How to File Your Nails The Right Way

July 08, 2022
Marisa Petrarca
By: Marisa Petrarca | by L'Oréal
hand holding nail file to nail

If you file your nails in an aggressive back-and-forth motion, this one’s for you. When I think back to my middle school days of sticky, fruit-scented lip gloss and crimped hair, I can’t help but have flashbacks of sawing across my nails with the cheapest nail file I could get my hands on (in my defense, it was leopard print!). Since then, I’ve not only learned how to file my nails correctly> but also invested in some newer, better nail files.

So, if your nail filing technique is more middle school than salon-level, we’re here to help. We chatted with Essie lead global educator Rita Remark and celebrity manicurist Angel Williams to give us the scoop on the right way to file your nails to avoid breakage.

The Right Way to File Your Nails

“It's important to remember that a nail file is for shaping nails, not removing length,” says Remark. So, if you’re someone who typically relies on a file to shorten your nails, the experts caution you to stop. “You should always trim first with clippers and use the file for detailing and shape,” says Williams.

To avoid over-filing, Remark suggests starting at the corners and keeping most of the work focused in that area. Be mindful that over-filing, especially on the sides, can weaken the nail and lead to breakage. Also, be sure to hold the file flat up against the nail when filing. If you angle it, you could thin the tip of your nail — another sure-fire way to cause breakage.

The sawing, back and forth motion is a huge no-no for shaping your nails. “You should file in one direction from the side of the nail to the center of the nail with short strokes,” says Williams. “Then, alternate sides, and swipe fully across one or two time to finish the shape.”

Should You File Nails Wet or Dry?

You should only file your nails when they’re dry. Nails are weaker when they’re wet, which means they’re more susceptible to breakage.

Why the Type of Nail File You Use Matters

According to Remark, it’s important to choose the right type of file for your nail. “The rule of thumb for files is the higher the grit, the softer the file,” says Williams. Files with a grit of 240 or higher are considered to be more abrasive. “More abrasive files are best for thicker dense nails, nail enhancements and toenails,” says Remark.

“Grits that are 180 or lower are intended for enhancements (acrylics and gels),” says Williams. And if you have very thin or weak nails, you want a finer file, like a glass file. We like this set of three glass nail files from Amazon.

Pro tip: “If you have a very dry or thick cuticle along the sides of your nail, it's very helpful to gently run a file along the calloused area,” says Remark. “This promotes better moisture absorption and softens the skin without trimming.”

three glass nail files
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn

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