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How much attention have you paid to your nail file? If you’re anything like us, probably not much. It’s just a basic necessity, something stashed in your bathroom cabinet or purse (or that you can never seem to find when you break a nail). But it may be worth investing at least a little bit more time into finding your nail file of choice. Not all are created equal, and each type has its own pros and cons. There are classic emery boards, which are inexpensive and easy to stock up on when you just need to get the job done. If you feel like you want to make more of an investment, glass and crystal options are washable and reusable, not to mention they tend to be gentler, particularly if your nails are peeling or splitting. And if you’re rocking a gel or acrylic mani, you’ll, of course, need an entirely different file. Confused? Don’t be.
We rounded up the best nail files for every purpose below. Dare we say that these have nailed it?
Best Overall: Deborah Lippmann Smooth Operator - Buffer Nail File
This four-sided file has four different grits to do it all—shape, smooth, buff, and shine. (All four sides are made from a microfiber material that’s gentle on your tips.) Consider it a one-stop-shop nail tool that makes DIY manis easier than ever. Pro tip: If you’re going to paint your nails, skip the shine step.
Best Budget: Orly Black Board Medium 180 Grit
Celebrity nail artist Brittney Boyce, the founder of Nails of LA, calls this classic, inexpensive nail file, “a workhorse that’s found in so many nail artists’ kits.” She adds that it can be used for both natural and gel nails, files quickly, and is super durable. You get a pack of 10 for just $5, so if you lose one, it’s no biggie. To that end, it’s worth picking one up to keep at work, one in the car... you get the picture.
Best Emery Board: Makartt Professional Nail File
An Amazon top pick, these have both a 100 and 180 grit, making them great for both shaping nails and taking down length (and using on toes, too). They come in a pack of 10—a total steal, we should add—though if you want to reuse them, they are washable. Just be sure to only file nails in one direction to minimize the potential for peeling or splitting.
Best for Damaged Nails: Diamancel Flexible Nail File
Turns out that diamonds are both a girl’s and a nail’s best friend. Made with real diamonds, this file also has a fiberglass edge for easy handling. It’s specially made for brittle nails that are prone to breaking or splitting, so you don’t need to worry about causing more damage when you file. Bonus: It’s easily washable with just soap and water.
Best for Acrylics: ASP Extra Heavy Black Angle Board Nail File 100/180
A zebra board with two coarser grits, like this option, is best for artificial tips, says Boyce. (FYI, you could also use the 180 side for natural nails but not the 100, which is too rough.) Neither grit gets worn down, and with a diamond shape that has two different shaped ends, it’s easy to file any shape nail and even reach the sides.
Best Glass: Révérence de Bastien The Glass Nail File
Sure, it may be a bit more than you’d usually spend on a file, but consider this a one-time investment that will keep your nails long and strong. The lightweight glass smooths nails without any snags or tears, can be reused, and comes with a convenient carrying case, too.
Best for Travel: Nail Tek Crystal Nail File With Case Mini
Repeat after us: Thou shalt always pack a nail file when traveling. This one has earned a permanent home in our toiletry bag. Made of high-quality glass, it’s gentle on nails and comes in a mini size that doesn’t take up precious real estate. The fact that it comes in a cute pink case is just an extra bonus.
Best Colorful: Tweezerman Neon Hot Files 3 Pack
If you want to keep it basic, you can’t go wrong with this three-pack of files. The dual-grit surfaces mean they work on both natural and acrylic nails, and the neon hues make it easy to dig them out of any crowded bathroom drawer or makeup bag.
Best Electric: Bellasonic 4-in-1 Rechargeable Electric Nail File Set
Make filing easier than ever with an electric file, like this one. Unlike other brands, which feature a rotary head that spins in only one direction, this uses an oscillating option that moves back and forth. It makes for much less friction and ultimately gentler filing. Plus, this also comes with four different discs, with choices for shaping, buffing, smoothing, and shining nails.
Best Kit: Orly Magnetic Mani Kit
If you’re looking not only for a nail file but a complete one-stop-shop that includes everything you need to DIY manis, this is the option for you. Per the point of nail files, Boyce is a big fan of the glass option that comes with it, noting that it shapes nails beautifully and never snags. You actually get two of them, one rounded, one-pointed, plus two clippers and a cuticle pusher.
Best for Cuticles: ZEVA Austrian Crystal Nail File
A combo of ceramic, porcelain, and, yep, Austrian crystal make up this file while it shapes and smooths nails. Unique here, though, are the rounded ends, designed to pull double duty and push back cuticles effectively, yet gently.
The Deborah Lippmann Smooth Operator-Buffer Nail File (view at Sephora) is our favorite overall file, a multi-tasker that not only shapes but also smooths, buffs, and shines. Both the Makartt Professional Nail File (view at Amazon) and Orly Black Board Medium 180 Grit (view at Stixie) are great blackboard classics and also super affordable. And if you’re looking for an option that’s not only going to be gentle on natural nails but also lasts basically forever, the glass Révérence de Bastien The Glass Nail File (view at Révérence de Bastien) is the way to go and well-worth the higher price tag.
What to Look for in a Nail File
In traditional files, this refers to how coarse or fine the texture is. “Nail files' grit ranges from 80 to 240. The higher the grit, the finer the file is,” explains Boyce. For gels or extensions, anywhere from 100 to 180 grit is a great choice; for natural nails, 180 is the minimum, she says. Alternatively, glass options are good for natural nails.
How do you use a nail file?
Start with dry nails that have been cut to the approximate length. Avoid filing nails that have been soaking in water because it can lead to breakage for splitting. You also don't want to use the nail file to remove much length, but rather simply to shape the nails, notes Boyce. Hold the file flat, as filing at an angle can thin your nail and weaken the edge, making it prone to bending or breakages, she says. Filing in one direction is preferable, though if you’re gentle with it, you can file side by side. “File from the side of the nail to the center, half a nail at a time, then shape the other side,” Boyce suggests.
How do you clean a nail file?
It depends on what the file is made of. “Wood emery boards will deteriorate if they get wet, so your best bet is to simply replace them every three months,” suggests Boyce. Glass files, on the other hand, will last for years if cleaned properly; simply wash them with warm water and gentle soap. For black or zebra boards, submerge them in 70% to 90% alcohol for five minutes to disinfect them, says Boyce.
How do you file acrylic nails?
The same basic filling principles and techniques apply. The key is using a coarser file with a 100/180 grit, says Boyce.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She refuses to leave home without a nail file.
Meet the Expert
Brittney Boyce is a celebrity nail artist and the founder of Nails of LA. With over a decade of experience in the nail industry, Boyce has worked on everything from fashion campaigns to the hands of celebrity clientele.