Did you know a “nail health expert” is actually just a… dermatologist? Still, not very many dermatologists actually specialize in treating nails, with the exception of people like Dr. Dana Stern who teaches nail surgery (it exists!) at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. A big chunk of her practice is bringing broken, messed up nails back to good health, and with salons closed all over right now, she suggests that there’s no better time than the present to “go natural and get our nails healthy.” You can get to the creative, fun, good stuff in a minute, but you’ll be able to execute those Skittle nails a lot more easily if you’re working with a smooth, split-free nail bed to start. So, what are her best tips on how to restore wrecked nails? Let’s hop to it.
First, a bit of nail knowledge: the tips of your nails might be clear or opaque white, and it doesn’t really matter either way. But what you should look out for are areas that become darker over time, which can indicate a weak spot in your nail. “The corners of the nail are often traumatized from everyday events and using our nails as tools for opening boxes, or other things,” explains Dr. Stern. Even cleaning underneath the tips can be problematic. “This maneuver can inadvertently pry off the nail bed,” says Dr. Stern, and you’ll start to notice uneven or wavy tips. For nails that are otherwise healthy, the separation will take four to six months to heal. But to prevent it from happening in the first place, make sure to clean underneath the nail gently. If it hurts, don’t push.
Buff and file with the right tools
“An even [nail] edge is less prone to splits and peeling,” adds Dr. Stern, and it’s important to prevent future damage. But, she notes, be careful about which buffers and files you choose: “Many are meant for use on acrylics, and the grit level can be excessively abrasive for a natural nail.” Limit buffing to once a month (it can thin your nails), and make sure to file your nails gently, in one direction. Dr. Stern also recommends opting for a glass file instead of an emery board, which is a lot more abrasive.
Cut nails short
Growing your nails is kind of like building a tower of blocks. It looks cool! But with every increase in height, the whole situation gets a little more risky. Long nails are more likely to snag, break, and get dirty stuff stuck under them. And it’s even more important to keep nails short if you’re dealing with an issue. “Splits in the nail often happen after a small injury to the nail matrix, or the little half moon at the base of your nail,” explains Dr. Stern. “The matrix becomes weak at that point, often causing a split at the tip.” To protect the area from further trauma, you want to give your long nails a time out. You can also seal the nail with clear nail polish, but if you do, Dr. Stern recommends letting the polish grow out instead of removing it so you don’t accidentally make the injury worse.
Care for your cuticles
“The cuticle is the nail’s natural protective seal,” explains Dr. Stern. “Like grout between your shower tiles, it keeps water, moisture and organisms out of the nail.” When your cuticles aren’t healthy—maybe they’re dry and peely, or picked-at and red—it opens the door for infections. And, if they stay compromised, eventually your nails will start to grow irregularly, with discoloration, bumps, and extra thickness. “The best way to care for your cuticles is to gently push them back with a washcloth in the shower, and then apply cuticle oil after your shower and throughout the day,” says Dr. Stern. A cream takes longer to sink than an oil does, and might act as an inadvertent magnet for dirt—bad for your nails, and even worse when keeping your hands clean is your current MO. So if you don’t have an oil and are using a cream, make sure it dries fully before going to do other stuff.
Use the right ingredients
Because oil and hand cream isn’t where it stops. “There are tons of products on the market that claim that they help brittle, weak, dry, and dehydrated nails,” says Dr. Stern. Of course, not all of them work. She suggests everyone look out for sunflower and brazil nut oils, which are rich in moisturizing phospholipids. If you have thick, bumpy nails, or nails that are dry and brittle, she cites ingredients like AHAs and urea, which have been proven to help thin and smooth them. And to strengthen thin, flimsy nails, Dr. Stern says that mastic oil, a plant resin, is best. “Its active components tell your nails to produce hard keratins and keratin-associated proteins,” she explains, citing successful studies. Because she couldn’t find these ingredients in one product, Dr. Stern actually made her own—but in a pinch (and on a budget) you can recreate a similar process at home. Get sunflower oil at a health food store in lieu of traditional cuticle oil, and it’s easy to prep your nails with a swipe of any glycolic toner you have in your Top Shelf. (In fact, it might even be a good way to use an acid you invested in that turned out to be too strong for your face.) Mastic oil is quite expensive and difficult to come by, so start with that and if your nails still need strengthening, consider investing.
Keep polish changes infrequent
You know that thing people say about nails needing a break from nail polish “to breathe”? What they really need is a break from nail polish remover, which causes more damage than anything else. “Polish removers are essentially modified paint strippers,” says Dr. Stern. “Whether it’s acetone or something like ethyl acetate, removers are all drying and can exacerbate an already brittle, damaged nail.” If your nails feel really thin and rough, try giving them a break from polish altogether. Then, once they feel OK (or if they’re already pretty healthy), if you absolutely must, give yourself a manicure that’ll still look good as your nails grow. It’ll help minimize exposure to harsh chemicals, making your nails stronger in the long run. One suggestion: these colorful tips.
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Photo via ITG