To cut your fingernails and smooth out jagged edges, ideally, the two tools you’ll want to have on hand are:

  • a pair of nail clippers or manicure scissors
  • a nail file or emery board

In this article, we’ll go over how to cut your fingernails with nail clippers and manicure scissors. We’ll also go over how to trim your nails without clippers, as well as the best type of file for your nails.

Fingernail clippers have a curved edge designed to make it easier to trim your nails. They work well, but if dull, they can damage your nails, crushing them each time you cut.

These clippers can be difficult to control, and it’s harder to make a precise cut with them. But they’re easier to use with your nondominant hand than scissors. Here’s how to use nail clippers:

  1. To make sure your nails are the same, even length, use your shortest nail as a guide for how much nail growth, or white part, to leave when cutting the rest.
  2. Clip one corner of the nail, then clip the other corner.
  3. Finally, clip the middle. If you clip all at once, the nail can crack due to the pressure on the nail plate.

Unlike everyday scissors, the blades of manicure, or nail, scissors end in a gentle curve that makes it easier to shape your nails.

With these scissors, you cut into your nail from the side. They cause less trauma to your nails than clippers. They’re also easier to control, which lets you make a more precise, smooth cut. But they can be hard to use with your nondominant hand.

When working with scissors, the blades shouldn’t have a gap when you bring them together. As you cut, you want the blades to move against each other. Here’s how to use nail scissors:

  1. Face the curve of the blade toward your nail, and gently cut from one side of the nail across the top to the other side. Use one smooth motion rather than several choppy ones.
  2. Be sure to cut all the way to the end of the nail so that the cut piece falls off. You shouldn’t have to tear or pull it off.

The nail edge may be smooth after cutting with scissors, but you’ll likely want an emery board or file to finish smoothing and shaping it.

You can use a nail file or emery board for more than smoothing and shaping your nails. They can also be used to trim your nails if you don’t have a cutting tool handy.

Unless you’re shortening very long nails, most professional manicurists prefer using an emery board or file to trim nails without using a cutting tool, as they’re much gentler.

Also, shaping and finishing your nails makes it less likely to break, split, or snag them on something.

When filing your nails

  1. Hold the emery board or file at a slight angle to the edge of your nail.
  2. Always move the file in one direction. Sawing back and forth can weaken and damage your nail and create uneven grooves.
  3. Always start at an outside edge and move in one direction around the nail to the other side.

This might feel awkward at first, but it gets easier with practice.

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Emery boards

Emery boards are typically made of heavy cardboard or plastic that’s coated with a gritty material called emery. They’re numbered according to how coarse or fine the grit is.

Emery boards that are 80 or 100 grit are very coarse and good for filing length off your nail. Those with a higher number, such as 180, have finer grit and are good for smoothing the nail edge and fine-tuning the shape. Most emery boards have coarse grit on one side and fine grit on the other.

There are also four-sided emery boards. Each of the four sides has a different grit number and is used for a different purpose. For example, the:

  • lowest grit number is for filing down nail length
  • next higher grit number is for finishing and smoothing
  • next higher grit number is for buffing out ridges in your nails
  • highest grit number is for buffing to make your nails shiny

Emery boards are very convenient, but they don’t last long because the grit wears down with use.

Glass nail files

Glass nail files are made of ground crystal that produces a very fine grit. The grit number is often 240 or more, so the file is very gentle on your nails.

These nail files work well for shaping and smoothing the nail edge and buffing out ridges on the nail surface, but they’re not good for filing down length. Glass files seal the nail edge so that it’s less likely to break.

Glass nail files are least likely to damage your nail, but, because they’re made of glass, they can sometimes break.

Metal nail files

Metal nail files are made from ground-up metal that’s shaped. Compared with other types of nail files, they’re very abrasive. They’re strong enough to file down the plastic in acrylic nails and may also be useful on thicker nails. Some professional manicurists warn against using them on natural nails because they can easily tear and damage the nails.

Here are some tips for getting the best results when using a tool to trim your nails:

  • Use a tool that’s specifically designed for cutting fingernails.
  • Don’t use tools designed to cut toenails to cut your fingernails.
  • Opt for high-quality tools. They cost more, but they’re less likely to tear or bend your nails than less expensive clippers and scissors.
  • Sanitize your tools regularly by wiping them with disinfectant or soap and warm water. This reduces the risk of infection, especially if the tools are used by other people.
  • Be considerate and pick up and throw away your nail clippings, or trim them so they fall directly into the trash. Some people trim their nails over the bathtub or shower to more easily collect clippings.

Fingernail length is a matter of personal preference, but there are benefits to keeping them short. Compared with long fingernails, short fingernails:

  • get damaged and break less easily
  • are much less likely to harbor dirt and bacteria that can potentially spread infection
  • are easier to maintain
  • make it easier to do things like type, text, and pick up small objects

Nails can be trimmed into a variety of shapes, including rounded, oval, square, and almond. They’re strongest in an oval shape that mimics the bottom of your nail. Squared-off nails tend to break easier.

The method you use to trim your nails determines whether they should be wet or dry when you do so. If you’re clipping or cutting your nails, it’s OK if they’re wet. If you’re filing them, though, they should be dry.

Wet nails

Softer nails are less brittle and less likely to crack when cut or clipped. Your nails absorb water and are softest when they’re wet. After a bath or shower is typically the best time to cut your nails, but soaking them in plain or soapy water for a few minutes works well too.

Be sure to wipe off any excess water before trimming your nails.

Dry nails

If using an emery board or nail file to trim or shape your nails, it’s best to keep them dry. Filing soft, wet nails may result in bending them in unwanted ways. Nails are also easier to shape when they’re dry.

According to the Canadian Dermatology Association, fingernails grow about 2.5 millimeters each month. If you injure your fingernail and it falls off, it takes about 6 months to grow back.

If you want to keep your nails a certain length, trim them once every week or two. If you’re trying to grow longer nails, cut them less often, though be sure to remove any damaged or split edges.

  • Other small, sturdy scissors. If clippers or manicure scissors aren’t available, and you really need to shorten your nails, you can use small scissors to trim them. The blades shouldn’t be dull and they should meet together seamlessly.
  • Sandpaper. A piece of sandpaper or a small woodworking file can be used like an emery board to trim and shape your nails.

Other things you can use as an emergency nail file? Tile grout and the emery board-like part of a matchbook.

When it comes to trimming your nails without a nail file, there are a couple of don’ts to keep in mind:

  • Don’t bite. You should never bite your nails to trim them. It can peel the keratin away in layers. This weakens the nail edge and makes it more likely to break.
  • Don’t reach for power tools. Power tools such as a grinder or belt sander can be harmful and shouldn’t be used on your nails. They can’t be easily controlled, so you could cut into your nail bed, damage your finger, or otherwise hurt your hand.

Your fingernails protect the delicate soft tissue underneath them, called the nail bed.

At the base of your nail (the nail matrix), living cells are continuously being made. As these cells are pushed out toward your fingertip, they’re cut off from their blood supply and die. Your nail is made of these dead cells that harden into a protein called keratin.

Your nails grow because these cells are continually being produced. This is why you need to trim them regularly.

Why doesn’t it hurt when cutting your fingernails?

Because they’re nonliving, your nails don’t cause pain when you trim them. The pink nail bed can feel pain, though. So if you cut your nails too short, that’s when you can hurt yourself. This is why you should always leave at least a small rim of white part when you trim so that you don’t cut into the nail bed.

You can trim your nails with a cutting tool like clippers or manicure scissors or with a filing tool like an emery board. Nail files are gentler on your nails and are good for shaping and smoothing nail edges.

No matter how long you keep your nails, regular trimming is important to keep them sturdy and strong.