How to Use Essential Nail Grooming Tools for Perfect DIY Manicures

Nail at-home manis and pedis with these must-have tools.

Photo: Getty Images / AdobeStock

As much as everyone loves taking time for self care with a trip to the nail salon, regular appointments cost time and money. And even if you get professional treatments religiously your nails may snag or chip unexpectedly, leaving you to your own devices until your next appointment. That's why you should always have the essentials at home if you're a nail perfectionist.

Before you exit this page with the assumption that you're already set, note that nail tools don't last forever. When you notice your tools are dull and not as effective anymore, it's time to replace them, according to OPI Education & Capability Manager and licensed nail tech Darlene Sritapan. "For example, using a dull nail file or nipper can actually do more damage to your nails, such as causing microtears in the skin or cuticles," says Sritapan. She adds that it's also important to sanitize your tools with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol or another disinfectant.

If you're realizing it's time to replace some of your tools or you want to build a kit from scratch, you're in the right place. To help you out, here's a guide to the essential tools you need and how to properly use each. (

Nail Clippers

Sometimes referred to as nail trimmers or nail cutters, nail clippers are central to an at-home nail kit. Not only are they essential to trim your finger and toenails, but they also work for hangnails (jagged pieces of skin that usually occur around the actual fingernail). While a nail file can also shorten your nails, nail clippers are great for taking off more length quickly, according to celebrity nail artist Mar Y Sol Inzerillo who has partnered with Nail Boo. She adds that using a nail clipper with a flat edge may be the most beginner-friendly option as it can be used on different nail beds and nail thicknesses. Below, her tips on how to use one.

How to Use Nail Clippers

  1. Open the nail clipper by flipping then rotating the lever.
  2. Place the clipper on the edge of the nail where you'd like to cut it. Instead of trying to cut entirely across the nail in one go, make a series of small clippings from one outer edge to the other until the nail is evenly cut.
  3. After achieving the desired length, file or buff the edge of your nail until it is smooth and even.

Nail File

If after clipping your nails you find that edges of your nails aren't even or fitting your desired shaped, that's where a nail file in. The tool, which can be made of emery (a type of rock), metal, or glass, helps to smooth out the edge of the nail. (While an electric nail file aka e-file is an option, both Inzerillo and Sritapan advise leaving those up to the professionals as they can cause significant damage to your nails.) For natural nails, Inzerillo recommends using a 100/180 grit file according to the below method. (

How To Use a Nail File

  1. Wash hands with soap and water and thoroughly dry hands.
  2. Moving from corner to center on both sides of nail, gently drag the file across the nail to achieve desired shape. When filing your nails, file in one direction (not back and forth in a sawing motion). Filing in one direction ensures that you're not weakening your nails in the process of filing. For example, if you're filing your nails from left to right, once you get to the right edge, lift the nail file and repeat until you achieve your desired shape.

Nail Buffer

If you ever notice your nails have ridges and generally look uneven and dull, it's time to add a nail buffer to the mix. Nail buffers are designed to smooth out the surface of your nails, and they have a cushioned support that makes them easier to use for the purpose than nail files. "Buffing your nails gets rid of ridges, giving a smoother surface for the polish to adhere to and it also helps provide a nice sheen to the nails," which translates to a longer lasting manicures, according to Sritapan. As far as grit is concerned, a medium grit (of 100-180) will work best for smoothing out any ridges on your nails, while a finer grit (of 400) will help add shine and luster to your nails.

The proper way to buff nails is to stroke the buffer across the nails in an "X" shape, says Sritapan, since buffing side-to-side creates friction and heat that can dry out the nail, causing damage. Follow her steps below.

How To Use a Nail Buffer

  1. Wash hands with soap and water and thoroughly dry hands.
  2. Hold the buffing block parallel to your nail and gently drag the block across the surface in one direction. As with filing your nails, avoid using a back-and-forth sawing motion which may be too rough on your nails and cause them to weaken over time. Use the buffer to strike the nail diagonally in an "X" shape 6–10 times.
  3. Repeat step two with a fine-grit buffer to add shine.

Cuticle Pusher

Your cuticles are that thin sliver of dead skin right at the base of your nail. Pushing them back before painting your nails can make your manicure or pedicure last longer, and help you avoid future hangnails. You can choose from wooden cuticle pushers or stainless steel cuticle pushers, which last longer. Whichever option you choose, you can follow Inzerillo's below tips on how to use the tool.

How to Use a Cuticle Pusher

  1. Soak your hands or feet in warm water for about 5 minutes. This ensures that you can effortlessly push back your cuticles without damaging your nails.
  2. Using the curved edge of your cuticle pusher and holding it at a 45-degree angle to your nail, gently push back your cuticles toward the base of your nail.

Cuticle Nippers

Though some nail experts don't believe in cutting cuticles, both Inzerillo and Sritapan give the green light to using them to trim cuticles and hangnails, provided you do so correctly. The result is a cleaner, more polished look. Below is the proper way to cut your cuticles, according to Sritapan. (

How to Use Cuticle Nippers

  1. Soak hands in warm water for 10 minutes to soften cuticles.
  2. Starting on the outer edge of your cuticle working your way around, use a sterilized cuticle cutter/nippers to cut the excess, dry cuticle down. You want to make sure to only cut the cuticle and not the actual skin around your nails.

Gel-Curing Lamp

If you prefer long-lasting manicures you may consider investing in a gel-curing lamp. When cured with one of the lamps, gel polish lasts around two weeks with no chipping. You may want to opt for an LED lamp, which typically has shortened curing times compared to traditional UV lamps, says Inzerillo. Below are her general instructions on how to use a gel lamp, but you should plan to cross-reference the manufacturer's instructions for your particular model.

How To Use a Gel-Curing Lamp

  1. Prep your nails with alcohol or a nail dehydrator. Apply a gel base coat to your nails. Place nails under the lamp and allow to cure for 30 seconds.
  2. Apply your gel polish color of choice in a thin, even layer. Place under the lamp and allow to cure for 30-45 seconds. Repeat until you get the desired color payoff.
  3. Apply a thin layer of gel topcoat. Cure for 60 seconds.

Pumice Stone/Foot File

There's no use in mastering an at-home pedicure if you're not making sure that your feet are smooth. Although there are many ways to soften your feet at home, such as callus removers and foot peels, it's also helpful to have a pumice stone or foot file on hand to scrub off the dead skin manually.

"A pumice stone is a natural, lightly abrasive stone," says Sritapan. "They are used to remove dry, dead skin and can help soften calluses and corns. A foot file is similar, however, it is made from metal or sandpaper and is more abrasive. You should use a foot file if you need to remove tough calluses and dead skin from feet. Pumice stones are more gentle for sensitive and less tough skin." Read on for her tips on how to use either.

How To Use a Pumice Stone Or Foot File

  1. Soak your feet in warm water for 10 minutes to help soften up the skin before filing.
  2. Using the stone or file, gently scrape the bottom of your feet, paying close attention to the heels and outer edges of the foot. These areas tend to have the most layers of dead skin due to pressure applied when walking.
  3. Clean off your tool with soap and warm water.

Got all that? It may seem like a lot of steps, but each nail tool plays a vital role in creating a neat, lasting manicure or pedicure. Once you've mastered how to use each, you can keep your nails looking flawless, whether or not you're a salon regular.

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