Nail blogger secrets for pretty nails 3: Clean-up is your sneaky BFF

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How to cite: Wong M. Nail blogger secrets for pretty nails 3: Clean-up is your sneaky BFF. Lab Muffin Beauty Science. March 17, 2014. Accessed July 24, 2024.

Part 3 of the Nail Blogger Secrets series is devoted to clean-up. Clean-up and quick dry top coat were the two discoveries that converted me from casual nail fan to full-blown addict. Life-changing? Yes, I would say so!

Click through for part 1 (top coats) and part 2 (nail maintenance).

Most nail bloggers and Instagram girls don’t need to airbrush their nails in Photoshop. The dry flaky skin, or the angry red hangnail, sure, but not the actual polish (unless there’s a cat hair in there, because another little known secret – loving polish also makes you love cats).

That’s because we clean up. When nail fanatics refer to cleaning up, it doesn’t mean picking off the polish on your skin in the shower (as awesome a trick as that is), or running a Q-tip dipped in store-bought polish remover, or, I don’t know, getting your cat to lick it off or something. We specifically mean, running a brush dipped in pure (or almost pure) acetone around the edge of the polish, to remove the unwanted parts.

After a few years of nail painting and nail blogging, I’ve gotten pretty good at “painting inside the lines”, but I still clean up to get a smooth line near the cuticle, especially when I’m using a polish with a wonky brush. To illustrate the wonders of clean-up, here’s an absolutely terrible paint job, and what 60 seconds of clean-up with acetone and a brush can achieve:

There are two essential elements to speedy, non-hair-tearing clean up in my opinion: a good brush and an appropriate remover.

(a) Brush

Here is a typical conversation about clean-up between me and a nuggle (non-obsessive nail person).

Nuggle: Your nails are amazing! How do you paint them so neatly? You must be really skilled!

Me: Thank you! I guess I’ve just had lots of practice and patience, and I use a brush dipped in acetone to clean up the edges. It works really well! You can get polish all over your hands and still end up with perfect nails!

Nuggle: Oh, I’ve tried that. I can’t get it as neat as you though.

Me: Did you use a brush with acetone?

Nuggle: Nah, I used a cotton bud with my regular nail polish remover.

Me: Try a brush with acetone! It’s unbelievably better, and it’s almost entirely foolproof and takes like ten seconds, maybe check out a YouTube tutorial? It totally changed the way I do my nails, [insert more frenzied gushing here]

Nuggle: Nah, I think I have to practice more haha… I’ll just admire your nails!

(A thousand neatly manicured unicorns weep.)

Do not assume that a Q-tip is anything like a brush. It is not the same. There is a reason why nail addicts have tested countless brushes for acetone resistance. There is a reason why painters pay more for brushes instead of using cotton wool. Learn from our hard work. Try it out and you will not look back.

(I don’t externally rage because I try to come off as a Nice Person, so I am channeling all my frustration here. I will forgive you if you’ve had a solid try with a few brushes and go back to the Q-tips, but I actually don’t know a single person who has done this. I haven’t made my mind up on pointed Q-tips yet.)

The advantage of a brush over a Q-tip, or tissue wrapped around a stick (bless) is that the hairs are pointed for precision, and have some flexibility, so you can get a smooth line easily, plus you don’t end up with raggedy bits of uncontrollable fluff everywhere. And good luck getting the fat head of a Q-tip in the tiny gap between your cuticle and polish without a lot of emotional eating. Yes, it’s possible to use other methods to achieve the same results, but they require more patience and skill than the average person can muster.

Selecting a brush

The tricky part to clean up is finding a good brush. The shape doesn’t matter so much in my opinion – I don’t have a preference yet. I’ve tried pointed eyeliner brushes, angled brushes, concealer brushes and even Essence’s weird French tip brush, and they’ve all worked well enough. (I actually used the weird-ass French brush for the demonstration clean-up – if you can do it with that shape, you can do it with any shape really.)

Soft bristles always help, though they’re not 100% necessary. The real sticking point is trying to find a brush that doesn’t freak out from the abuse. Acetone is an aggressive solvent (as is ethyl acetate, to a lesser extent), so you want a brush that will stand up to it. The three main places the acetone attacks are:
– the hairs – they’ll go funny-shaped or stiff
– the glue holding the hairs in the handle – the brush will shed, or if you’re unlucky, the whole thing will fall apart
– the handle – the paint will come off onto your hands, or if it’s plastic, it’ll melt. This is irritating, but doesn’t bar a brush from being good for cleanup.

There are tried-and-true brushes for cleanup, but many of these are only easily available for cheap to those in the US.

Popular brushes:

– e.l.f. Essentials Concealer brush
– Angled eyeliner brushes from Target, Essence, Manicare, Gloss (Ecotools is variable – most fall apart the first time but a few have lasted forever)
– Pointed eyeliner brush from Models Prefer
– Woolworths Select eyeshadow brush (glue may recently have changed to something crap)
– Revlon Double Ended Smokey Eye brush
– Art brushes from Mont Marte

eBay cheapies tend to be a bit of a crapshoot, but I’ve been luckier with the ones labelled “for acrylics” from specialist nail stores like Born Pretty since they’re made to withstand solvent (although annoyingly, Born Pretty has rapid turnover of stock, so it’s often hard to repurchase items). Kolinsky brush hairs are also reputed to be quite hardy, but whether the glue dissolves is subject to the laws of the eBay crapshoot. This set reportedly has a few good brushes, and a few that go wonky with acetone.

To extend the life of your brush, try not to completely immerse the brush head in acetone, to minimise dissolving of the glue. Pouring the acetone out into a dish or the lid of your bottle makes this easier.

(b) Acetone

Pure acetone is by far the most popular clean up solvent.

– Aggressive – gets the job done quickly and easily
– Evaporates quickly – doesn’t hang around to dissolve the bits of polish you want to keep
– Cheap – especially if you buy it from a hardware store. In Australia, you can get 4 L for under $10.

– Aggressive – destroys brushes, dries out your skin and leaves it with flaky white bits (the technical term is “defatting”), spillages ruin furniture

Less popular, but still used options:
Acetone/glycerin mix (click for instructions) – slightly less quick and can make the brush bristles behave weirdly, but gentler on the skin and avoids the flakiness (I use this during swatching a bunch of polishes in a single session, when moisturising isn’t really an option).
– Non-acetone remover – far slower and more frustrating, but gentler on the skin. Usually the last resort when you’ve run out of acetone.

Again, feel free to go back to your remover if acetone doesn’t work for you. But you need to try it at least once, just to see what all the fuss is about (and yes, there is a lot of fuss).

Not just for the sloppy

I tend to stress when I have to paint my nails without clean-up equipment. Even when my polishing is pretty damn good, clean-up can make it better. For example, the left fingernail in this photo is a tiny bit off – not noticeable in person, but kind of obvious at blog resolutions. Clean-up can fix that up.

Pro tips for clean-up

You got your brushwork down pat and you can barely smell acetone anymore. Excellent! Now for some advanced techniques. For watermarbling, sponging and other super-messy techniques, there are a bunch of ways to protect your skin:

– Cover all the skin around your nails with sticky tape or bandaids, then peel off when done (there are also specially made tools like Nail Bibs for this if you’re not DIY-inclined, or you can even cut custom ones from duct tape)
– Coat the skin in Vaseline, wipe off at the end with a Q-tip (this can also be handy for hard-to-clean-up polishes, like dense shimmers or dark, pigmented colours)
– Paint PVA glue or liquid latex on the skin, let it dry before you polish, then peel or wipe off afterwards

Low-tech strategies

Sometimes it’s a bit too much of a pain to get those last few specks of shimmer off your cuticles – relax! No one is going to notice them except for you, unless you’re taking close-up photos where every little mistake is magnified. The easiest solution? Get in the shower, wait til your skin swells up a little, then gently scrape off the last remnants with your nails or a sponge. And if those specks are still on your skin, then… it’s probably Photoshop time.


When to clean up?

I can’t believe I forgot to include this tidbit of important info – when in the polishing process should you clean up? This is really down to personal preference, but most people prefer to clean up after the last layer of base, just before top coat, after waiting a little bit for the polish to dry down. This makes the polish on the rest of the nail less likely to be disturbed when you’re mucking about with the edges.

What are your best tips on clean-up? Leave them in the comments below!

Next we’ll tackle a tricky one… glitter polish!

Nail Blogger Secrets for Pretty Nails
Part 1: Top coat the mother
Part 2: Prep that base
Part 3: Clean-up is your sneaky BFF
Part 4: Glitter isn’t normal polish
Part 5: Nail addiction on the cheap

Skincare Guide

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32 thoughts on “Nail blogger secrets for pretty nails 3: Clean-up is your sneaky BFF”

  1. This could not be more true! Once I started cleaning up, I just can’t not do it, even if my mani is so neat. And yes….nail polish=cats…I have three 😉

  2. I generally use remover with self made mini cotton buds from toothpicks.

    They turn out to be all a bit different, but mainly are fine enough for the “fine bits”, but my nails are never as perfect as yours… well, they last maybe three days, no longer.

    For the solvent I use a mini eye dropper pipette (or however you call these thingies) so I never have too much “smelling around”. I think that’s best for health and environment (and it lasts longer).

    I tried shortly with the brush (eyeliner from essence) and remover, but one day I’ll try it with acetone … in the moment I find it easier with the mini cotton buds.

    Its always a surprising difference, even with tiny details!

    • The problem with using remover with a brush rather than acetone IMO is that it’s such a poor solvent that it feels like it’s doing nothing, so you want to go for something you can put a lot more physical pressure on, like toothpicks or a cotton bud. It’s a trap! 😛

  3. Love this series! I would say discovering the magic that is acetone with a brush for clean up is what led to my nail polish obsession! When I found that I, too, could have prettily painted nails AT HOME – that’s all she wrote!! So far I prefer an angled eyeliner brush. Not sure what brand I have, it was from Beauty Brands – so far it has been holding up well. I have only tried a gradient manicure once; using scotch tape around each nail really minimized clean-up. Learning about nail clean up and cuticle oil are the 2 tips that have made the biggest difference in my manicures.

    • I don’t think I’ve properly tried out an angled eyeliner brush yet! Every time I look for the Essence one it’s sold out, but I assume it must be awesome because everyone seems to use one.

  4. Oh how I miss those acetone / ethanol squirt bottles from uni days! I have acetone in a little spray bottle at work to remove pen ink off glassware… although I might move on to methylated spirits as the acetone smell lingered too long.

    Anyways, great tips. Never use cotton tips, lamest things in the world! And being around cats when painting my nails usually results in at least one of my nails to have a stray hair stuck to the polish =S

    xxx Kat @ Katness

  5. Thankfully my application skills have improved, I have less clean up to do…but that also takes practice to get right. I have killed a couple brushes with natural fibers, I think. I recently finally found that elf concealer brush in a drugstore, but so far this one synthetic one is holding up pretty good. It was from a set on eBay, blue handles.
    Love this series 🙂

    • I’ve killed so many brushes with acetone, either from clean-up or washing after nail art. They’re all in a cup in my nail area, gummed up and sad looking. I’m not sure why I keep them? I’m probably overly optimistic…

  6. I use the brushes from Mont Marte and they work perfectly, one can last up to three months! I buy a pack of four for about AU$4 but it only has one of a good clean-up size, the rest are more for nail art. Acrylic brushes all the way. Great article.

    • I keep it with the other household solvents (turps, methylated spirits etc.) under my bathroom sink, and transfer it into a little 200 mL nail polish remover bottle as needed. I think most people keep it in the garden shed or laundry. Just make sure it’s away from sparks, flame and heat, and don’t keep it open for too long in an unventilated area.

      (I think the rationale for keeping solvents in the fume hood/flame cabinets in labs is mainly because of the sheer combined quantity of solvent being used – for example if you have 5 people running 5 columns with > 1 L of volatile solvent each, outside of fume hoods, and add that to the solvents being used for cleaning and leaking from anhydrous setups, you end up with a buildup of solvent in the air that’s both a fire hazard, and a trigger for headaches and respiratory problems. In the home otoh, you’re probably not going to find more than 5 L of solvent in total, and the containers are being opened far less often.)

    • That makes a lot of sense, we’re always going back and forth, everyone has a different chemical too.
      Is it still safe if I live in a tiny apartment?
      We don’t have windows in the bathroom either.
      P.s. thank you for all your posts. The entire website is a gold mine of knowledge.

    • It should be fine, as long as you don’t frequently have open fires and leave the bottle open for long periods! If you’re worried, you can buy smaller quantities at some hardware stores – the smallest I’ve seen is 500 mL, which is quite reasonable.

  7. Great post! When I was first getting into nails and gradually realized that the big-name bloggers had “perfect” nails because they did clean-up it made the dream of having nails like them so much more reachable! It took awhile for me to perfect the acetone & brush clean-up method, though. The first time I tried it it didn’t go well so I gave up, leaving off trying for a few months! Then I tried again, got it right and have never looked back! Sometimes it just takes a few tries…

    I am glad that I never wanted to go for the blobby cotton bud option, at least. Cotton balls/pads and swabs should really only be used for cleaning up your skin for especially messy projects like water marbling. =)

  8. Thank you so much for this advice. It is amazing, and has solved my biggest problem with my nail art, I hope (I’ll give it a try as soon as I can). There is one thing I’ve wondered about though, and that is how you keep the acetone from evaporating from the dappen dish or the bottle lid while you are cleaning your mani? Even nail polish remover with acetone in it evaporates so quickly that I would be forever filling it up again. I’m now going to go and check out all your other hints and tips.

    • I usually pour about 3 cm of acetone into the lid of my bottle – it’s pretty narrow so it doesn’t evaporate as quickly 🙂 Then I pour the excess back in! I have a separate mini bottle for clean-up so it doesn’t matter that it gets a bit dirty.


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