Nail Exfoliation Is the Secret to a Longer-Lasting Mani

Nail Exfoliation Is the Secret to a Longer-Lasting Mani featured image
Anastasiia Krivenok / Getty Images

Learning how to DIY your nails is like a rite of passage, whether giving yourself a pedicure ahead of a beach weekend or fixing a chipped nail ahead of prom. But there’s one step that tends to fly under the radar—and it can make a big difference in your final polish. That’s nail exfoliation, a technique that helps buff out ridges and other uneven textures on the nail plate to ensure smooth, long-lasting nail polish.

As with exfoliation for your skin, nail exfoliation can help with “removing dead skin cells and any residual buildup from the surface of your nails and cuticles,” says Juanita Huber-Millet, founder and creative director at Townhouse Beauty. “It’s akin to giving your nails a fresh start, ensuring they remain healthy and vibrant.”

For one, “healthy, well-exfoliated nails provide a better base for nail polish, helping it last longer,” she says. Plus, it can create a smooth canvas for traditional nail polish application—and can also be helpful if you’re planning to use press-ons or soft gel extensions, which can inadvertently reveal any bump or ridge. Here’s what you should know.

  • Juanita Huber-Millet is the founder and creative director at Townhouse Beauty
  • Julie Kandalec is a celebrity manicurist
  • Gina Edwards is a celebrity manicurist

What is nail exfoliation?

Nail exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin or debris from the surface of the nail. In most cases, “you lightly file or buff the surface of the nail to give it a smoother appearance or to prep before applying press-ons or soft gel extensions,” says celebrity manicurist and KISS brand ambassador Julie Kandalec.

What are the benefits of nail exfoliation?

For one, nail exfoliation can help loosen cuticles that have become attached to the nail plate and soften ridges in the nail, allowing for a smoother, shinier finish, according to Kandelac. “It’s a very important step when applying press-ons or soft gel extensions, as the prep will ensure a flawless look and extend the wear,” she says, adding that she typically reaches for KISS’s imPRESS Nails ($8).

It could also benefit your nails long-term by allowing for better absorption of ingredients in the skin around your nail, so moisturizers work better, says Huber-Millet. “Gentle massage also boosts blood flow, promoting healthier nail growth,” she adds.

How do you exfoliate your nails?

If you’re getting a salon mani, then your manicurist will likely do this for you using a buffer or a gritty nail file. For DIYers, however, the exact process depends on your comfort level. If you’re game for a manual tool, you can use a nail file with a soft grit or a nail buffer on the surface of the nail to boost shine, loosen your cuticles, and soften your ridges, says Kandalec. Make sure the file is “a fine to medium grit only, never coarse,” she says. “The lowest grit number you should use on your natural nail is 220.”

You can also push the cuticle back gently and simply buff off the excess, according to celebrity manicurist and KISS brand ambassador Gina Edwards. And, for those who are more hands-off, there’s also the option of a chemical exfoliant; Huber-Millet is a fan of Butter London’s Melt Cuticle Exfoliator ($18).




How often you exfoliate your nails depends on your personal preferences. You can do it only if you notice buildup on your nail before you are about to apply a set of press-on nails or about once every two to three weeks. “If you feel that your full nail plate doesn’t need it as often, you can use a grit that is a bit more coarse along the cuticle area—i.e. the new, ‘virgin’ growth—and a fine-grit file on the rest of the nail,” says Kandalec.

What are the drawbacks of nail exfoliation?

For one, it’s possible to overdo exfoliation on your nails. “Just like you don’t want to over-exfoliate your face, just be sure not to do it too frequently or with a grit that is too coarse for your needs,” says Kandalec. Plus, if you apply too much pressure or get too close to the cuticle line, you can also impair nail growth, according to Edwards.

And beyond your nail itself, “exfoliating too often or too vigorously can lead to irritation on your skin, nails and cuticles,” says Huber-Millet. If you have sensitive skin or weak and brittle nails, consider skipping nail exfoliation—or at least start with a very fine grit file or gentle scrub to ensure you don’t inadvertently make things worse.

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