Manicures 101

Woman getting manicure
Those two may already be fast friends, depending on whether that manicure is a weekly necessity or a rare indulgence. See more pictures of personal hygiene practices.
Digital Vision/Getty Images

Why do people get manicures? First, changing your nails can change how you feel about yourself. For instance, some professional women who lost their jobs were loathe to cut a weekly manicure from their expenses, arguing that the indulgence helped them to look professional [source: Saint Louis]. Second, the process is undeniably relaxing, from the hand massage, to the careful attention to each finger. Third, sometimes it's hard to deny a bride who's made a round of manicures mandatory for the bridal party.

Regardless of the reason for the beauty treatment, a manicure forces you to take some time for yourself. How you spend that time is up to you -- rehashing recent dramas with your friend in the adjacent chair or chatting with the manicurist. After all, you and the manicurist practically hold hands, and if you know each other well, you might catch up on life since the last manicure.


Even if you and your nail technician aren't best buddies, you can benefit from a manicure in ways beyond the obvious. For instance, nail biters may refrain from chomping on their digits if they're looking at a set of perfect nails sparkling with Moon Over Mumbai polish.

Not everyone sees the point of sitting in a salon and devoting an hour or so to your nails. Manicures don't last forever; that's why the salon can count on you coming back and spending more money. Your manicure will start chipping in three days if you're hard on your hands -- washing them frequently, working with them and not wearing gloves when doing dishes. For the average person, though, a manicure lasts a solid week. You may even be able to stretch it into two weeks by adding a clear top coat every other day.

Even if you'd never place a pinky finger in a salon, you may be curious about the men and women in your life who disappear weekly behind those glass doors. Keep reading to learn about manicures and the secrets behind well-groomed hands.


Fake Nails or Real Nails? Pink Parka, Canyon Coral or Power Lunch?

Olympic swimmer's nail
Sure, you could pick a nice mauve polish for your nails, or you could get creative and stencil some Olympic artwork on your nails as Australian swimmer Sarah Ryan did for the 2004 games.
Stuart Hannagan/Getty Images

Your salon visit will start with choices, beginning with where you go. Ask a trusted friend for a recommendation. Better yet, check with your local health department Web site, where you can find a list of licensed and penalized salons.

Next up is deciding between real and fake nails. If you're not happy with your nails, choose fake, but how fake? Plastic artificial tips glue to the tips of your natural nails. Full artificial nails cover your entire nail. They can be plastic, glued on and cut to size. They also can be sculptured nails, where the nail technician sculpts a nail over yours out of air-drying acrylic [source: Draelos]. In the silk nail technique, a strip of sheer fabric glues over your nail.


Fake nails can be polished with gel, which hardens to a gloss, or acrylic, which is made from a powder and is thicker. Although fake nails cost more money (from $20 to more than $100, depending on how long they last), they give the nail technician a bigger canvas to work with, say, if you're looking to fit a whole beach scene on your fingertip. In addition, nail biters have a hard time gnawing through tough (and pretty) acrylic nails.

If you want regular polish on your real nails, ask for natural nails. We're going to assume you're choosing this option, and we'll walk you through the steps involved.

First, the manicurist will direct you to a selection of polishes hundreds of colors deep and ask you to pick one. Don't assume that salons automatically offer the cheap polish. After all, they don't want you coming back, complaining about your chipped nails. For the indecisive, selecting one polish from the glitters, neons, solids and sheers can be the longest step.

Next, you and the manicurist head to a table where the real artistry starts. You'll be asked to choose a nail shape: long or short, squared or rounded. While rounded is a popular shape, you avoid hangnails and ingrown nails by not filing the corners [source: Draelos]. The manicurist will file your nails into shape with an emery board.

A bowl full of warm, soapy water then comes your way. Ease your hand into the bowl and soak. This softening and cleaning step wipes out bacteria and fungi, so the cuticle manipulations don't hurt or infect your nail beds. After the finger bath, a fan in the table dries off your nails.

Keep reading. Your cuticles will thank you.


Buffing, Massaging and Polishing, at Last

The Terminator and Jay Leno discussing manicures
The Terminator wasn't afraid to talk about how he sometimes needs to pamper his hands with Jay Leno.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

Now we're on to some of the scarier stuff for first-timers and old-timers -- cuticle work. First the manicurist will push your cuticles off your nails, and, unless you ask to skip this step, hangnails will be trimmed with cuticle scissors.

Why aren't cuticles left alone? Some manicurists say that cuticles can overgrow. They also don't want to paint the strip of cuticle that covers your nail because that polish will quickly chip.


Next, comes buffing, which smoothes ridges and helps the polish to adhere.

Then, it's on to pure relaxation -- the massage. Different salons add their signatures. Your hands may bask in the steam from a hot towel. The manicurist then smoothes on lotion and massages you up to your elbows.

The last two steps remove all barriers between your nails and the polish. The manicurist wipes your nails with alcohol to remove lotion and old paint. If your nails are oily, the manicurist follows with oil remover, so the polish binds directly to the nail. Finally, the color.

Each nail gets a clear base coat, which prevents the colored polish from staining the nail. After every coat from now on, a fan or UV lamp dries your nails. Some salons prefer fans because many cumulative hours under a UV lamp carry a cancer risk.

Colored polish comes next. The manicurist paints one finger and asks, "Do you like this color?" Answer honestly. It's easier to change now than after all of your fingers get the requisite two coats.

Your nail adornment doesn't have to end with color. An array of flourishes may await your fingertips. It includes rhinestones, charms, glitter, fake pearls, decals and dried flowers. Other patterns, like your initials, can be airbrushed. The manicurist also can paint designs freehand.

A clear top coat finishes off your new handiwork. This last layer delays chipping. At this point, don't touch anything because an accidental scrape will ruin your manicure. Your manicurist will temporarily take over for your hands, moving you and your things to a drying table, where fans or a UV lamp will set the polish. After five to ten minutes, the manicurist will drip on a quick-drying solution. Your nails are then dry, and you can use your hands again.

Don't touch that door. It's time to pay, although you can pay before the paint, too. Depending on the salon, the manicure may cost $15 and up, but that price will swing widely depending on how fancy the salon is, if you're in a packed urban area with lots of salons and if you go for a manicure-pedicure combination. You should also tip the manicurist; satisfied customers start at 15 percent, but up to 50 percent is common [source: Manicurist]. Many salons ask that you tip in cash.


Salon Manicure Safety

You came to the salon for a manicure, not for warts or fungus. If you're careful, the only thing blooming on your fingers will be those fake flowers.

First, look for the official stamps of legality and cleanliness: licenses. If the salon is in the United States, the state health department must approve it. The health department checks that metal instruments are sterilized and that all other tools are cleaned or disposed of between customers. The nail technician also must be certified by the state board of cosmetology. For the license, the nail technician completes courses and 600 hours of supervised practice on classmates and customers.


These licenses mean the salon is equipped to give manicure cleanly. They don't guarantee the salon will do it right on the day you visit. The most common infections acquired at nail salons are warts, caused by the human papillomavirus, and nail fungus. Both problems begin with the customer before you, who has the infection. The salon contributes to the problem by not sterilizing the instruments properly. Fungi or viruses are then on the instruments that the manicurist uses on you. You still need breaks in your skin to get infected, which you may have if you rip your cuticles. If not, buffing or cuticle clipping during the manicure can create the breaks.

You're better protected against salon infections, then, if you skip the cuticle pushing and clipping. "One mistake people make is to let the manicurist damage their cuticles," says Dr. Kent Aftergut, a dermatologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "I know some people don't like the way cuticles look. But from a medical perspective, cuticles should be left alone. Cuticles are what separate your nail bed from the rest of the world -- bacteria, fungi and viruses," says Aftergut.

The best protection, though, is to bring your own clean equipment, says Aftergut. You can buy it for about $60, he says. Salons see it often, and most don't mind at all. In fact, they'll store your instruments for you in a bag. That way, you don't have to rely on the salon to properly sterilize.

If you're unlucky enough to get an infection, see a doctor.


Home Manicures

You can, of course, stay home in your pajamas and manicure your own nails. You simply need the right equipment and the time. For shaping, you'll need an emery board and nail clippers. To take off old polish, you'll need cotton balls and polish remover. If you want it, you'll need a nail buffer for smoothing.

Cuticle supplies are also optional, especially if you heed the dermatologist and leave your cuticles intact. If you insist on pruning, you'll need a cuticle softener. To save money, you can swap hand lotion for professional cuticle softener. You'll also need a wooden cuticle stick to push the cuticle off the nail and cuticle scissors. Finally, just as in the salon, you'll need a base coat, colored polish and a top coat.


To avoid infections, clean your clippers and scissors and throw out your disposable supplies after each use. Never share supplies with your significant other, friend or spouse.

For this equipment, you'll pay less than $30 if you buy generic brands and upward of $150 if the products are professional-grade.

Look over the links on the next page for more beauty tips.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Aftergut, Kent. Personal interview. 10/5/2009.
  • Draelos, Zoe Diana. "Nail Cosmetics." eMedicine. April 30, 2009. (10/14/2009)
  • Manicurist, Beantown Nail Spa. Personal interview. 10/1/2009.
  • The New York Times. "Microbe in Salon Footbath is Suspected in Boil Outbreak." April 27, 2001. (10/15/2009)
  • Winthrop, Kevin et al. "Mycobacteria in Nail Salon Whirlpool Footbaths, California." 2001. (10/15/2009)