Before the pandemic, many of us treated ourselves to self-care luxuries, such as professional manicures and pedicures. But that’s currently impossible since we’re all practicing social distancing. To help you build the perfect shelter-in-place mani-pedi starter kit, we spoke with medical nail technician Letisha Royster, owner of Waterless Medi-Pedi & Nail Spa in Roswell, Georgia, as well as with New York City–based pro nail artists Gina Edwards and Mei Kawajiri. They shared the tips, tricks, and tools you need to take your nail care into your own hands.
Note that even though a water soak is often considered an integral part of a professional job, Edwards—who is a brand ambassador for the beauty company Kiss Products, Inc.—suggests skipping it. “Water makes nails swell,” she explains. In her experience, “the plumping effect makes the immediate finished product look great, but as your nails dry the polish shrinks, causing lifting and chips.” (If you’re set on a powered foot spa, we like the MaxKare Foot Spa Massager (14 rollers). But a bathtub or a bucket full of warm water works just as well for most people.)
Wondering how to remove acrylic or gel nails? We have advice for you.
The first step in a proper mani-pedi is nail clipping. After talking with podiatrists and testing nearly a dozen top-rated clippers, we recommend the Green Bell G-1008 clipper, both for fingernails and for toenails. (If this clipper is unavailable or takes too long to ship, we’ve found that the Seki Edge SS-106 clipper is nearly as sharp.) “During quarantine, it’s best to keep nails short,” Royster says. “That way you don’t have to worry about debris getting stuck under your nails.” Take care not to trim nails too close to the nail bed, she adds, because that can cause bleeding and encourage infection. Although many people like to cut their nails from the side, doing so “can cause ingrown nails,” Royster says. She recommends that you cut straight across the nail instead.
G.Liane Best Crystal Nail File Set ($9 at the time of publication)
“Uneven filing is a tell-tale sign of a DIY manicure,” says Edwards. Instead of constantly looking down at your nails as you file (which offers a skewed view that can lead to slanted and irregular shaping), you should “intermittently hold your hand in front of your face like you’re telling someone to stop,” she suggests. That way you’ll be able to check for slants and shaping irregularities.
Royster recommends using a glass file, like this one from G.Liane, which Wirecutter supervising editor Jen Hunter recommends. “Unlike emery or sandpaper files, you can wash and sanitize glass files,” Royster explains. “And they are easier on the nails than traditional emery or metal files.”
Polish removers (and how to remove gel nails)
Onyx Professional Nail Polish Remover 100% Pure Acetone (about $2.50 for 16 ounces at the time of publication)
Zoya Remove+ Nail Polish Remover ($10 for 8 ounces at the time of publication)
OPI Acetone Free Polish Remover ($3 for 1 ounce at the time of publication)
If you plan to paint directly onto your nails (and you’re not using fake tips), experts recommend that you use 100 percent acetone to swab just the unpainted nails to remove natural oils (consider this one from Onyx, or this pricier option from Zoya, which Royster recommends). “Nail polishes have a lot of oil,” says Kawajiri, “so removing all oil from your nails helps the polish to stick and last longer.”
To remove fake nails, such as gel tips, acrylics, or dip (SNS) nails, “the safest way is to just soak them directly in acetone for 45 minutes,” says Royster. She doesn’t recommend that newbies try the aluminum foil method, “because it’s frustrating and hard to coordinate.” Instead, she suggests cutting down and filing away as much of the fake nail as possible, then pouring 100 percent acetone into a glass bowl that’s large enough for all 10 fingers to soak in. Fill another glass bowl (slightly larger than the first) with water, and heat until it’s steaming. Then place the bowl containing the acetone into the water bath, and put your fingers in the acetone. “When you dip your nails in the bowl of acetone that has been warmed by the water, there is a chemical reaction that speeds up the removal process,” Royster says. When using acetone, be sure to soak your nails in a well-ventilated location (and make sure the bowls you use are glass, since acetone may damage plastic). “Just sit and relax until you’re sure the nails are lifting and crumbling without much effort,” says Royster. “The longer you wait, the easier the process of removal will be. Use the buffer after removal to get rid of any bits stuck to your nail bed.” The Teenitor Nail Buffer Block is an effective, low-cost option.
When it is time to remove polish from natural nails, experts say that non-acetone polish remover is best, since it’s gentler. Kawajiri recommends this acetone-free option from OPI.
Deborah Lippmann Cuticle Remover ($20 at the time of publication)
Cuticle trimming is a key part of a salon mani-pedi, but experts advise against this practice during a pandemic. “The cuticle is there as a barrier to protect from debris,” Edwards says. “If you aren’t experienced and trim too much, it can lead to infection.” Instead, Edwards suggests that you use a liquid cuticle softener of your choice (Wirecutter updates writer Eleanor Ford recommends this one from Deborah Lippmann) and a wooden or plastic cuticle pusher, which are gentler than metal ones. If you do choose to trim your cuticles yourself, Edwards recommends the Tweezerman Rockhard Cuticle Nipper. It comes in two sizes, but, to avoid injury, beginners should start with the slightly smaller, ¼-inch jaw instead of the more traditional ½-inch one. It will take longer to nip all of your cuticles with the ¼-inch jaw option, “but they’re safer,” especially for beginners, says Edwards.
Even though there are countless hand and foot scrubs available, Edwards thinks making your own is just as effective. She suggests a mixture of brown sugar, coffee grounds, olive oil, lemon juice, and yogurt. “Don’t use salt,” Royster warns. “It’s much more abrasive than sugar and can cause irritation.” For more stubborn calluses, Edwards swears by the durable Chechi Pro Nickel Foot File, which she sanitizes with alcohol between uses. For a non-metal option, Wirecutter staff writer Anna Perling likes the Gehwol Wooden Pedicure File.
Teenitor Nail Buffer Block ($7 for a pack of 10 at the time of publication)
We’ve noticed stock issues with this item, and we’ll update this article once it is available again.
Star Nail Sani-Block (about $1.50 at the time of publication)
Whether you buff your nails at the beginning of your mani-pedi or right before applying the polish, “it’s an important step to create a nice, smooth surface,” says Edwards. Any buffer, such as these from Sally Beauty, will do. But Royster suggests looking for the smallest ones possible, because they are more manageable, with a grit made for natural nails, like this one from Star Nail.
Once you’re ready to paint, start with a base coat to simultaneously protect your natural nails and create an even canvas for the polish. Royster recommends this one from Seche. Kawajiri likes JINsoon HyperRepair. And Edwards recommends Essie First Base. All of them list ethyl acetate and butyl acetate in their top three ingredients; most non-professionals will find that the brush sizes and shapes are what differ most among them.
Essie Gel Couture (about $12 at the time of publication)
JINsoon ($18 at the time of publication)
Deborah Lippmann Gel Lab Pro ($20 at the time of publication)
Sally Hansen Color Therapy (about $8 at the time of publication)
Sally Hansen Hard As Nails Xtreme Wear (about $4 at the time of publication)
Surprisingly, Kawajiri says that pricier nail polishes, such as those from Chanel and Dior, are much harder for the novice nail tech to work with. “The more expensive brands have brushes with very rounded edges, which makes it hard to control,” she explains. Both she and Edwards suggest that at-home mani-pedicurists start with Essie’s Gel Couture, “which is a regular nail polish, but with the same consistency of a gel polish, and it holds really well,” says Edwards. Kawajiri says Essie’s small brush makes it easier to use, especially on the smallest toenails. She also sings the praises of JINsoon, for its cool nail-color variations and easy-to-use brush, as well as of Deborah Lippman nail polish, which she says also has an easy-to-use brush. Royster suggests that novices use Sally Hansen polish, because the colors “are very rich and true to the box.” Glitter polish is often a great option for beginners, since stroke mistakes are more difficult to see due to its purposefully irregular appearance.
Kawajiri and Royster both insist that DIY manicures include a top coat. “Many people don’t do a top coat because they think it’s unnecessary,” says Kawajiri, “but it makes the polish dry faster and the nail look smoother and more consistent with the others.” Both she and Royster are fans of the Seche Vite Dry Fast Top Coat, whereas Edwards swears by Chanel’s Le Gel Coat because it “really gives a high shine and holds the color very well.”
If you’re in a post-polish rush, don’t use a hair dryer to blow hot air over the nails. “You have to use cold air to dry nail polish, as warm air makes it melt,” Kawajiri explains. She suggests using JINsoon’s HyperDry instead: It not only adds shine but also shaves off a few seconds of waiting time. Royster suggests an alternative: OPI’s Drip Dry Lacquer Drying Drops.
Deborah Lippmann Rich Girl Broad Spectrum SPF 25 Hand Cream ($28 at the time of publication)
Moisturizers can make or break a mani-pedi. “It’s really important to hydrate the skin toward the end of the manicure,” after the polishes have dried, says Edwards. She prefers Deborah Lippmann’s Rich Girl hand cream. Royster suggests looking in the pantry for coconut oil, olive oil, or shea butter, or “any oil or cream that can penetrate your skin.” (To soothe extra-dry hands right now, dermatologists we spoke with recommend reaching for creams and ointments.)
About your guide
Nancy Redd is a staff writer at Wirecutter covering everything from clip-in extensions to blow dryers. She is also a GLAAD Award–nominated on-air host and a New York Times best-selling author of multiple self-help health books. Her debut picture book, Bedtime Bonnet, is the first-ever kids book on Black nighttime hair rituals.