Like a great new haircut or a terrific skin care regimen, healthy, well-manicured nails are an integral part of a neat, pulled-together appearance - one that can work as an asset in both the social and the business world.
Unfortunately, experts say both men and women fall prey to myths and old wives' tales about how to care for nails. Another pitfall: many of us rely on the guidance of salons, some of which may not be doling out the best advice -- or treatments.
To help set the record straight -- and get you on the road to beautiful nails -- three top dermatologists offer these 12 tips for achieving healthy, well groomed, elegant nails.
1. Don't cut or manipulate cuticles.
Whether you have your nails professionally groomed or do them yourself, the No. 1 recommendation is leave your cuticles alone, says Dana Stern, MD, a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.
"The cuticle is the natural barrier to fungus and bacteria -- and once you breach that, protection is lost," she says. This will not only make cuticles look worse -- red, swollen, and ragged -- but may also land you a nasty infection that harms the nail bed and leads to permanent nail damage. And while cutting cuticles holds the most potential for harm, pushing them back can cause problems as well.
2. Use nail hardeners sparingly -- or not at all.
"The take-home message here is that a lot of them do more damage than good," says Stern. She reminds us that these products are not studied clinically, so most claims are not backed up by science. Unless nails are exceptionally weak and fragile, she says, most people don't benefit from a nail hardener.
Healthy nails are flexible nails, she says, so to keep yours from breaking, avoid anything that makes them more brittle.
3. Moisturize the nail bed and the cuticle.
While there is little in the way of medical data showing that moisturizing the nail bed will help nails grow, it can make cuticles look better and help protect nails from breaking due to a lack of moisture. "If your nails are prone to breakage, it could mean they need moisture -- and putting oil around the cuticle helps moisturize the entire nail, which will reduce the incidence of chipping, cracking, and splitting," says Margaret Ravits, MD, a dermatologist at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.
4. Take biotin supplements.
In several studies, researchers found that supplements of biotin (a member of the vitamin B family) increased nail thickness and prevented splitting and breaking. In a respected German study that evaluated 45 people with severe nail problems, 2.5 milligrams of biotin daily for several months benefited everyone -- with 91% of the 45 citing significant improvement. NYU dermatologist Sumayah Jamal, MD, says to get the effect, it's vital that you take the prescription strength, therapeutic level of 2.5 milligrams daily.
Some nail products also contain silicon and the supplement MSM, two other nutrients associated with nail health.
The one supplement that won't work: Gelatin. Experts say eating or soaking in it won't do a thing to increase nail strength -- and a liquid soak may actually waterlog and eventually weaken nails. Stern adds there is little scientific evidence that supplements or nail products containing calcium, yeast, or fluoride have any significant impact on nail health either.
5. Limit professional manicures.
While it's hard to beat the pampering luxury of a pedicure or manicure, a study just completed by Stern and colleagues at Mt. Sinai showed those who indulged regularly were the most likely to suffer from dry, brittle nails. The doctors theorize that exposure to more chemicals and harsher ingredients may be one reason. Jamal adds that women who get manicures frequently suffer from chronic nail bed infections, evidenced by puffy, reddened areas around the base of the nail. "When you look at your finger sideways the area around your nail bed should be flat. If it's puffy, that's evidence of a chronic infection," says Jamal.
One way to reduce problems, say the experts, is to take your own tools to the manicure. This, says Jamal, will definitely cut down on the risk of infections and help ensure a healthier experience.
6. Avoid acetone-based polish removers.
"The one product that all dermatologists agree you should avoid if you have brittle nails is acetone nail polish remover. It has been documented time and again that it strips the nails, causing them to become brittle -- which is something we found in our study as well," says Stern.
7. Avoid rough emery boards.
Those old-fashioned orange emery boards are too harsh for nails, causing small fissures and cracks that lead to breakage and tears, says Ravits. Instead, she says, file nails with a smooth, fine file and don't saw back and forth. Instead, Ravits says, file in one direction only, and do it slowly and evenly to reduce risk of breakage.
8. Don't overdo hand washing and limit contact with cleaning chemicals.
As healthy as it can be to wash your hands frequently, overdo it and you'll wreak havoc with your nails, says Stern. If you are in a profession where frequent hand washing is mandatory, she advises to use moisturizer as often as possible and rub a little extra around the cuticles several times a day.
When doing housework or laundry, Jamal says, minimize contact with harsh chemicals, including dishwashing liquid, by wearing rubber gloves whenever possible.
9. Change shampoos.
While most women know when a shampoo doesn't agree with their hair, many don't realize it may not agree with their nails -- even if their hair looks great. This, say experts, is particularly true of detergent shampoos, or those for oily hair, which are designed to strip lipids and other natural oils from the scalp. "If your nails are very dry and you are using any soap product that strips the oils, there is the potential to dry the nails," says Stern.
10. Choose nail tips over full extensions.
All our experts told WebMD that, in general, nail extensions are bad news for nails, frequently leading to fungal or even bacterial infections -- and, says Stern, sometimes to permanent damage. If you must wear nail extensions, she says, opt for just tips. While they can still cause problems, the potential for damage is less since the surface area covered is smaller.
The use of a liquid acrylic nail compound known as MMA (methyl methacrylate) has been banned in many states and has been the subject of an FDA hazard warning, due mostly to high allergic sensitivity and serious nail damage. However, because it is an inexpensive ingredient, there are reports some salons are still using it, sometimes in the form of black market products. How can you tell for sure? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if your nail products have a strong, noxious odor; if nail enhancements are difficult to file; or they don't soak off easily, they could contain MMA. Report any suspicions to your state health board.
11. Remember toenails count, too!
Everything that applies to your fingernails applies to your toenails, which experts say may be even more prone to problems due to careless pedicures. "Because feet are more often inside shoes -- a dark, moist environment -- fungus can grow more easily," says Ravits. If you get regular pedicures, experts say take your own instruments and never let the tech dig under the nail or around the cuticle. Moreover, Ravits says cutting toenails at an angle -- instead of straight across -- increases the risk of ingrown toenails, which can be painful and sometimes develop into an infection.
12. Watch your nails for signs of health problems.
Most of the time, nail problems can be traced to environmental assaults -- exposure to harsh cleaning chemicals, use of drying nail products, or just general physical abuse, such as typing or excessive use of fingertips.
That said, the American Academy of Dermatology advises that the condition of your nails can sometimes reflect a problem in your overall health. Here's what they say to look out for:
- White nails -- liver condition
- Half pink/half white nails -- kidney disease
- Yellowing and thickening of the nail, slowed growth rate -- lung disease
- Pale nail beds -- anemia
- Yellow-tinged nails with a slight blush at the base -- diabetes
In 2005, a group of doctors in Ireland found that the earliest signs of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis might be detected in the nails. In a study conducted at the University of Limerick, researchers discovered something called disulphide bond -- present in both nails and bones -- was lower in people with osteoporosis.
Of course, if you suspect health problems, discuss any findings or concerns with your doctor.