How to File Nails Safely for the Most Meticulous At-Home Mani

Close up of a hand with filed nails

D Mills / Byrdie

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 idea.

Yes, our current method has served its purpose for 20-plus years, but in all honesty, we've resolved to hone our skills for those instances when we lack the time or funds for a professional manicure. So we asked top nail artists Sarah Giugliano, Mabelyn Martin, and Cassandra Banel for their best tips and tricks. And while the result will probably never compete with an in-salon job, with their advice for how to file nails in mind, we'd like to think we'll come pretty close.

Meet the Expert

Keep reading for our manicurist-approved tips explaining how to file nails (and how not to).

How to File Nails Safely, According to Manicurists

Byrdie | Design by Zackary Angeline

How to Choose a Nail Shape

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, 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," says Giugliano. Martin has a great shortcut: "Following the shape of where your nail bed ends and free edge begins is a great guide. If it goes straight across, the soft square is best. If it goes deeper into the side walls you should go more round or oval." In case you need more ideas for which nail shape to go with, we've got a few:

What Tools You Need to File Nails

According to Giugliano, 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 Giugliano explains, most files are far too coarse for the nail, which primes your tips for tearing and splitting—not good.

"If you’re using an emery board file, you’ll also need a finer grit buffer to bevel underneath the nail to smooth out any debris caused by filing," says Martin.

How to File Your Nails

Step 1: Start at the corner and work your way to the middle

Close up of a thumb nail being filed

D Mills / Byrdie

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 like a pro, there's a little strategy involved. "When filing your nails, always start from the outside corner going into the middle of the nail," Giugliano explains. "Try imagining your nail in two sections. I like to file the left side first and then the right to complete the shape."

Another pro tip? Mind your hand placement. "When filing," Giugliano explains, "you always want to hold your hand as if someone else is shaping [your nails]." In other words, you want the tips facing inward and toward you versus outward and away from you.

Step 2: Take it slow

Close up of a thumb being filed to the side

D Mills / Byrdie

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 all manicurists here, there's a sound reason for this—if you don't take your time, the ultimate result may look a bit haggard or slapdash. Some words of filing wisdom: Practice makes perfect, and always take your time when filing so you don't damage your nails. "Starting off (and keeping it) slow is best to prevent over-filing," says Martin. "Stop, put your fingers up to make sure tips are even as you'd like, and keep going." Slow and steady wins the race, folks.

And be sure to maintain your corner-to-middle technique. "A common mistake people make is filing back and forth," Giugliano 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."

Step 3: Buff to smooth

Close up of a thumb nail being buffed

D Mills / Byrdie

Remember how we suggested a fine grit buffer above? That will come into play here. "Use a fine grit (280 or 500 grit) buffer file to smooth the edges and fix small uneven or rough areas," says Banel.

The Final Look

Close up of a hand of filed nails

D Mills / Byrdie

As it turns out, you don't need to be a pro to file your nails like one. As long as you come equipped with the right tools and know-how—and avoid committing filing faux pas—you'll be one step closer to gorgeous [insert your shape of choice here] nails.

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