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Nailing The At-home Manicure with Press-ons

Tips and tricks for applying press-on nails and making them last.
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Nails have always been my biggest form of self care. From middle school through high school, I attended a prep school with a uniform, so manicures were pretty much my only form of self-expression. As you can imagine, over time I got pretty good at giving myself a manicure. So good, that I never really had a reason to go to a nail salon. That was until the rise of nail art–a trend I couldn’t resist. I was good at painting my nails, but nail art was not in my wheelhouse.

Eventually, I caved and decided to start treating myself to a gel manicure before any vacation or special event. I’ve always kept my natural nails short, mainly because they would break or chip before they ever grew long, (note to self: Google hair and nail supplements) but going to a salon meant I could achieve the long nail look I’ve always dreamed of. Every time I got a manicure I would ask for nail extensions along with some type of nail art, which usually ended up being a color french manicure. Yes, my nails looked great, and yes, I absolutely loved the way they felt, but over time, I began dreading all the hours I was spending zoning out in a salon chair. On top of that, the steep price of a gel manicure with “the works” was not in my monthly budget.

Earlier this year, I was grabbing lunch with my friend (a fellow manicure aficionado) and I noticed she had an amazing manicure decked out with colorful designs. I asked which salon she went to, and she revealed that they were press-on nails. I was floored. The next day I RAN to Chillhouse, an NYC-based nail salon, to grab a pair of their press-ons in the latest design. I was attending a wedding the next day, so it was the perfect opportunity to try them out. That weekend, I received countless compliments and looks of disbelief when I admitted it wasn’t a fancy gel manicure. The best part? My manicure lasted almost 2 weeks! From that point on, I was hooked.

While I’d like to say the press-on application process was a breeze from the start, I definitely struggled to figure it out on the first go. After testing a handful of designs, I’m proud to say I’ve gotten the hang of it, so I thought I’d share exactly how I apply my press-ons as well as some tips and tricks I wish I’d known the first time I applied them.

Step 1: Pick the right press-ons

Picking the right press-ons for you is one of the most important factors in making sure your manicure lasts. Press-ons are available everywhere from drug stores to high-end nail brands, but before you run to buy $7 nails from Amazon, I will say spending a little more can make your manicure look exponentially better and more natural overall. These days, I’m loyal to Chill Tips and Glamnetic–two brands that are good quality and fit my personal style. I have a set of ‘Kiss’ press-ons that are collecting dust in my bathroom simply because when I opened the box, the nails looked too large for my natural nails and way too long for my liking. I personally can’t stand when my nails are too long to type, clasp jewelry, or function like a normal human being, so I was drawn to both Chill Tips and Glamnetic because they offer nail art I liked and styles on the shorter side. My current go-to is Glamnetic’s short, almond-shaped nail set which is available in a variety of colors and designs.

Step 2: Set up your nail station

Once you pick out your press-ons of choice, make sure you have everything you need handy, to avoid scrambling for your tools mid-manicure. Most press-ons come with nail glue, an alcohol wipe, a cuticle stick, and a nail file, so I make sure to put these to the side of my “station” for when I’m ready to prep my nails. In addition to everything in the kit, I also grab my nail polish remover, along with some q-tips and a couple of paper towels for clean up. I highly recommend applying your nails over a paper towel or an old hand towel in case the glue gets a little messy.

This is the "Boba" set and I also like "Ma Damn" for a classic French manicure

This is the "Boba" set and I also like "Ma Damn" for a classic French manicure

Step 3: Pick your size

Now that you’ve taken everything out of the kit, it’s time to begin sizing up your nails. I usually start with the nails displayed in the front of the box since they are usually the most common sizes. I’ve found that press-ons are prone to looking unnatural when the false nail is too wide at the base. One trick that I’ve learned to avoid this is to select nails that feel more snug–meaning they look a little small laying on top of my natural nail, but they fully cover my nail when I press down on them. Once you find a match for each nail, lay them out on the table in front of each corresponding finger for when you’re ready to start applying. Pro tip: You only need to find your size for one hand! Many brands have numbers embossed very small on the underside of the nails that correlate to sizes, so when you find the right fit for one hand, you can find the matching number for your other hand. Plus, you can jot down your nail sizes for future press-on manicures to save time!

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Step 3: Prep your nails

Prepping your nails is one of the most important steps in the process. If you have painted nails, make sure to thoroughly remove any nail polish with acetone. From past experience, I’ve learned that cutting my nails as short as possible helps my press-ons adhere better.

Next, it’s important to push back your cuticles to remove any dead skin that would prevent your press-ons from sticking. If you want to take it a step further, soak your nails in warm water for a few minutes to help loosen up your cuticles before pushing them back. Depending on the nail shape you choose, you’ll want to file your natural nails to match. I’ve been into almond-shaped nails lately, so I like to file the sides of my natural nails to ensure they don’t show under my press-ons since the style is on the narrower side. The last step is to wipe your nails with alcohol to make sure they’re clean and ready to go. If you don’t have alcohol on hand, you can swipe your nails with acetone instead.

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Step 4: Apply press-ons

Now that your nails are prepped, you’re finally ready to start applying! The order in which you apply your press-ons is totally up to you, but I prefer to leave my dominant hand’s pointer finger and thumb for last. This makes it easier for me to pick up each nail.

When it comes to adding glue, it’s better to be on the conservative side. The first time I applied press-ons I added glue all over the nail and when I pressed down on the nail, glue started oozing out from the sides. It was a sticky nightmare to say the least. To prevent this, only add a small drop of glue on the center of the lower half of the nail, and one additional drop on your natural nail. Next, pick up the nail from the top where there is no glue. Before pressing down, line up the press-on up with your natural nail, to make sure it looks straight. Once you’re lined up, slowly press down at an angle starting from the bottom. Applying at an angle helps prevent any air bubbles from getting trapped under the nail. (This is especially important if you have a sheer design like a french manicure.) Once your nail is fully on, hold the nail down firmly for 15-20 seconds. If any glue escapes on the sides, you can take a q-tip dipped in nail polish remover and gently wipe it up. Repeat until your manicure is finished!

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Step 5: Clean up

Once I’ve applied the full set, I like to let my nails breath for a few minutes to ensure all the glue is dry and they’re securely attached. After waiting a beat, I scan each nail for any glue around the press-on. If I see anything, I’ll take a q-tip dipped in nail polish remover and gently remove any excess glue. The first time I applied my nails, I got glue all over the top of each press-on, which left them feeling rough and looking dull. Don’t worry if this happens! I found that rubbing the press-on with a paper-towel dipped in acetone removed all the glue and restored the shiny look.

Step 6: Shaping

One of the best parts about press-ons is they’re able to be filed and shaped exactly to your liking. Because the style of press-ons I choose are on the shorter side, I don’t need to file too much, but I like to file around the edges to make them feel a little softer. I also check the sides of each nail. If I see my natural nail showing, I’ll file it to line up with the edge of my press-on. If any of your press-ons look crooked, you can easily file the side to make it appear a little straighter. Once you feel good about them, you’re all set!

WARNING: You may notice you have an entirely new personality with your fresh new manicure. :)


Step 7: Maintaining your manicure

I’m here to assure you that press-ons are actually pretty durable. When applied correctly, your manicure can last anywhere from 1- 2 weeks. Yes, I’m a little more cautious with my nails while wearing press-ons but not any more careful than I would be with a gel manicure.

That being said, I’ll admit with almost every set I’ve worn I’ve had at least one nail pop off, but if the rest of my nails still look good, I’ll just reapply the missing one. If the nail that fell off is in good condition (meaning not bent or cracked), I’ll use nail polish remover to take off any glue my press-on and my natural nail, then reapply. If the press-on is unusable, I’ll find a nail that is close in size and file around the edges to match the shape of the original nail. Pro tip: If you’re attending a special event, I highly suggest keeping the nail glue in your purse, so you can quickly fix your manicure if you’re in a pinch.

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Step 8: Removing your press-ons

Ready to take off your press-ons? Please resist the urge to rip them off. This can damage your natural nails! Instead, grab a bowl and some liquid dish soap. Fill the bowl with a few inches of warm water and squeeze in some soap. Put on your favorite show, dip your fingers in the bowl, and relax. After about 15 minutes, you should be able to easily peel the nails off. Once your nails are dry, you can gently buff off the excess glue. Throw on some hand lotion and voila! You’re ready for your next manicure.

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