Neiman Marcus Beauty Market: Nail Tips from Deborah Lippmann

Deborah LippmannDeborah Lippmann was our last meeting of the day — what a great note to end the day on. These guys have so much cool stuff coming out over the next few months I can hardly stand it. I gotta take one collection at a time, though, and there will be a separate post dedicated to their spring and summer polishes (which I loooove).

Possibly the most exciting thing that happened in this meeting (which was jam-packed with top-secret nail news, not-yet-released testers, and nail painting ’til we ran out of fingers): halfway through, we were joined by Deborah Lippmann herself.

In case you didn’t already know, Ms. Lippmann was first a jazz singer in Arizona. Jazz singing is mostly a night-gig, and beauty was her second love, so she went to cosmetology school. She found herself drawn to nails — your hands are kind of on display when you’re crooning into a microphone — and (in addition to the singing) became well known as a manicurist in Phoenix.

She moved to New York to pursue her singing career, but kept up with “the nail thing,” too, working in the Fekkai spa in Bergdorf Goodman. Well, she painted a few famous fingers (an editor from Vogue, another one from Allure… Ms. Bobbi Brown, Mariah Carey), and her life pretty much exploded. She might be the most famous manicurist working today, and she’s done everything from Lady Gaga’s music videos to magazine covers, runway shows to the manicures that appear in Armani’s national ads. You might have noticed that along the way she launched an incredibly successful nail care brand (1998). Oh yeah, and she still sings. Click here to hear her on YouTube, or check her out on iTunes (click here to download her three Christmas songs).

As our meeting was winding down, I leaned over to ask Deborah a few nail questions. I feel like I don’t completely speak the language of nail care, and I first wanted to identify a few terms. Sometimes when I push my nails back, there’s something left behind on the nail. I assumed it was dead skin, but wanted to ask if it had a name. To try to demonstrate exactly what I was talking about, I started pushing back a cuticle with the thumbnail of my opposite hand.

Ms. Lippmann freaked out. She grabbed my hands and asked me please never to do that again.

There were several things I did wrong in that scenario. (1) I was pushing back an unprepped nail. I don’t usually do that. I usually push them back after a hot bath (which Ms. Lippmann said was better). But her ideal is to only push back cuticles that have been treated with cuticle remover. (2) I was using my nail to push. Ms. Lippmann explained that pushing with a thumbnail is both bad for your cuticle and bad for your thumbnail — making it more likely to break, down the road. Okay, I do tend to use my already-weak nails as tools.

Ms. Lippmann asked me to think about my cuticles the same way I think about my face: “Nothing should hurt,” she says. “And would you ever wash your face without moisturizing it afterwards?” I think most of us would answer “duh” to that question.

She walked me through the steps of her perfect manicure:

Deborah Lippmann, stripper1. Remove polish. Lippmann polish remover is called The Stripper, is lavender-scented, and comes in a pump-top bottle. Ms. Lippmann is a fan of letting the remover soak (via wet cotton) on your nail for a minute — it results in neater removal of bright and dark colors, she says, with less rubbing back and forth.

2. File/shape nail. I said, “how are you supposed to shape your nails without polish?” And Deborah said, “what?” It was kind of a funny moment.

I file my nails with polish ON, because  my nail beds aren’t even (I don’t think anyone’s are). With an opaque polish covering my visible nail line, I can shorten/shape my nails without visual distraction. Ms. Lippmann believes in “wrapping” your tips: painting a last-step coat of base coat/color/top coat on the leading edge of your nail, to help the manicure last longer and prevent shrinkage. Obviously if you file, you’re going to take off that painted edge.

I don’t know if I can give up filing-while-painted (though I’ll wait until I’m at the end of a manicure), but Ms. Lippmann had two very good suggestions for filing.

  •  Flip your hand over while you’re filing. Look at your nails with the back of your hand facing you (the classic “admiring my engagement ring” pose), and with your palm facing you, fingers curled. It’s the way to make sure your shape looks good from all angles.
  • To make sure your two hands are of the same length, hold your index fingers side by side, cuticle to cuticle. Then middle fingers, both ring fingers, etc. This is brilliant, and I can’t believe I never thought of it. I have a lot of trouble making my two hands the same length.

3. Buff the nail. Although you do this no more than once per week. Buffing is not an arduous process; it really only took seconds. Deborah used her “Smooth Operator” (an emery board with four different grades of fabric). She only uses the first three sections if you’re planning to wear polish; the fourth is to buff a clear-polish-esque shine.

Deborah Lippmann, cuticle remover4. Cuticle Remover. This is an exfoliator for your cuticles. Lippmann’s cuticle remover is a no-soak (because, she says, soaking is drying) slightly thick/gummy liquid. You apply the remover to the U-shape where cuticle meets nail. Then, and only then, you push back with a tool. By doing this, I would remove that dead, left-behind cuticle on my nail, the stuff I was originally trying to ask about.

You can use a simple orange-wood stick, or Lippmann is coming out with an awesome “Tools of the Trade” set, which includes a metal pusher and a really fantastic “nipper.” I wish I already owned one of these so I could take a real life photo. I plan to buy the set as soon as it hits Neiman Marcus counters.
Deborah Lippmann, Tools of the Trade set
The right side of the metal pusher is a gently curved metal spatula. (The left side, in this photo, is a slightly different shape for super thick man-cuticles.) The nipper has the smallest head I’ve ever seen on a tool of this type. It is for clipping that little free-edge, sticking-up piece of skin you sometimes get on dry cuticles. (This is what a hang-nail is, though hang-skin might be a more accurate term.) Also nifty: the hinge/spring is double action, and can be inverted if you prefer a wider grip.

Ms. Lippman is totally against cutting any part of the cuticle other than a hang-nail, and I agree. Remember that visiting a manicurist is kind of like going to the doctor: it’s okay to ask questions, and if they’re about to do something you don’t want them to do, speak up!

5. Moisturize. If you were getting a Lippmann manicure, Deborah would moisturize your cuticles with oil, then apply hand cream and give you a hand massage. If you’re DIYing it, you can decide if you have time for this step.

6. Polish! Wipe oil off the nail plate, wipe the edge of the nail, and wipe under the nail (any residual oil is going to mess up your paint job). Deborah then uses 2-Second Nail Primer (a quick-evaporating cleanser), basecoat, two coats of color, then topcoat.

Voila! You’ve got the best-looking hands in the city.

Ms. Lippmann also made a video demonstrating everything I explained here, in case anything was unclear. (Video from There’s a song at the end, too.):

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4 Responses to “Neiman Marcus Beauty Market: Nail Tips from Deborah Lippmann”

  • Constanze says:

    Wow, what a pleasure to meet her! :)
    It’s really interessting. :)

  • Chantal says:

    Karla, I agree with you that it’s easier to file and shape your nails with polish on. But most people I know who do this file BEFORE removing their old polish. Tip-wear has usually worn away the free edge and, if by some miracle my tips are still wrapped, I might quickly swipe just the tips with some remover (so I don’t stain my glass file with polish).

    I also do most of my swatching before I give myself a manicure (how else to decide what color to use, among my embarrassingly large collection?), so it’s rare that I have naked nails to file.

    But thanks so much for this post! Not only was it informative, but I appreciate your willingness to ask an expert all kinds of questions — even ones that result in “What?” reactions (that was so cute, I love that anecdote!). How else are we ever suppose to learn? Thanks to your intrepid reporting, all your readers benefit!! :)

  • MaryEllen says:

    What a great article! Thanks, Karla!

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