It's easy to nail a good manicure (one that lasts a week or more) at home—all you need is 30 minutes.
Step 1. Remove old lacquer using nail-polish remover and a paper towel or a cotton pad (both offer more friction than a tissue and won't shred the way cotton balls can). Always use a non-acetone polish remover, which is less drying than regular formulas.
Step 2. For better shape control, file your nails while they're dry. Overly abrasive files, including metal ones, will promote peeling, so always choose a fine-grade emery board. The best technique: Choose a direction and stick with it using smooth strokes. Don’t saw back and forth—a sure way to break the nail.
Step 3. Soften nails and cuticles in a bowl of warm water mixed with cuticle oil, olive oil or body lotion. After a 10-minute soak, dry off and apply cuticle cream or lotion. Gently ease cuticles back by making tiny circles against the cuticle with an orangewood stick (a thin wooden stick with a slant-edge tip at both ends, available in drugstores) wrapped in cotton.
Next, gently rub cuticles with a warm, damp washcloth, using a circular motion to slough away dead cuticle skin (that white membrane). Although many salons cut cuticles for a quick-clean look, it's safer to just push back. The cuticle actually forms a protective seal between the nail and the skin and prevents irritants from getting into the skin.
Step 4. Wash away oil or lotion with soap and water, and dry nails thoroughly. Re-rubbing them with polish remover (as they do at salons) shouldn't be necessary and can actually over-dry nails.
Step 5. Apply a basecoat. Many women skip it, but shouldn't. Basecoat holds polish in place so it lasts longer. It also prevents dark lacquers from tinting your nails.
Step 6. Sweep on polish the way they do at salons, in three strokes, from base to tip: Go up the center, then hit each side. In order to apply the thinnest coats possible, use one dip per nail and wipe the brush once per dunk before applying.
Wait two minutes between each coat of color (base and topcoats included) to speed overall drying time.
Step 7. Finish with a topcoat. Wearing a topcoat can keep your nails healthy by preventing water loss, so nails break less. The best topcoats offer a harder, longer-lasting protective shell than the fast-drying ones can provide.
But if you're in a rush, don't risk ruining your nails--go speedy instead. Apply a quick-dry topcoat every other day to prolong the life of your polish. To help prevent nicks, try a silicone-based spray or drying oil.
Step 8. Touch up any polish mistakes after nails are dry (working on wet nails guarantees smudging). Use a cotton swab and polish remover, or try a pen made for this specific purpose. If you have a smudge, gently rub it out with a dab of polish remover. When dry, polish only the affected area, then cover the entire nail with a topcoat.