Nail Polish 101 – How to Apply Nail Polish

{Affiliate Links}

I’ve had a few friends follow this blog that weren’t really ‘into’ nail polish before my contagious obsession caught on. They might have painted their nails once in a while, but now they are getting more and more interested. (You know who you are!) This article on how to apply nail polish is dedicated to them!

One of the common statements all these people make is that painting their nails takes too long and doesn’t end up looking good. This article is going to address both of those problems. I have gotten to the point where I can remove old polish, apply new, and have it reasonably dry all within 30 minutes or less. (Sort of like the Domino’s of nails.)

Step One: Remove Old Polish

Don’t spend time scrubbing off old polish. Be efficient. Be fast. Use less than one cotton ball!

Items needed:

  • Acetone
  • One Cotton Ball

First, unravel the cotton ball.



Rip the cotton into finger-sized pieces.


Put acetone on the cotton piece (most easily done with a pump bottle)


Place the acetone-soaked cotton on your nail.


Repeat for all remaining nails.


Wait for a few minutes.

Apply a little pressure and pull the cotton across the nail. Some little bits of polish might hang on to your nail – that’s ok. Use a clean part of the acetone cotton to wipe it away.


You can also use q-tips soaked in acetone to clean up the little bits that didn’t get removed.


Step Two: Moisturize and Prep

Items needed:

  • Hand lotion
  • Q-tips
  • Rubbing Alcohol

    All that acetone from step one will assuredly have dried out your hands and nails. Let’s get some moisture back in! Use your favorite hand lotion, making sure to rub on and around your nails.

Basecoats like to adhere to clean nail plates so we’ll need to remove a little of the lotion we just applied. A Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol will dry out excess moisture without drying out your nail. Rubbing alcohol can also be decanted into an empty polish bottle for easy application instead of using a Q-tip. (Confession: I rarely do this step. I change my mani every day so a long-lasting mani isn’t super important to me. This step helps keep your polish on longer.)



Step Three: Basecoat

No, you can’t skip this step. No, you can’t use topcoat instead of basecoat. Scientifically speaking (I sound smart now, right?) basecoat is formulated to adhere to your nail plate. Nail polish is formulated to adhere to a basecoat. Topcoats are formulated to seal in and dry the polish pigment. #chemistry

Items needed:

  • Basecoat

You may want to read step 4 prior to applying basecoat since there is a specific application pattern I follow which I also follow for the basecoat.

Step Four: Nail Polish Time!

We all want to apply nail polish perfectly.  Just like anything else, this takes practice! I’ve been painting my nails daily for over four years (sometimes more than once a day!) and I still get polish on my skin sometimes. (See optional step below on cleanup.)

In general, your polish is going to go where your basecoat went. So, you’ll want to be careful when applying your basecoat even though it doesn’t seem like it’s going to make a difference since it’s clear.

Here are the basic steps I take for every nail during every step (basecoat, color, and topcoat.)

  1.  With a small amount of polish on the brush, set it down on the nail slightly above where you actually want the polish to end up.
  2. Gently push it as close to your cuticle as you can without getting it on your cuticle. (In all my closeup photos, you can see there is a small gap between the polish and my cuticle where a hairline of bare nail shows through. This is intentional. You don’t want polish on your cuticle.)
  3.  Pull the polish all the way to the tip of your nail. Steps 1-3 are completed without lifting the brush from the nail.
  4. Set the brush down gently where you ended step 2. Swoop the brush around the side and pull it to the tip of your nail.
  5. Repeat on the other side.
  6. If you have a free edge (the nail has grown past your finger), then slide the brush across the tip to help seal it in.


If my graphic I oh-so-expertly made in Publisher doesn’t help you visualize, here is a little video of what I mean. The video is in real time.

Step Five: Top Coat

Items needed:

  • Topcoat

It’s time to seal in your polish with a fast-drying topcoat. Unless the topcoat actually says that it’s fast drying, then it’s not. My personal favorite is Seche Vite but there are many options to try. Your favorite will depend on your personal body chemistry. If one topcoat doesn’t really work for you, try another!

Apply topcoat using the same method described in step 4.

Optional Step: Clean Up

If you’re going to take pictures of your hands (like me!) then you’ll want to clean up. Use a bit of acetone and an ELF concealer brush to wipe away little accidents on the skin. If you’re not immediately showing off your nails, then you don’t really need this step. Polish on skin will usually come off in the shower without any added effort on your part.


Hopefully this post was helpful! Please share with anyone you think would like it!

Author: Anne

Blogging about makeup, dogs, and mostly NAIL POLISH!