Manicurists Tell All: How to File Your Nails Like a Pro

Updated 07/01/19
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Raise your hand if you were ever specifically taught how to file your nails. No? Yes? Well, if you had an experience similar to ours, you likely picked up your go-to technique (if you even have one—in our case it's debatable) from observation: a parent, sibling, friend, Paulette from Legally Blonde… You get the basic idea. Suffice to say, we could be doing a superior file job when left to our own devices.

Yes, our current method has served its purpose for 20-plus years, but in all honesty, we've resolved to hone our skills in 2018, for those times when we lack the time or funds for a professional manicure. Of course, that's not to say we couldn't ask manicurists for their best tips and tricks on the subject, right? And while the end result will probably never compete with an in-salon job, with their tips for how to file nails in mind, we'd like to think we'll come pretty close. Keep reading for six manicurist-approved tips explaining how to file nails (and how not to).

1. Pick the Right File

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According to Sarah Bland, Smith & Cult beauty ambassador and celebrity nail artist (ahem, Beyoncé is a client), the kind of nail file you choose can make or break your file job. Her suggestion: Always go with a glass file, because it's gentle on the nail, lasts "forever," and is easy to clean. (Yes—fun fact—you should be cleaning your nail file!) As Bland explains, most files are far too coarse for the nail, which primes your tips for tearing and splitting—not good.

2. Imagine Your Nail in 2 Sections

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Haphazardly filing back and forth sans any kind of rhyme or reason might work for all intents and purposes, but if you want to file your nails à la Bland, i.e., with celebrity-esque endgame, there's a little bit of strategy involved.

"When filing your nails, always start from the outside corner going into the middle of the nail," she explains to us. "Try imagining your nail in two sections. I like to file the left side first and then the right to complete the shape."

Another trick Bland emphasized to us: Never hold your file perfectly perpendicular to your nail. Instead, she recommends filing your nails at an angle to ensure smooth and polished edges.

3. Do Not "Saw" Your Nails

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We'll be the first to admit filing our nails is not our favorite step in the at-home mani process (we're far more interested in the color choice and paint job). However, if you want your nails to look their very best, it's important to incorporate some TLC into your filing method, with a gentle and careful manner. It doesn't have to be painstaking, but minding your method will be key for demure, damage-free tips.

"A common mistake people make is filing back and forth," Bland cautions. "You never want to file in a 'saw-like' motion. When you only file in one direction, it protects the nail from splitting and tearing." Remember that half-nail filing method noted above? That will come into play here.

4. Embrace Your Natural Shape

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As with so many things (haircut, part, hair color, makeup method), embracing what nature gifted you with might be the best call when selecting your nail shape. Of course, it's a free country, and we always support pursuing whatever look and trend you feel like wearing. However, if you're looking to emulate a celebrity manicurist, it's worth heeding your natural nail shape as you learn to file your nails.

"I think shapes are a very personal choice, but to a certain degree, they can also depend on the natural shape of your nail bed," Bland explains. "The most flattering is what's meant for your nail bed and the way you can tell is by finding the shape of your cuticle line. I suggest trying to match it."

5. Slow Down

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Per the advice earlier in this post, it's easy to hurry through the filing step in an effort to expedite the overall time commitment. That being said, have you ever noticed that when you're at the salon, the manicurist likely spends more time filing and perfecting the shape than applying the nail color itself? Well, according to Bland, there's a sound reason for this, and if you don't take your time, the ultimate result may look a bit haggard or slapdash.

Her words of filing wisdom: "Practice makes perfect, and always take your time when filing so you don't damage your nails." Slow and steady wins the race, folks.

6. Direction Makes a Difference

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This one is a biggie and a common mistake, according to Bland. (Also—guilty as charged.) "When filing," she explains, "you always want to hold your hand as if someone else is shaping them." In other words, you want the tips facing inward and toward you, versus outward and away from you. Still slightly confused? The photo shown above depicts expert-approved form.

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