You don’t need to be a professional manicurist to do a great job painting your nails, but you do need to watch out for some common nail polish mistakes, from using old polish to doing your nails right before bedtime. We all make these mistakes (and yeah, knowing how long it takes for nail polish to dry is half the battle), so rest assured that you’re not alone.
We’ve rounded up the 10 most common nail polish mistakes and how to prevent them.
1. Taking a hot shower right after applying polish
Never shower immediately after a manicure, as you probably haven’t give the polish enough time to set in, but a hot shower? That’s even worse.
“Exposing the nail polish to the heat and steam of the shower can cause it to bubble or smudge,” says Danielle Candido, manicure expert for Gelish. “It’s best to wait a full hour after the manicure is done before showering.”
2. Going to bed right after applying polish
Although nails will appear dry within 20-30 minutes, it actually takes a full 24 hours for nail polish to fully dry.
“A super easy trick to help the drying process along is to wait a minute or two for your polish to start setting up, then run very cold water over your hands for about three minutes,” says Candido. “The cold water helps the polish set up faster.” However, she warns, “Be careful to not to run the water directly on the nails as the force of the water may cause the polish to smudge.”
3. Skipping topcoat
“Skipping a topcoat not only cuts down on the shiny finish of the manicure but it also shortens the longevity of the manicure,” Candido says. She also recommends applying an additional layer of topcoat every other day for an even longer lifespan.
4. Skipping base coat
Who hasn’t thought they could get away with skipping the base coat once or twice? You live and you learn: Candido explains that base coat smoothes the surface of the nail for a flawless finish, improves adhesion of the polish to the nail plate, and prevents the pigments in the nail polish from staining the natural nail, which means avoiding the yellow nail struggle altogether. It’s an extra step, but totally worth it—for more reasons than one.
5. Applying thick coats of color
To compensate for the color looking lighter and sheerer on nails than in the bottle, we tend to paint on thick coats of color. In this case, though, patience really is key.
“When we apply color in thick layers the polish takes much longer to dry, and the longer it takes to dry, the more likely we are to smudge the manicure,” Candido says. Instead, apply thin, even coats and wait two minutes in between. The polish will actually dry faster. Also, Candido adds, “If you apply a heavy coat of polish, it’s much more likely to flow into the cuticle area which means you’ll have to clean up the mess with an orangewood stick and remover.”
6. Using one stroke to apply polish
If there is one technique you should take with you from the salon, it’s that manicurists use three to four strokes to apply polish to the nail. With one single stroke, it’s difficult to get the sidewalls (left and right edge of the nail) and cuticle area, making the nails look unfinished. Plus, the color will grow out in mere days.
“Apply color to the nail in three or four strokes,” Candido advises. Her approach? “Start in the center near the cuticle, swipe down the nail to the right side, return to the starting point and swipe down the nail to the left, then return to the center and swipe down the middle. If there is any uncovered area, swipe down the whole nail one more time.”
7. Starting with greasy nails
“If there’s oil on the surface of the nail before the polish is applied, it’s much easier for polish to peel—nothing sticks to an oily surface,” Candido says. Instead, wait to apply cuticle oil after the polish, and go easy with the lotion. “It’s best to use a product like Gelish pH Prep to ensure all surface oil and moisture are eliminated before applying your basecoat.”
This kind of product works by neutralizing the pH level in the nail to better accept the base coat. Basically, it’s like a primer for your nails.
8. Using old nail polish
There’s nothing more depressing than saying goodbye to a favorite nail polish that’s looking a little worse for the wear, but it’s gotta be done.
“As polish ages, the solvents evaporate, causing it to thicken and get stringy. This makes applying polish quite difficult,” Candido explains. “Old polish [also] doesn’t adhere to the nail as well as fresh polish does. As a rule of thumb, go through your polishes every year and replace anything you didn’t buy in the last 12 months.”
9. Avoiding the whole cuticle area
If you’re not super diligent about keeping your cuticles in check, your manicure will look messy.
“You only need to leave a hairs’ width between the polish and the cuticle,” says Candido. “To get as close as possible without touching the cuticle, plant the brush on the nail plate near the cuticle and apply light pressure to spread the brush out. Then, lift slightly and push towards the cuticle, stopping at the cuticle without touching it. Then, swipe down the nail turning the brush slightly in your fingers to the left or the right to get along the sidewall (left or right edge of the nail plate).”
10. Using acetone remover
Nail polish removers high in acetone dehydrate the nail and surrounding cuticle.
“Repetitive use can cause white spots on the nail as well as splitting at the free edge and drying of the cuticle,” Candido warns. “Non-acetone remover is a much kinder and gentler choice.”
Originally published November 2015. Updated June 2017.