Every so often I sit down and do my nails properly. It's totally worth the effort and my nails look so much better after, with the side effect that I feel better too.
Here's my routine:
Step 1: Hydrate with Burt's Bees lemon cuticle butter
My nails tend to get dry and brittle. A little bit of this lovely lemony butter applied onto and around nails moisturises and strengthens them, and softens the cuticles.
Step 2: File my nails
I shape my nails while the cuticle butter gets to work, using the file side of a multi-block file.
Step 3: Push back my cuticles with a manicure stick
Cuticles make a huge difference to how nails look - neat cuticles make nails look longer and polish look more professional. Applying a moisturising product before doing this makes the task much easier. Go slowly, starting from the edges of the cuticles to minimise raggediness. I prefer to use manicure sticks rather than cut my cuticles or use chemicals to fully remove them. It's partly personal preference and partly because I prefer to have that little bit of extra protection at my nail bed. Using a hand cream or cuticle softener every night makes cuticles softer and easier to maintain. (I recommend Burt's Bees Almond and Milk hand cream)
Step 4: Remove ridges and smooth nail surfaces
(If your nails are brittle, avoid this step as it can make them worse. Just skip this step and go straight to a base coat.)
Wipe off any excess cuticle butter and start to even the surface of the nail by swiping the ridge-removing side of a multi-block file across the surface of the nail. This isn't an essential step but it's useful for giving a smoother finish to nails. I also find it helps take off any leftover cuticle butter.
Step 5: Apply a base coat to protect nails
A clear base coat is a good idea both for giving the nails a little more protection and to prevent coloured polish from staining. Sally Hansen 4-In-1 Complete Care Nail Conditioner is a fantastic all-round base and top coat which hydrates nails and gives a lovely shine. It looks great by itself and is particularly good for nails that feel dry and unloved. There are loads of base coats to choose from to address particular problems: if the surfaces of my nails are uneven I use Essie's Fill The Gap, which works best under a coloured polish because it leaves a matte white finish on the nails.
Step 6: Nail polish
The main event! Make sure your base coat is completely dry first or your polish will dent and chip really fast. It goes without saying, but make sure not to overload the brush with polish, go for several thin layers, and wait for each layer to fully dry before applying the next. To apply polish I start at the middle of the nail, push the brush down towards the cuticle, then brush back up the the edge of the nail to finish. I find flat brushes best to work with. Several brands have them: Essie, Barry M and Rimmel are just a few.
(I know I should include a top coat here (and that really this should be an 8-step routine) but I so rarely bother with it. I think a base coat's much more important anyway.)
Step 7: Admire your work!
And revel in all your stupendous glory. (A super-important step.)
What I use: