Weak, fragile, ridged, peeling, flaking or splitting nails are unsightly, embarrassing and sometimes painful. The same is true of cracked, ragged, torn, chewed, or puffy cuticles. I know this because I spent much of my adult life feeling self-conscious about my visibly damaged nails and dry cuticles, and searching for effective ways to improve their length, strength, and appearance. I described the extent of that damage, as well as the remarkable results I have been able to achieve so far, in my recent review and recommendations for choosing the best manicure (and pedicure) tools,
In today’s post, I am sharing the things I have done to dramatically improve the strength, flexibility, and appearance of my damaged fingernails and toenails.
- The nail plate—the visible, hard surface to which nail polish is applied—is hardened, flattened, compressed layers of dead keratin protein cells. (That's why it doesn't hurt or bleed when you clip or cut the free edge, unless you accidentally trim too close to the quick.)
- The only living tissue is the deeper layer (dermis) of the skin beneath the nail plate (aka the nail bed) and the fold of skin cells at the base of the natural nail plate (aka the nail fold) that produce the cuticle.
- So, the best way to achieve lasting improvements to the strength, flexibility and appearance of damaged nails is to focus on nourishing and protecting the nail bed and nail fold, keeping the cuticle and surrounding skin moisturized, and protecting the nail plate as much as possible from absorbing excess water.
Tip: The Nail (anatomy) Wikipedia page provides a helpful, high-level overview of the nails' structure and parts, function and clinical significance.
1. Protect and heal your cuticles, so they can protect you.
Picking at, biting or cutting your cuticles can open the door to bacteria or fungi, causing an infection that not only will make your cuticles look worse, but also can lead to permanent nail bed damage. Dana Stern, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City who specializes in nail health, explained in a Q&A for Nails magazine, “Cuticles serve as the nail’s natural protective seal. They are next to the most important part of the nail—the nail matrix—and protect the matrix from bacteria and infection. Any trauma to the cuticle area (cutting, biting, picking) can affect the matrix and ultimately lead to irregularities in the nail. Instead, push cuticles back gently and use a cuticle oil or cuticle cream to keep them hydrated and healthy.”
If you have a hangnail, don't pull, tear or bite the off. Remove it right after showering or shampooing, when the dead skin has been softened. If it is next to the side of the nail, file it off with a glass file. If it is at the bottom or corner, use a sterilized cuticle nipper to carefully nip off just the base of the loose, dead skin. Avoid nipping any live tissue. Then use a glass nail file to smooth the clipped root so it doesn't catch or snag on fabrics, etc., and you aren't tempted to pick at or pull on it. I recently discovered that using a Germanikure glass cuticle pusher, which I can hold in a “pencil grip,” gives me much better control when I am smoothing hangnails or calluses.
2. Moisturize your cuticles and nail bed.
The nail bed is the living tissue directly under the nail plate, which extends beyond the cuticle. A well moisturized nail bed is one of the keys to improving the nails’ health, strength and appearance. It not only makes the cuticles smoother and less prone to cracking (which can let damaging bacteria and fungi in), but also makes the nails stronger, more flexible and less prone to chipping, cracking or splitting.
To keep these areas moisturized, apply cuticle oil, serum and/or cream, then slowly and thoroughly massage the oil into your cuticles and the surrounding skin. Do this every morning and just before bed, at a minimum, and preferably after showering, bathing, shampooing, or washing your hands in hot, soapy water, or using hand sanitizer. It’s a good idea to moisturize your cuticles and the surrounding skin again after washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen, bathrooms, windows, etc., or doing other “wet work” without wearing rubber gloves, and especially if you use household cleaners containing harsh chemicals. If you don’t want to keep multiple bottles, applicators or jars of cuticle oil or cuticle cream in different parts of your house, you can keep one in your bedside stand or table and keep hand cream or lotion near the sinks to massage into your hands and cuticles after getting them wet.
Tip: If your cuticles are very dry and in rough shape, I highly recommend splurging on Deborah Lippmann's The Cure cuticle cream intensive cuticle treatment therapy, which won Allure’s Best of Beauty Award for four consecutive years. I have been using it for many years, and even though I have tried several other highly rated cuticle creams during that time, this rich formula consistently gives me noticeably softer, smoother cuticles and must faster results that, for me, are worth the premium price.
3. Keep your fingernails dry.
When fingernails and toenails absorb water, they soften and swell. As a result, the thin, translucent keratin layers on the surface can separate, which leads to peeling and flaking. Avoid keeping your hands in warm or hot water—especially hot, soapy water—except when you wash your hands, bathe or shower and shampoo your hair.
Also, paradoxically, keeping your hands or feet submerged in hot, soapy water dehydrates the living tissue, including the dermis layer of the nail bed and the nail fold. That’s why it’s important to massage in a cuticle oil, serum or cream (or at least a moisturizing hand cream or lotion) right after washing your hands or emerging from the tub or shower.
Protect your nails and keep them dry by wearing cotton-lined latex or rubber dishwashing gloves for washing dishes, cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms, and other "wet work," and wear gardening gloves while working or playing in the dirt.
4. Clean your nails gently.
Don't use a cuticle stick or other pointed tool that can dig into the quick and open it to bacterial or fungal infections. Instead, scrub the fronts and backs of your nails gently with a wet nail brush and gentle hand soap.
5. Avoid or limit contact with harsh chemicals when cleaning.
When doing housework (including washing dishes) or laundry, minimize contact with harsh chemicals, by wearing rubber gloves whenever possible and, ideally, swapping traditional household cleaning products and laundry detergents for cleaners that don't contain harsh or potentially harmful chemicals. I highly recommend Puracy's natural cleaning products, which have perform as well as, and often even better than, the popular, big-name cleaners I had used in the past.
6. Use nail hardeners sparingly, if at all.
These products make nails more brittle and, therefore, more prone to breaking. Nail hardeners can give the illusion of strong nails, but with continued use they can do more damage than good. They should only be considered for nails that are exceptionally weak or fragile, and not for long-term use.
7. Use nail polish to repel water and prevent peeling and splitting nails.
Wearing polish not only creates the appearance of more beautiful nails, it can also protect them. In the May 2020 Bustle post “5 Affordable Nail Polishes That Are Actually GOOD For Your Nails,” Dr. Stern explained that, but also can protect nails by helping to prevent the absorption of water, and because polish “binds the nail cells together, so nails are less likely to fray and split.”
Dr. Stern recommended “10-free” polishes, which don’t contain any of the 10 potentially harmful chemicals most often used in polish formulas. I have tried several 10-free nail polish brands and formulas, and Zoya nail polish is one of my favorites in this category.
It’s also worth noting that the authors of the November 2019 Harvard Health blog post “A look at the effects of nail polish on nail health and safety” wrote, “There is no strong research data regarding whether the chemicals excluded from non-toxic polishes have harmful health effects at the concentrations present in traditional nail polish.”
8. Never try to flake, peel or scrape off your nail polish.
Although applying basecoat, polish and topcoat can provide some protection and aid with maintaining or growing strong nails, wearing that lacquer will do much more harm than good if it isn’t removed gently by rubbing (not scrubbing) with a cotton ball or pad soaked in acetone-free nail polish remover.
Removers whose primary ingredient is acetone are essentially slightly diluted versions of paint stripper, and while those powerful solvents are effective and efficient, they are exactly the type of harsh, drying, potentially harmful chemicals that you want to avoid. Peeling or (even worse) scraping is even worse. Because lacquer is bonded to the surface of the nail plate, the top layers of keratin are removed along with the polish, leaving them even thinner, weaker and more fragile than before the protective coating was applied.
So, if you want to achieve or maintain healthy nails, but you either can’t resist the urge to pick at or peel off your polish or don’t have the patience to remove it slowly and gently with acetone-free nail polish remover and cotton, you're probably better off leaving your nails bare.
Experts also advise removing polish no more than once a week (especially if you are using an acetone-based remover.)
Tips for Using Acetone-Free Nail Polish Remover:
I have found that Mineral Fusion works better job than other acetone-free formulas I have tried. However, even the best acetone-free nail polish removers are less aggressive and need more time to soften and dissolve layers of dried lacquer. Try to be patient and resist the temptation to speed up the process by rubbing harder or scrubbing.
If you applied a topcoat, start by scuffing the surface slightly with a few gentle strokes of a coarse salon board, just enough to start dulling the shine a bit. Lightly saturate a cotton ball or pad with acetone-free nail polish remover (so it’s evenly wet, but not dripping) and hold it against the nail for at least 60 seconds before you try to wipe off the polish. Repeat, if necessary, to remove any remaining polish.
I also recommend keeping a few HandsDown Ultra nail and cosmetic pads on hand for removing polish from just one or two nails without putting the rest of them at risk, thanks to the poly film backing and tab “handle.” that keeps the other nails away from the pad and remover.
Polishes containing chunky glitter are much harder to get off (even with an acetone-based formula. The easiest and gentlest way to remove it is saturate small or mini size cotton balls (or large cotton balls cut or torn in half) with the acetone-free remover and use acrylic nail and polish remover clips to hold a mini cotton ball firmly against each nail. In my experience, it usually takes between three and eight minutes to remove glitter polish this way (and significantly less with an acetone-based formula), depending on how many layers of base coat, glitter polish, and topcoat I’m wearing.
9. Keep your nails trimmed and the edges smooth.
Use a glass nail file to smooth out and help seal the edges of the keratin layers to avoid snagging and reduce the chances of breakage. A fine glass nail file is the only type that can be used safely on both the “push” and “pull” stroke, without the risk causing flaking, peeling or splitting nails. (Any other type of nail file or salon board must be used only on the “push” stroke, going from the outer corner toward the center in only one direction, and lifting and repositioning the file to begin each new stroke, to minimize potential loosening of the keratin layers.)
I recently ordered a few more glass nail files so I could keep one in every room of the house (as well as in my purse and our cars), to help me smooth any rough edges, snags or hangnails as soon as I notice them (and avoid the nervous habit of picking at or pulling on them and making things worse). I decided to try a set of Germanikure Czech glass nail files that come with sturdy, protective, suede leather soft cases. (The company also offers velvet soft cases as a vegan alternative.) The set includes a large file, a smaller, travel-size file, a glass callus remover/heel smoother, and the glass cuticle pusher I prefer to the nail file for smoothing hangnails, rough skin or calluses on my fingers. All the tools in this set are made from a thicker tempered glass than most others I’ve tried, and everything from the tools themselves to the suede leather cases to the packaging demonstrates an attention to detail and a commitment to high quality. I also got a pair of Germanikure Professional Stainless Steel Nail Scissors made in Solingen, Germany, which are also of superior quality. I can highly recommend this company’s products.
10. Eat a nutritious “rainbow” diet that includes foods high in vitamin C, biotin and folic acid (folate).
People who eat a healthy diet with plenty of vitamin C may have smoother, softer skin. One possible reason: Because vitamin C is an antioxidant, it can help protect your skin from free radicals. These break down oils, proteins, and even DNA. Vitamin C is found naturally in vegetables and fruits, especially oranges and other citrus fruits.
Some research studies have found that biotin can strengthen fingernails and make them grow faster. Clinical trials have shown that taking biotin orally can make brittle nails firmer, harder, and thicker, and there is also some evidence that oral biotin may improve vertically ridged nails (a condition known as trachyonychia). You can find biotin in a variety of foods, such as eggs, fish, meat, seeds, nuts, and vegetables.
A folate (vitamin B9) deficiency can contribute to ridged, weak, brittle or peeling nails. The term folate can mean not only the folate that is found naturally in food but also folic acid, the form of the vitamin used in dietary supplements and enriched foods. To increase your consumption of folate-rich foods, you can eat more leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables (e.g., kale, spinach, arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts), asparagus, beets, citrus fruits, avocado, bananas, papaya, melons, eggs, legumes including beans, peas, and lentils, walnuts, almonds, flax seeds, wheat germ, beef liver, and vitamin-fortified and enriched products, including some breads, pasta, cereals, and juices.
Lipner, Shari & Scher, Richard. (2017). Biotin for the Treatment of Nail Disease: What is the Evidence?. Journal of Dermatological Treatment. 29. 1-17. [10.1080/09546634.2017.1395799].
Health Benefits of Biotin, WebMD.
11. Consider biotin supplements and folic acid supplements.
Research studies have found that oral biotin supplements can increase nail thickness and prevent splitting and breaking. If your nails are especially thin and week, you might want to ask your doctor about prescribing a stronger, therapeutic dose of biotin, which has resulted in significant improvements in people with severe nail problems.
Source: WebMD. (2006, December 16). A Dozen Tips for More Beautiful Nails. [https://www.webmd.com/beauty/features/more-beautiful-nails-a-dozen-tips]
You also might also want to consider trying a folic acid supplement. WebMD’s supplement guide to folate (folic acid) [https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-folic-acid] provides guidance on the USDA’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), as well as the maximum amount that most people can take safely on their own, although a doctor might prescribe a higher dose for treating a folate deficiency. Source: WebMD. (2020, July 26). Folate (Folic Acid). [https://www.webmd.com/diet/supplement-guide-folic-acid]
Note: I recommend asking your doctor before taking any supplement.
12. Don't use your nails as tools.
This is one of the most important secrets to growing strong, healthy, more beautiful nails. It’s also the one I have the hardest time keeping in mind during my day-to-day activities!
13. Don’t forget your toenails.
All these secrets for growing strong, healthy nails apply equally to fingernails and toenails. It’s especially important to disinfect pedicure tools after each use, since fungus can grow more easily on toenails that are enclosed in the dark, moist environment of shoes or slippers for many hours each day. Also, to reduce the risk of ingrown toenails, cutting toenails straight across—not at an angle—is a must.
14. Save salon manicures and pedicures for special occasions and bring your own tools.
There is no doubt that a professional salon mani or pedi can quickly give you the appearance of more beautiful nails, at least in the short term. However, while a salon visit might be an affordable indulgence, you also need to consider the hidden cost of the cumulative damage to the strength and health of your nails.
“Water content and other aspects of brittle versus normal fingernails” a study by Dr. Stern and colleagues at Mount Sinai published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found that the odds of having brittle nails was more than three times greater among participants who received a professional manicure, and that the likelihood of having brittle nails was linked to the frequency of having professional manicures. Possible reasons include exposure to more chemicals and harsher ingredients than you would choose for your own nail polish remover, disinfectant and other at-home manicure or pedicure supplies, and salon owners or technicians who fail to follow their state's disinfection protocols or comply with other health and safety regulations or industry standards.
Experts recommend bringing your own manicure and pedicure tools with you to the nail salon, maintaining separate sets of nail care tools for your hands and feet to avoid cross-contamination, and disinfecting them thoroughly every time you use them, especially after you bring them back from a professional salon manicure or pedicure appointment, to minimize your risk for developing a bacterial, viral or fungal infection.
Bottom line: If you want healthy, strong nails that look pretty with or without polish, save those salon visits for special occasions, and bring your own tools to your manicure or pedicure appointments.
What are your best tips for growing strong, healthy beautiful nails?
We can all benefit from sharing what has (or hasn't) worked well for us or our friends or family members. Thank you!
14 Secrets to Growing Strong, Healthy, Beautiful Nails product review by Margaret Schindel
Read the Other Posts in This Nail Care Tips Series
The Best Manicure Tools For Strong, Healthy Nails
Read More of My Product Reviews
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