as an oval—an odd oval, yes. The U-shape of the cuticle should be reflected (upside down) by the top of your nail. And, since the top is often wider than the cuticle, you may have to adjust for size; the primary goal here is to mirror the shape.
- Leave a little white
As for nail length, there’s a small spectrum of acceptable lengths. You should leave at least a sliver of “white” at the top of your nails—that space where the nail starts to separate from the skin it protects. (One or two millimeters, in our book.) If you look at your fingers from the side, the whites of the nails shouldn’t be so long that they start to divorce the rounded shape of the finger. If the nail is so long that it extends past the fingertips, you’re due for a trim.
It’s easy to get all nails to a standard length: “Look at all ten nails and pick out the shortest, or that with the smallest amount of ‘white’ at the tip,” says Lippmann. “Use that nail as a reference to ensure all nails are being filed to a uniform length and shape.”
- Start filing your nails, and do it right
You’re not going to get a smooth, perfect cut with the nail clippers—that’s just step one. And, while many clippers come with a built-in file, it’s a sub-par option compared to an emory board file. “An emory board is how you get even nails, shaped to perfection,” says Lippmann. You can use one to smoothen the arch of the nails after a trim, or you can file your nails every few days to maintain a standard length.
Lippmann stresses that you should never ‘saw’ back and forth on the tip of the nail. “Instead, gently run the file across the nail in one direction, beginning at the outside edge, pull up towards the center and repeat,” she says. “Remember to use gentle motions to prevent breakage.” Lastly, don’t hold the file flush to the nail. You should tilt it slightly back, and file from below the nail. “This allows you to see exactly what you are doing and helps protect against over-filing,” Lippmann says.
- Tend to the cuticles
Push and clip your cuticles weekly. That's the best way to prevent painful hangnails from developing. Many nail clippers have an attachment that helps uproot excess skin. Very gently pry this skin upward so that it’s easy to trim. “These are the only pieces of skin that you should nip,” says Lippmann. “The cuticle protects nails from infection, so if cut improperly, it allows bacteria and fungus to infect the nail bed.”
If you’re feeling fancy, you can invest in a cuticle pusher and nipper set, even if it’s just to say you own something called a “nipper”. (It’s gentler than a standard nail clipper, so it might spare you from accidentally clipping too deep into the skin.)
- Be conservative with hangnails
You’re going to get a hangnail every so often, even if you’ve been proactively tending to your cuticles. When it does happen, only clip the excess skin, stopping at the base of the hangnail. Seriously, stop there.
- Consider a buff
If you want to be a true pro, you can get a second, gentler file—a buff—to “exfoliate” the top of your nails. This keeps them smooth and removes any abnormalities along the surface of the nail, and results in an even, polished look. Lippmann’s team engineered the Smooth Operator specifically for this task; it has a numbered system for different levels of severity, none of which is as rough as a file. “I like to use side #3 on men, for a more masculine shine,” she says. “It is so gentle that it can be used on a weekly basis for general nail maintenance.”
- Clean underneath
This should be done daily, not just after cutting the nails. If you can’t pick out any dirt by hand, then take that nail-clipper extension—the cuticle pusher—and gently scrape away anything stuck under there. Don’t overdo it: It’s all too easy to pierce the skin that clings to the nails. (Ouch.)
- Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize
Apply hand lotion daily, and distribute it to the nails. Do this immediately following any self-administered manicuring, too. Lotion is both an offense and defense: It will keep nails polished and strong, while nourishing any lingering hangnails or freshly nipped cuticles.
- As a precaution, wear gloves more often
If you’re doing any handiwork, like cleaning the yard or moving heavy boxes, it doesn’t hurt to wear protective utility gloves. “Hangnails and torn cuticles can be an immediate effect of working with your hands,” says Lippman. “Over time, this will cause hands to age prematurely.” And of course, wear gloves in the cold, dry months.
Bonus (and Obvious) tip: Stop biting your nails. You knew this, right? If you’re struggling to curb this bad habit, then look into a few remedies.