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The Science of a Perfect Manicure: How to Score a Perfect 10

Perfect nails require more than just the “it” color of the season. First, you need a good canvas—smooth, healthy, and strong. Our experts explain how to nail your next mani.

| August 6th, 2012
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Raise your polished hand if you’ve spent hard-earned dough on a salon manicure, only to have it chip or fade after a few days.

And how about those cuticles that started off smooth, but are now as ragged as a saw’s edge? Turns out, there are a few reasons (beyond the temptation to update your Facebook status while drying) your nails don’t stay a perfect ten for long.

Follow this guide to make the most of your next mani.

STEP ONE: CLEAN AND PREP NAILS

Thoroughly wash your hands and feet, then scrub cuticles and the undersides of nails with a soft baby toothbrush and a gentle antibacterial soap to get rid of dirt and other debris. Pat dry.

MORE: Hepatitis C From a Manicure?

Next, remove traces of old polish with an acetone-based solution that’s free of glycerin or vitamin E, ingredients that serve to moisturize skin around nails, but actually leave the nail bed too slick for color to adhere. Instead, try a formula like Cutex Advanced Revival Nail Polish Remover ($3, drugstore.com), which contains flaxseed oil, black currant oil, and apricot kernal oil to strengthen the nail itself, rather than just condition.

“Unlike other moisturizing agents, these botanical oils dry to form a protective shield that’s an excellent base for polish,” says Cutex’s Chief Chemist Frank Busch, who began researching the ingredients after seeing a still-vibrant 13th century Madonna and Child at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I wondered what they used to make paint during the Middle Ages, and found a whole class of natural oils that have strengthening properties when converted from a liquid to a solid.”

STEP TWO: CLIP AND FILE NAILS

If the edges of your nails extend beyond their bed, trim them straight across, leaving each squared off to prevent in-growns. We like a mess-free clipper such as Sally Hansen Clip N’ Catch Nail Clipper-Lip ($4, ulta.com). Next, use a file to create your shape. “Traditional cardboard and metal files are too harsh for the delicate natural nail,” says Los Angeles nail stylist Jenna Hipp. “Crystal versions smooth edges instead of ripping into them.” (Try Sephora Collection Crystal Nail File, $12, sephora.com.)

To determine how round or square your nail should be, Hipp advises mirroring the natural curve of your cuticles. “Like eyebrows, the right shape can create the illusion of longer fingers and younger-looking hands,” Hipp says. Gently work your crystal file in a back and forth motion across the edge to create the smoothest edge possible.

MORE: Signs of a Shady Nail Salon

STEP THREE: EXFOLIATE AND HYDRATE ROUGH SPOTS

Heels take a beating all summer, especially if you’re pounding the pavement in trendy, but often unsupportive, sandals. Using a pumice stone (We like CoverGirl Ergo Pumice Stone, $5, drugstore.com), move your hand in circular motions to slough away dead cells. At the salon, avoid razors (they are outlawed in most states), which can cut skin and transmit infections, and avoid shaving before plopping into the pedicure station, since micronized nicks on the epidermis can allow bacteria to enter. Seal moisture back in and continue exfoliating with a lactic-acid infused moisturizer such as AmLactin Foot Cream Therapy, $12, drugstore.com).

Shop Our Favorite Nail & Hand Products, From BeautySage.com


STEP FOUR: NEATEN CUTICLES

Contrary to popular theory, “There is no need for harsh and scary tools when it comes to cuticle care!” Hipp insists. “Cutting them seems like instant gratification, but will only cause them to grow back with a vengeance in the long run.”

Instead, she recommends pushing them back with a cuticle stick (Try Cuccio Naturale Cuticle Eraser Stick, $3, ussalonsupply.com). First, soak fingertips in a bowl of warm water for five minutes to soften the nail beds. “Pushing back when they are dry can lead to painful hangnails later,” Hipp says. Combine a few drops of your favorite essential oil with one teaspoon of jojoba, grapeseed, or olive oil, then massage the mixture deep into the cuticles before pushing them gently back towards your wrist. “The massaging action forces moisture into the skin and jumpstarts circulation so the area can repair itself more quickly,” Hipp says.

If you can’t resist trimming, stick to just the hangnails, and use a sharp, professional-grade tool such as Nip-N-Push Tweezer Style Cuticle Nipper ($12, bodytoolz.com) which will “Be more precise and help you avoid over-clipping,” Hipp says. Let your hands dry completely.

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