Manicures 101

I paint my nails often. Some (my husband) say way too often. And yet, to see them before they are complete, you would think my 4-year-old niece had painted them.

I make an utter mess of my nails while I am painting them, yet there is a method to my madness. Some people, probably aliens from a more ambidextrous planet, are able to paint theirs perfectly with few to no mistakes. For the rest of us, we have to find a work-around. The following are some helpful tips and tools to getting a decent-looking manicure in the comfort of your own home.

Prep Work

While prep work will definitely add time to the process, it is incredibly important to the outcome. First, moisturize the shit out of your hands with some super heavy duty, possibly even greasy, lotion. Something like Eucerin or a store brand knock-off of same works really well.

Walgreens Advanced Therapy Dry Skin Treatment Ointment | Walgreens

Photo of Walgreens Advanced Healing Dry Skin Treatment Lotion

This works well and is usually on sale for around $2.99. A little bit goes a long way, so a small bottle will last ages. When moisturizing, focus on the area around your nail and your cuticles. Really slather that stuff on and let it sit for about ten minutes doing its magic.

Once you’ve sufficiently lubed up, break out an orange stick. No, not a stick that is orange, one of these:

photo of 4 wooden orange sticks against a navy blue background
image via

They are little wooden tools, usually sold in packs of two at the drugstore. With orange stick in hand, clean any nasty grime out from under your nails and gently push back your cuticles. GENTLY! If your cuticles are unwieldy, this step may need to be done repeatedly over the course of a few days in order to get them out of the way. Never, NEVER cut, or let anyone else cut, your cuticles. This can cause all kinds of nasty pain and other unsavory things. Be nice to them, push them back nicely. Nobody should be in pain from cuticle care. If your cuticles are overgrown, it will make it difficult to get a clean line across the bottom of the nail, so it is worth it to be patient with them for the greater manicure good.

Once you have cleaned under the nails and pushed back the cuticles, you need to get your nails good and clean. Using a non-acetone remover and a cotton ball or pad, wipe all of your nails really well. A clean nail helps the polish adhere better to prevent chipping. Once you’ve gone over them with the polish remover, wash your hands with soap and water. I cannot skip this step since I almost always end up wiping my eye or putting my finger in my mouth only to have the polish remover remains burn the crap out of my eyeball or make my mouth taste like poison.

The final step in prep is going to sound weird to some. Using either the greasy lotion from above, petroleum jelly, or lip balm, rub it on the skin around your nails. All the way around, good and plenty, being careful not to get any on the nail itself.

photo of Kym's putting lip balm on the skin around her thumb nail

I find it easiest to use lip balm because it allows for more control over where it goes. Slather it on. Trust me.

Painting the Nail

A good base coat does two main things: it helps the polish adhere to avoid chipping, and it provides a barrier between the color and your nail, which helps prevent staining. I like to use the Seche Clear Base coat.

Photo of Seche Clear Base Coat nail polish, clear bottle with black cap against white background
Photo via

It dries quickly and I get no chipping when I use it. Sally Beauty Supply stores carry it and it is on sale pretty regularly. has it cheap, but be forewarned–that website is dangerous on the pocketbook if you like nail polish. If you like China Glaze, this is the spot to get it. Most bottles are under $4.

The following charts by Laquerized are excellent guides for how to properly apply nail polish.

infographic on properly painting ones nails, starting with a clean nail , then with base coat, then with a small drop of colored polish, then a stripe up the middle
images via
infographic on nail polish application, showing the progression of polish application over five different nails.
images via

Yes, this is absolutely the proper way to apply polish, and an excellent starting point. That being said, if you can get your nails to look this clean, you are one of the aforementioned aliens. I am here to let you know that this is rarely possible, and virtually impossible when trying to paint your dominant hand’s nails. This is why you prepped your nails with lots of lip balm. Sure, follow this guide, but don’t worry about staying inside the lines. starting with the base coat, paint the nail as steady as you can, but don’t worry about getting polish on your finger. Once it dries, the lip balm will allow you to easily and painlessly peel it right off the skin around your fingers.

For example, this is what my finger looks like with a coat of base right now–

photo of Kym's finger with lip balm shininess and base coat of nail polish

I’m not sure if my shitty picture allows you to see how much greasiness surrounds my nail or how poorly the base coat is applied, but no fear, the next one will be more obvious. One thing to be mindful of – while we aren’t going for perfection at this point, try to make the polish isn’t pooling or thick around where the nail meets the skin.

photo of Kym's fingernail with green polish applied haphazardly

As you can see, it looks like an uncoordinated child painted that. Don’t worry, it gets better, I promise.

Apply your top coat, preferably a quick dry version, since who has time to sit around for an hour while your polish dries? Again, I recommend the Seche brand, Seche Vite Top Coat, but there is another, called Out the Door, that I have been quite pleased with. It is also available at the above mentioned stores and sites.

After your polish has dried completely– one weird way to tell is to touch your tongue to your nail; if it still as a polishy taste, not dry yet– pull your orange stick back out for clean up. Gently push the skin close to your nail down to try to create a break between the polish on your nail and that on your finger. Use the orange stick to push the polish off your finger. It should come right off if you gobbed on enough lip balm, but if you are having problem spots, the orange stick will help with the removal.

photo of Kym's nail polish upon completion of removing the mess she made previously by painting large portions of her fingers


Ta da! Hopefully this Intro to Nail Painting made sense. If anyone needs clarification on any of the steps, or further information, please feel free in the comments. PoM has some amazing nail posts cooking, so this is only the beginning, folks. Pretty nails everywhere!!

A Few Good Tools

Here are a few things that are inexpensive and handy to have on hand when doing at home manicures:

Sally Hansen No More Mistakes Manicure Clean-Up Pen | Walgreens

Sally Hansen Nail Polish remover Correcting Pen
Perfect for touching up leftover spots on your fingers

Sally Hansen | 2-in-1 Nail White Pencil

Sally Hansen 2 in 1 Nail Whitening Pencil in Packaging

This pencil makes the white (though let’s be honest, more like off-white with random dirt stuck under it) part of your nail WHITE. For best results, lick it first. Gross, yes. Effective, yes. Worth it.

Covergirl 3-way Buffer with Case | Walgreens

Blue and Purple nail buffer with a green case that says Cover Girl

These nail buffers are awesome for when you don’t feel like polishing your nails but want them to look pretty anyway. They really do make them super shiny.

Happy polishing, everyone!

10 replies on “Manicures 101”

Seriously, a few basic tools, which can almost always be found on sale pretty cheap, make a huge difference. Target always has cute little pouches and baskets in the $1 section, too, so grab one of those and make a little kit. Happy polishing!

Oooh manicure posts. I’m in heaven.

I tried vaseline on the skin around my nails once but just got lazy after the first try. I try to be as careful as possible when apply polish and on some rare occasions I do my nails perfectly (I think it depends on a perfect storm of your mood, energy level and the quality of the polish). I just wait for the polish to dry (30 mins a coat) then grab a Q-tip, dip it in nail polish remover and go to work fixing up the mess. I’m always getting complimented for my manicures and that makes me feel pretty =)

Remy is an alien, y’all. Just a heads up. A beautiful alien from a planet where everyone has gorgeous polish jobs and looks adorable even in sweats with leftover mascara smears from the night before. Jealous… And please take me there. =)

I used to never pain my nails because I’m self-conscious of my weirdly shaped nails and tiny hands, but I’ve started because I love seeing the bright colour. I had the same problems though, so I’m excited to try your tips. I just did my toes, and the lip balm alone made a huge difference! Hooray for everything!

Yeah!! I’m glad it helped! And the editors around here can tell you stories about how many times I have accidentally published my articles instead of saving them for review, so trust me, a comment placement slip is NOTHING around here! No more lurking! We’re nice around these parts, and welcome!

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