Mistake #1: Improper Hygiene
Health, rather than beauty, is the number one reason this stuff matters.
Nails and cuticles are part of the body. As such, they’re also potential entry points into the body, just like the rest of your skin, pores, etc.
That means anything on your clippers can get into your body. Using the same clippers on your toenails and fingernails is a great way to spread fungus and bacteria, resulting in bad smells and potentially painful infections. In one extremely rare case, a woman from Brazil even caught HIV from her cousin’s manicure set.
The takeaway lesson here:
Own your own set of nail care tools, with separate devices for feet and hands, and wash the implements regularly with a disinfectant.
Even if you’re just using fingernail clippers (something we can hopefully get you to improve upon), make sure they’re washed out before and after use. Gross stuff gets under fingernails.
Trim them with clippers, and now that gross stuff is on the clippers. If you leave it in place, bacteria will grow and multiply, waiting to jump back to your body the next time you use the clippers.
Mistake #2: Relying Exclusively on Clippers
The default manicure for most American men isn’t a manicure at all. It’s a quick pass down the hand with compound-lever clippers (those little springy ones with the jaw-like blades and the lever that swings up and around).
Compound-lever clippers are cheap, portable, and convenient, all of which appeal to consumers. Unfortunately, they’re also terrible for your nails.
The mechanism is physically brutal. You’re smashing two wedges down on your nail to sever it. Since most cheap clippers are made from soft steel, the edges dull quickly, which means you’re smashing two blunt wedges down — it’s basically a miniaturized version of slamming your nail in a doorjamb!
The blunt-force trauma tears the nail and almost guarantees uneven regrowth. That in turn means more frequent trimming, using more strokes of the clipper to even out the shape, which compounds the problem during the next growth cycle.
Instead of mashing away with the same old pair of clippers, invest in a decent manicure set with multiple clippers (plier type as well as compound-lever), and more importantly, multiple sets of nail scissors. Scissors cut from an outer edge, expanding the cut in a straight line, rather than clamping down and smashing through top-to-bottom, which is easier on the nail and allows for more precise cutting.
Mistake #3: Using Low-Quality Steel
If you don’t have a manufacturing or metallurgical background, you might think of steel as a single, consistent metal, but it’s actually a blend of iron and carbon that can be formulated many different ways, resulting in many different properties.
Manicure tools work best when they’re made from steel with a high carbon content. Since the tools usually can’t be sharpened or adjusted after manufacture, they only last as long as their edge stays sharp — after that you’re effectively trimming your nails by clamping a pair of dull pliers down and yanking, which is more like a torture method than a manicure.
Unfortunately, carbon steel is susceptible to rust, which is a bad trait in tools that frequently live in bathrooms. The cheap solution is stainless steel, which resists rust but also doesn’t hold an edge for long. The expensive solution is a high-carbon stainless steel — expensive to produce, and only made in a few places, but perfect for manicure sets.
It’s natural to balk at paying $20-50 for a tool that you can find in drugstores for under a buck. But you get what you pay for: the expensive, high-quality steel tools can be used over and over again without harming your nails, while the cheapest steels will dull quickly and turn into torture implements before the year is out.
Broadly speaking, steel manicure tools from France, Switzerland, or Germany (especially the famous blade-making Solingen region) are going to be higher quality, while tools from China and Pakistan are typically low quality. There are exceptions in both direction, but for the most part the European steels will have a higher carbon content and better lifespan than their Asian counterparts.
Mistake #4: Using Machine-Finished Tools
Human nails are fragile things. There’s a very small window of pressure that cuts through them cleanly. More than that and you’re applying crushing force, rather than cutting; less and you’re just holding the nail in place while you rip it off with lateral force.
Neither is good. You want to be in that sweet spot where the cutting edge is actually shearing through the nail in a single, cutting stroke. And that’s not a level of precision that mass-production machinery is capable of reaching.
The best manicure tools are hand-finished.
Each one is individually adjusted, measured, and readjusted as needed until it operates at the right level of pressure.
Mistake #5: Trimming Without Filing
There’s a reason professional manicures — as in, the kind you pay a decent chunk of money for — always finish off with a filing.
Just trimming the nails leaves them cut at angles. The nature of blades is that they cut in straight lines. The bigger the blade, the longer the straight cut, which can lead to squared-off nails (if cut across the top with a single stroke) or pointed nails (if cut from either side in two strokes, meeting at the top).
A file rounds the finished shape of the nail off and lets it grow in a smooth, natural arc. That’s better looking, and it’s also healthier — a rounded nail is less likely to grow under the skin at the corners. Those ingrown nails are painful and infection-prone, and it’s a lot easier to avoid them than it is to remove them and even them out once they develop.
Go over nails after any sort of trimming (or tearing) with a triple-cut, sapphire, or crystal glass nail file. An important tip that even professionals sometimes miss: only drag the file in one direction across the nail! Work either from left to right or right to left, but don’t saw the file back and forth. That splinters the nail rather than smoothing it, which can lead to cracks that spread down the surface of the nail.