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The Nail Files

Between hand washing, diapering, and close encounters with paint and clay, it can be a challenge to keep nails well groomed. But giving yourself a mini-manicure takes only a few minutes a week, and it makes a huge difference in how your hands look and feel.

10-minute manicure
1. After a shower, when your cuticles are softer, wrap a thin washcloth around the tip of your index finger and use it to gently push back cuticles.

2. File nails from side to center so they're straight across the top with rounded corners  -- "squoval"  -- and keep them fairly short, which is both practical and stylish. File in one direction; sawing back and forth tends to cause peeling and jagged edges. The Sally Hansen La Cross Shape & Smooth, $1, has four different levels of filing power.

3. Massage a rich lotion into hands and nails. Our mom testers love the creamy texture and almond scent of  Creative Nail Design Solar Butter, $14 for 3.5 ounces; 800-833-NAIL.

4. Wipe nails clean with polish remover. We like the spillproof, salon-style dispenser cap on Cutex Essential Care Advanced Nail Polish Remover with acetone, $3. 5. Apply a base coat and two coats of polish, then finish with a clear top coat to minimize chipping. Wait about a minute between coats. For the most even application: Brush up the center of the nail, then do the sides, using short, light strokes so polish goes on thinly. Choose a multitasking product like Avon Nail Experts Tough Enough Base/Top Coat, $6; www.avon.com. It combines the nail-smoothing quality of a base coat with the sealing power of a top coat.

Faking it...
For a faux French manicure: Wet the tip of a whitening pencil like Revlon Nail Whitener Pencil, $1, and carefully apply it to the underside of nails, then brush a chamois buffer a few times across each nail for shine and smoothness.

-from Maria Salandra, a New Jersey-based celebrity manicurist

Cuticle care
Don't cut them: Cuticles protect the nail bed. Cutting can lead to infection and may permanently damage the nail, says New York City dermatologist Doris Day, M.D. If you absolutely must trim a hangnail, do just that -- don't get carried away and cut the cuticle all the way around the nail. An easy way to keep them from getting dry and ragged: Leave a moisturizing cuticle pen by your bed and use it before you go to sleep. We like Dr. Hauschka Neem Nail Oil pen, $14; www.saffronrouge.com.

Tools of the trade
Put together your own manicure kit with files, a nail clipper, a cuticle nipper, hand cream, nail polish, and remover. Or pick up a prepacked tool set, like a miniature version from Earth Therapeutics, $20; www.earththerapeutics.com -- the tools are magnetized to stay put, and the size is perfect for travel or your purse. Don't forget to wipe the tools with alcohol before you use them, to kill bacteria.

Color cues
Warm up your look with the season's rich plum, berry, and mauve shades. Here, your best bets for...

Every day: Updated pastels like this subtle iridescent mauve won't show nicks or chips; like Creative Nail Design Nail Enamel in Porcelain Doll, $6.

A night out: Burgundy and wine hues with a hint of shimmer will add a sexy twist to your look; try L'Oréal Jet-Set Shine in High Octane, $5.

A boost: When the weather's bumming you out, swipe on a bright red or pink; check out Cover Girl Nail Slicks in Very Cherry, $2.

Polish like a pro
? Store nail polish in the fridge -- it'll last longer and dry more quickly on application.

? Don't shake the bottle -- that creates air bubbles. Gently roll it between your hands to mix the polish.

? To minimize chipping, bring the tip of the brush just under the tip of the nail at the end of the stroke.

? Extend your manicure by brushing on a layer of top coat every two to three days.

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