What is a Nail Buffer?

Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

A nail buffer is a cosmetic tool designed to give fingernails and toenails a high gloss shine, achieved primarily through friction and sanding on the nail surface. People sometimes buff their nails as an alternative to polishing them with lacquer or clear gloss, and the results can be somewhat similar. Buffing tools are usually available in both manual and electric formats, though the latter are more commonly seen in professional salons since they’re more expensive both to buy and to maintain. Some experts say that buffing can stimulate blood circulation to the hands and feet, and this might promote growth of naturally healthy nails as a consequence.

A nail buffer is a beauty tool that utilizes a gritty surface to give fingernails and toenails a shiny appearance.
A nail buffer is a beauty tool that utilizes a gritty surface to give fingernails and toenails a shiny appearance.

How it Works

The main idea behind nail buffing is to shine the outer surface of the nail by applying constant and even pressure. Most tools have gradations of grit or roughness that the user must pull against the nail surface, almost as if he or she were sanding the nail. This smoothes out grooves and usually leads to a certain amount of shine that can then be polished by the tool’s softer or less abrasive side.

Nail buffers are used to polish the fingernails and toenails.
Nail buffers are used to polish the fingernails and toenails.

Manual Tools

People who wish to buff their nails at home or on the go often choose a manual-style tool, which is very portable and can easily fit into a purse or briefcase. This style of nail buffer often looks like cross between a thick nail file and a Styrofoam block and can be purchased from many beauty supply stores. The various buffers are often labeled with numbers or letters to help distinguish them from each other, and are often graded based on size and roughness. For instance, a buffer marked “1A” will often be smaller and smoother than one labeled “2D” or simply “C.” Even the smoothest tools usually have a progressively gritty surface, though, that usually goes from smooth to abrasive. Just how abrasive it gets is usually the biggest difference. Depending on the tool, the various sides might also be labeled in the order they're meant to be used, for instance "1" for the roughest side, going up to "3" or "4" for the smoother portions.

Using a manual buffer is usually pretty straightforward. The user should generally start with the roughest side of the tool to smooth away all surface scratches. He or she should buff with the medium grit in the center of the tool to further shape the nail, then use the finest part of the buffer for shining and smoothing. People who want a bit of extra shine on the buffed nails can apply a bit of beeswax or cuticle oil with a soft chamois cloth.

Electric Options

Electric nail buffers are more expensive than their manual counterparts, but they provide a more professional look. These types of tools tend to be bigger, and are often sold in only one size or style since each usually has the capacity to adapt to many different user-inputted settings. Technicians can usually tell the tool to perform at a variety of abrasiveness on small or large surfaces, and the instrument often comes with detachable buffing pads of various grits.

Buffers in this category tend to be faster and the shine is more evenly distributed than it is when using a manual tool. They do tend to be more expensive to maintain, though. The pads will need to be replaced on a regular basis, for instance, since they are similar to the grit of a manual buffer and will eventually wear down, and depending on how often the tool is used it may also need to be serviced rather frequently to keep it in top working order. This can include lubricating its moving parts and replacing its gears and rotating pads as needed.

General Benefits and Tips

Many people prefer buffing their nails to getting them polished since the results tend to last longer. Buffed nails can't chip or show other obvious signs of wear, which makes this type of manicure fairly low maintenance. The nails also lose many of their jagged ridges and edges during buffing, and so long as it's not done too often, the practice may improve natural nail strength and blood circulation as well.

Generally, nail buffing is safe to do once per month since doing so more often can wear away the surface of the nail. Users should remember to always buff in one direction and to use a gentle touch. In addition to damaging the surface of the nail, vigorous use can be rather painful.

Popularity and Main Uses

In a growing number of places buffers are popular with both women and men. Many cultures and societies do not consider it appropriate for a man to wear actual nail polish, but buffing provides a clean and well groomed looked that is very natural. It also lasts longer than a manicure with traditional polish, which makes it appealing to those who don't have the time to bother with beauty treatments that require complicated upkeep.

Nail buffers are typically used after the nails have been soaked and cleaned.
Nail buffers are typically used after the nails have been soaked and cleaned.
Dana Hinders
Dana Hinders

Dana holds a B.A. in journalism and mass communication from the University of Iowa. She has loved being part of the wiseGEEK team ever since discovering the joys of freelance writing after her son was born. Dana also hones her writing skills by contributing articles to various blogs, as well as creating sales copy and content for e-courses.

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Discussion Comments


@Andrade: I love men who buff their nails. It's subtle, yet still gives the impression that the man cares for his looks.

@literally45: I don't like women who wear nail polish. It's very obvious and gives off the impression that the woman is overly interested in her looks. I personally don't like that kind of narcissism.


@cloudel – Generally, I do five strokes with the roughest side, seven strokes with the medium side, and nine strokes with the smoothest one. It's best to do fewer strokes with the rougher sides to protect your nails.

That cuticle oil that comes with the set is awesome! I use it when I'm all done buffing my nails, and it brings out a glossy shine. I massage it and let it soak in all the way before applying any polish.

My buffer also has an extra rough side designed for buffing toenails. They are thicker and tougher than fingernails, so they need a rougher grit. I use the cuticle oil on them, too, because it makes them look so pretty and healthy, and I feel more confident when I wear sandals.


I just bought a nail buffer set that includes a buffer, some cuticle oil, and some hand lotion. I'm excited about using it, but I have an important question.

How many strokes should I use on each nail? Should I use fewer strokes with some sides of the buffer and more with others?


@OeKc05 – You know, you can use the side of the buffer that has the finest grit more than once a month. My nail technician told me that because it is so smooth, it won't hurt to use it every week.


My buffer is one of my favorite nail products. The first time I used it, I was amazed at the results. It actually looked like I had applied clear polish to my nails!

I know that I should only use this once a month, but it is so tempting to use it more often than that. I wear polish a lot, and removing it can leave little bumps and imperfections that I'm just itching to smooth away.


@Andrade-- I don't like men who buff their nails. It's very obvious and gives off the impression that the man is overly interested in his looks. I personally don't like that.


@feruze-- Was the buffer a cube shape?

I know that cube nail files and buffers have different sides made of different materials. There is one side that is used to buff the top of the nail. This is usually the step right before shining. You can get these cube buffers at any beauty store.

I do agree with the article about not buffing the nails too often however. If you wear fake nails often and buff your nails before every application, your natural nails will soon become very brittle.


When I get acrylic nails at the salon, I've noticed that the nail technician uses a buffer to buff the top of the nail (not the ends). I asked her why she's doing this and she said that the buffer removes the oily top layer of the nail so that the fake nails can stick on better and last longer.

Where can I get this kind of nail buffer? What is it called?


@Andrade-I like to see a man with nice, clean, buffed and manicured nails. I'm not fond of clear polish on men, but a slight shine from buffing is attractive. I'm seeing more and more men in the nail salon, so you’re not alone in your desire to have nice fingernails. In the end, do what makes you feel good.


I'm a man and I use a nail buffer and shiner. I think it makes the fingernails look clean, without looking girly. I don't over shine them, just a little.

I've never had any women say they don't like it, but a few have said they do. If any women out there want to tell me their opinions, I'm all ears.


A man at the mall stopped me and asked me if he could buff my nails. It was part of his sales pitch to get me to buy a nail buffer block. I let him and I admit, they looked great. But for the next week my thumb nail hurt because he'd buffed it too thin. Be careful using those blocks.

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