Everything you need to know to master the art of painting your own toenails.
Perhaps you've recently found yourself with slightly too much time on your hands. Or the opposite: maybe you have zero spare moments to care for yourself. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, when you do carve out the time to paint your own toenails, our job is to make sure you're set up for the best at-home pedicure possible.
Of course, a salon-quality pedicure is about more than just your favorite nail color. All those "extra" steps — shaping, filing, buffing, hell, even putting flowers in your footbath — can all help take a simple slap of paint over the finish line into a full-on pedicure. To help us learn to recreate the salon environment (and finished product) from home, we've asked professional nail artists to break down the steps to a picture-perfect at-home pedicure.
What You'll Need
Start by setting up your workstation. Amy Ling Lin, nail artist and founder of Sundays studio, suggests picking up a footbath for optimal DIY salon vibes. (This one by Conair is under $40 and works like a charm.) But if you don't have one on-hand, use a simple foot tub, such as the Mantello Foot Wash Basin, or simply a small amount of water in your bathtub.
"It's not very comfortable to bend down to reach your feet, so make sure to find a comfortable position wherever you are," says Lin.
Once you've found a new pedicure HQ, assemble the tools you'll need. For Lin, that means nail clippers, a nail file, nail buff, cuticle oil ("or body oil" in a pinch), and toe separator or paper towels to wrap around your toes, plus your top coat, base coat, and any quick-dry oil. You may also want a cuticle-pusher or wooden stick that can be used to push cuticles back.
Let's break it down.
1. Remove your old nail polish.
This step may seem obvious, but Lin says it's how you remove the toenail polish count. "Remove the nail polish before soaking, because once you get wet, the polish gets slippery" and harder to remove, she says. Tenoverten's Non-Acetone Polish Remover is a foolproof option that won't strip your nails.
"If you are giving yourself a true pedicure, and not just a nail polish change, soaking your feet is a must," says manicurist Mazz Hanna. "The skin and cuticles on our feet are much thicker than the skin and cuticles on our hands." A five- to 10-minute soak softens rough skin, which makes it easier to scrub away calluses and push back cuticles.
Not only does soaking soften your skin and nails for the forthcoming steps, but it's also a key part of what makes a pedicure so enjoyable. Lin livens up her at-home sessions with essential oils and mineral salt, but customizing your own bath is half the fun. These are some of our favorite bath soaks, which also happen to be recommended by dermatologists.
After your feet are nice and soft from the soak, you can use a foot or nail file, such as the Colossal Foot Rasp Foot File and Callus Remover, to wick away dead skin. "The back and sides of the feet can be a bit rough," says Lin.
That roughness is typically the result of simple physics, according to New York City-based podiatrist Hillary Brenner. "Every time we walk, we exert [a lot of] pressure from our body weight, and the friction between our feet and the ground can cause them to become dry," she previously told Allure.
To combat said dryness, first towel off the feet, then use a file at a 45-degree angle to slough away hardened skin. She recommends a 120-grit nail file for people with very tough skin, or less if your feet are already soft, followed by a foot cream or even simply a body cream to moisturize.
Try AmLactin's Foot Repair Foot Cream Therapy, which hydrates dry skin with glycerin while gently exfoliating with lactic acid at the same time.
4. Shape and Buff
There's a long list of fingernail shapes, but toenails tend to stick to round or square. "If you do want to do a rounded nail shape when you file, just push away the skin a little bit so you can get at the corners," says Lin. Again, file at a 45-degree angle.
Once you're happy with the shape, send a nail buffer (we like Tweezerman's Neon Buff & Shine Block) back and forth over each toenail to smooth its surface. Just as with fingernails, a buffed surface will help ensure a smooth-looking manicure with polish that sticks.
"Keep in mind that you never want to over-buff the nails," says Hanna. "Many buffers are double-sided and come with 100/180 grit on each side. Only use the rough grit side to remove imperfections that the smoother side won't take care of. And if you use the rough side, be sure to smooth it over with the finer grit side of the buffer before polishing."
5. Care for your cuticles
"Scrub them gently under running water with a soft brush and apply cuticle oil, which acts as a softening agent, while pushing back the cuticles," she advises. "You can also use cuticle remover, which also happens to clean cuticles really well, and push back the cuticle thoroughly."
If you don't have a cuticle-pushing tool (like this one from Etude House) handy, Choi recommends "using your finger no gently push back the cuticle" after a soak or cuticle oil has softened the area. "Additionally, anything rounded and smooth, like the end of a comb, the back end of your tweezers, or the cover of a pen, will do the trick. Just be to sure to avoid using anything that is too sharp or rigid to prevent damage and discomfort."
On the other hand (or the other foot, as it were), she advises against "trimming your cuticles, especially in excess, because over-cutting cuticles break the protective barrier that prevents bacteria and fungi from forming."
Before you start swiping on painting your colour of choice, Lin recommends using a paper towel to clean any oil, lotion, or other residue off the nail plate. "Polish will grab any oil on your nail plate, and it may chip easier," she says.
Once the nails are thoroughly dry, layer on your base coat, like Deborah Lippmann's All About That Base, which Lin says is "super important" to make polish last longer.
Then layer on your colour. "If it's been a while since you painted your own nails, your best bet is to choose a forgiving natural or sheer shade, as mistakes or uneven paintwork will be less noticeable in a shade likes this," says Choi.
"The best way to get a professional-looking finish is to paint starting at the top of the nail and gently glide the brush, first down one side of the nail bed getting as close as possible, but without actually touching, the cuticle line. Then do the same on the other side of the nail," she says.
Next, fill in the middle of the nail. Finally, paint the paint-free edge with an under-saturated polish brush. You're looking to seal the exposed edge, and you only need a small amount of paint to do so."
Once you've painted on enough coats to get your desired shade, finish with a top coat — you can't go wrong with Sally Hansen's Insta-Dri Anti-Chip Top Coat.
The last thing you want is to smudge your new handiwork. Choi suggests using quick-dry drops (such as Essie's Quick-E Drying Drops) to make this final step go faster. Typical drying time is 15 to 20 minutes, but remember that the more coats of polish you applied, the longer you should wait to dry.