Nail Tips and Tools pt1: The Essential Stuff You Don't See

I've gotten lots of questions about nails so I thought I'd put together a little series of posts about some of my favorite basic products and tools, along with some tips on how I get the most from my mani. There are loads of nail blogs out there with far more detailed information as well as step-by-step instructions ranging from simple to the complex, and of course tons of nail art on Pinterest. One of my favorite nail art blogs is Chalkboard Nails, you can get to lots of others from there. A very comprehensive Pinterest collection can be found here, with a HUGE nail art board specifically found here.

The Essential Stuff You Don't See

As with everything, a good foundation is essential. While the quality of polishes ranges widely, you're definitely not required to go high end to make your manicure last. Having a good topcoat is they key, and I HIGHLY suggest using Seche Vite. It is magical. If you take away only one thing from this series, let this be it! This stuff not only toughens up your manicure so it can withstand more wear and extends its life, it also makes dry time EXTRA fast. You can usually wait 5-10 minutes then go on with your business, though I'm overly careful and use it as an excuse to relax for 30 minutes or I'll just paint my nails before bed. Put it on thicker, and minimize the number of strokes to avoid bubbles; no need to wait until the polish below is dry, and actually you'll get better results if it's a bit tacky. Just use a light touch. I get mine from Sally's Beauty Supply, but it's also available at Target, ULTA, and of course online.

A base coat will help even out nail ridges, protect the top layers of your nail, and aid in nail stain prevention (especially with blues and greens). I've been using OPI's Natural Nail Base Coat for years and like it for its fast dry time, though it's very thin and provides only minimal protection/smoothing; if you need nail treatment, hardeners or have thin/grooved nails then a more specialized base coat would be a better option for you.

Another incredibly useful behind the scenes tool is quick dry oil which you can use to speed up in-between coats drying times, and is especially helpful in tape manicures or those with freehand painting; it can leave behind a powdery white residue which disappears under top coat and after washing. I like Sinful Colors Quick Dry Oil because it's inexpensive and fairly accessible (I get mine at Walgreens).

My last essential is a cuticle cream. While nail polish can be tough on nails, it's actually the remover that's the toughest, especially if you use acetone-based removers like I do. I swear by Burt's Bees Lemon Butter Cuticle Cream; I rub a little on at night before bed to keep my nails healthy and help prevent splitting, both with or without polish on my nails.

I'm happy to answer any questions, and would love to hear your own tips!

[Part one: The Essential Stuff You Don't See]
[Part two: Painting Technique and Effects Polishes]
[Part three: Tools, Household and Specialized]

This post is also published in the youlookfab forum. You can read and reply to it in either place. All replies will appear in both places.


  • Rusty replied 6 years ago

    So helpful. Thank you for sharing. I'm off to pick up some of that base coat !

  • Windchime replied 6 years ago

    Aida, I love BB's lemon butter cuticle cream! I tend to use it only weekly, when I file my nails. I'm having problems with nails splitting (and I don't use polish). Do you think if I apply it daily, that it would help strengthen my nails?

    Thanks for sharing from your knowledge!

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Windchime, it might! When I first got into polish I found that I was getting little vertical cracks and using the cuticle cream helped solve that issue. On unpolished nails I like to work in quite a lot: into the cuticle, on the nail bed itself, into the sides, and on the tip of my finger. With the cracks I used it morning and night. I don't always manage to get it in every night these days, but I notice my nails feel a lot healthier when I do.

  • Mona replied 6 years ago

    Aida, have you tried buffing your nails before applying nail polish or do you just use the base coat? Also, this looks like a long process. So you apply the base coat, nail polish and top coat with enough time in between to let dry the previous coat. Am I right?

  • columbine(erin) replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for the tips, Aida. 

  • Beth Ann replied 6 years ago

    Good tips (sorry, pun)!  Thanks, Aida.  I just paint my toes, since my hands take a beating, but it's the season for pedicures, and I do all mine myself!

  • minimalist replied 6 years ago

    What terrific tips! Thanks for the detailed descriptions.

    My current method of choice is regular mani-pedi at a decent nail salon. But I should use eponychium moisturizer; I'll try the Burt's Bees one you recommend.

    How do you feel about gel manicures?

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Mona my nails are very subtly ridged so I don't buff my nails before applying polish, just straight to base coat. The process isn't all that long really, just my words ;) I apply the base coat and by the time I'm finished, the fingers I started on are dry so there is no waiting there. The polish goes on right away, and often it's the same as the base coat where the starting fingers are close to dry by the time I finish. The top coat above actually works best applied while polish is still tacky, you just have to be gentle with the brush (I've updated the text). I usually give just a minute of extra dry time before applying a second coat, whether that's polish or top coat. If I did 2 polish coats then I give it an extra minute before the top coat so I don't pull the polish with the brush. Very occasionally, if the polish refuses to dry I'll use the quick dry oil between coats (no need to be careful with that, just a quick covering); more often I use that when I'm actually doing some nail art, but not with plain manicures. All-in-all, it takes 5-7 minutes for a basic manicure.

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Amy, from what I've read and heard the gel manicures are really tough both on your nails and on your skin. I plan to only use regular, plain nail polish myself. I think the gel manicures really do need to be applied and removed professionally or else you risk doing some serious damage.

  • replied 6 years ago

    Now how did you know I needed these tutorials?  Thanks for being so generous with your expertise.  You are a gem!

  • Nebraskim replied 6 years ago

    I am a huge fan of Amera cuticle mousse. I also get salon manicures using Essie products. I love salon manicures but will most likely stop because it seems indulgent and selfish to lavish that much on nails twice monthly. Alas as I really do love this. Your tutorials are great.

  • cheryl replied 6 years ago

    Fantastic tips. Thanks for sharing. Your nails always look so great.

  • Neel replied 6 years ago

    Marking this as favorite! I can't thank you enough, really! :)

  • Caro in Oz replied 6 years ago

    I feel like I have entered a parallel universe. I am totally ignorant when it comes to nails so thanks for sharing :) 

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Glad all of this info is helpful!

    Nebraskim, thanks for the recommendation I'll look into Amera cuticle mousse! I also enjoy getting salon manicures, it really can be a nice relaxing experience. If you can afford it, perhaps don't cut them out completely if they make you feel happy :)

  • Gigi replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for this, Aida! Well-groomed and painted nails I think can do a lot to up a person's style quotient.

    When I started wanting more info on how to do my nails, I checked some books out of the library. The books appeared to be geared toward nail technicians, so I think they were good. Regarding buffing the nails, I know I read in at least one of these books that that process helps the base coat adhere better. I can't remember the reasoning behind it, though.

    I will also say that in the books I read, the base coat was deemed to be necessary not only because it protected the nails from staining but also because there is a resin (?) in it that helps the nail polish adhere better. So it prolongs the life of the mani.

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Gigi yes that's right! In the case of quick dry top coats like the one I recommended above, Seche Vite, having the base coat also helps the top coat seal all the way through the paint and make it as strong as possible. The buffing is a good step, but I just have so much trouble doing it evenly and since I have natural small ridges I'm OK with skipping it.

  • Windchime replied 6 years ago

    Thanks, Aida! I'm not sorry to use lovely, lemon-scented BB's cuticle cream much more often. :)

  • Mona replied 6 years ago

    Great tips, Aida! I will skip buffing next time I am doing a manicure and will buy the base coat instead.

  • JayS replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for taking the time to post this. I also appreciate the brand recommendations..I'm planning on purchasing the Seche Vite. 

    Concerning nails are very ridged and dry. I've shied away from buffing because I was concerned that would damage them more. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    Thanks again! Very imformative!!

  • Nebraskim replied 6 years ago

    My salon does not buff because they think it does reduce the structure of the nail. Instead they use ridge filler.

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Jay, I feel the same way as Nebraskim's salon: if your nails are thin, then skipping the buffing and using a ridge filler is the better option. Using a cuticle cream on your actual nails could help with the dry aspect, too. My nails are very thick so they can take the buffing, but I have found that makes them overly sensitive so I've just stopped doing it.

  • alexandrav replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for the tips! I bought the Seche Vite a few months ago but I haven't actually tried it out yet. I read that some people have issues with polish shrinkage after using it?

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Alexandrav, I've heard that as well but haven't experienced much shrinkage myself. In my experience it's been primarily caused by the polish below, or when I don't take the top coat right to the edge (or better yet over the edge) of the polish line then there is occasional shrinkage there. I think it's because of the way SV adheres to the polish below. So I try to keep the polish a bit shy of the cuticle and then the top coat goes just a bit closer to the cuticle still. For example on my middle finger in this image below: I didn't get the SV all the way to the polish line so it shrunk a bit inwards, but on all the other nails where I got the top coat in line with the polish there's no shrinkage.

  • alexandrav replied 6 years ago

    Thanks for replying, Aida! That was very helpful.

  • Peri replied 6 years ago

    Aida, I get what I call peeling...I'm not sure if it is what others call splitting or something different. My nails peel in layers like mica. I've tried every treatment product I know of, and tons of moisturizing products, but it keeps happening. I've stopped all polish until it grows out and as soon as I start polishing again it starts happening again.

    Also, nail polish doesn't tend to chip on me, it also peels off. Like sometimes I look down and the whole nail is just bare...the polish came off in one sheet. Weird. 

    I wipe my nails with alcohol before polishing and use OPI Nail Envy, either OPI or Essie polish, and Seche Vite. 

    Any thoughts?

  • Gigi replied 6 years ago

    FWIW, in the books I checked out about manis, they did say you need to be careful with buffing. As Nebraskim said, it can basically erode your nail plate. I want to say that the books recommended doing it only once per month, and you were supposed to do only up to 12 strokes per nail. The strokes were supposed to be all in the same direction (no back-and-forth), or in an X shape, and you need to stop at the slightest feel of heat. The heat can damage your nail.

  • JayS replied 6 years ago

    THanks everyone for your replies about buffing. I think I'll just use ridge filler and continue to forgo buffing.

    PSA: for anyone who's nails split or peel...have your thyroid checked. Both my mil and dil have thyroid issues and both had problems with their nails.

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Peri I know what you're talking about with the flaking, my nails sometimes do that as well especially on the tips when they're longer; it almost exclusively happens on my indexes and thumbs, my most used fingers. I suspect this is usually due to dryness, and if it only shows up around polish time then likely due to the remover. Whenever this happens to me, I will go heavy on the Burt's Bees cuticle cream on my entire nail, the cuticle, and the surrounding skin with extra care put into the tips, morning and night. Helps a whole heap! If I feel like painting, I use a soft emery board to gently file off around the flakes to make it smooth and use a little ridge filler to help protect it. Separate from the remover, the paint itself can be tough on the nails too. If you aren't wrapping your tips, when the polish makes contact with hard surfaces it could be pulling the top layers of your nail up along with it (this sometimes happens to me when my nails are short). Does the OPI Nail Envy work as a base coat or is it just a treatment? It may be worth trying a true base coat over the top of that. I've also had the whole polish come off before, it always amuses me ^^ Using a ridge filler could help with that, since that will help the polish adhere better; or if the Nail Envy isn't acting as a true base coat, adding a base coat will help the SV adhere to the polish better. I've heard many people who wipe their nails with either alcohol or remover before starting, but for me that tends to just add to the dryness so I simply wash my hands, rinse very well, and dry them thoroughly. If I've just taken polish off, I'll still wash my hands before starting the next mani so that there is no remover left on them.

    Jay, thanks for the heads up about how thyroid issues can affect ones nails, which makes sense as it affects metabolism. I have hypothyroidism but luckily don't have any issues with my nails from it.

  • Peri replied 6 years ago

    Thanks Aida...I just figured the Nail Envy was a vase coat since that's what salons do, but I will try the real base coat you rec over it and see what happens.

    My nails are very short for piano, so I'm not sure if it is possible to wrap the tip. I'll give that a try too. 

  • Aida replied 6 years ago

    Ah yes, I know the piano nails well (had to rub out plenty of polish streaks on my parent's piano from slides!). I don't bother wrapping when my nails are that short, it just gets aaallll over my fingers, so I will just make sure that the polish makes it all the way off the nail; I may attempt it a bit with the top coat but it doesn't usually work heh. I just accept that the manicure will last a day or two less :)

  • Kiwichik replied 6 years ago

    Adding this to my favourites

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