8 Straightforward Ways to Banish Dry, Fix Brittle Nails for Good
Conditioner isn’t just for your hair—a little extra TLC will take your nails a long way.
Having healthy, strong nails is powerful, no matter what the nail colors you wear, whether you love nude nail colors or go polish-free. Healthy nails (and even the results of good nail cuticle care) are one of those less-visible morale boosters, like wearing a fancy pair of underwear just because or splurging on amazing socks to wear under your boots.
Whether your nail care is a form of self-care, an indulgence, or just regular maintenance, keeping your nails in tip-top shape is a valuable investment. And here’s the good news: Healthy nails need an investment of time, not money.
The best route to stronger, longer nails is mostly through simple lifestyle habits, not pricy nail tools. But getting healthy nails also means kicking some bad habits, such as using your nails as a built-in pocket knife. Follow these steps, and you’ll have stronger, longer nails before you know it.
1. Moisturize your nails
Moisturizing is a well-known mystery to healthy skin, but it’s often overlooked in nail care. While dry, brittle nails can be the result of many aspects, they’re ultimately a cry for moisture, so consider good moisture the foundation of your nail care routine. When applying hand lotion, give your nails a little extra concentration. There are plenty of moisturizing nail products on the market, but using moisturizer is only half the battle—there’s more to strong nails than a fancy cream or serum.
2. Leave your cuticles alone
It’s common practice to cut, push back, or try to get rid of cuticles altogether, but cuticles are not the adversary. The cuticle is “the nail’s natural protective seal,” according to certified dermatologists and nail experts. Messing with your cuticles can do far more harm than good—even if a nail technician is the one doing the handiwork. A compromised cuticle can leave the nails helpless and at risk of infection.
Cosmetic dermatologists agree that poorly kept cuticles can have a domino effect. When your cuticles get dry or injured it can damage the nail bed and affect the way your nails are growing out. They suggest moisturizing the cuticles with cream or cuticle oil to help protect and strengthen your nails.
3. Avoid contact with water
Don’t stop washing your hands or shower with gloves on but do pay attention to ways you can reduce the time your nails spend in contact with water because excessive water contact can weaken nail structure. (Wet hair is especially vulnerable, and the same caution-when-wet approach you take to handling wet locks can apply to nail care, too.) For example, consider wearing gloves while doing the dishes or other wet work.
Do you know how soft and bendy nails get after a long bath? Consider this: The nail is like a sponge. It is 1,000 times more absorptive of water than the skin, for example, and so water can easily diffuse into the nail. Extreme water exposure can put considerable strain on delicate nail cells (called onycholysis), which can lead to brittleness, peeling, and breakage.
This is also why absorbing nails before a manicure is a bad practice. Not only does this make your nails more vulnerable to infection, but it also doesn’t allow nail polish to adhere as well or last as long.
4. Be gentle
The best nail care is gentle care. For starters, cosmetic dermatologists are against the habit of invasively digging under your nails. Sometimes someones take the pointy end of a nail file and dig underneath their nails to get the dirt out. You don’t want to do that, because it can separate the nail plate from the underlying bed, and then you can develop a bacterial fungal infection.
For similar reasons, you should resist the urge to use your nails as replacement tools—no matter how convenient it may be. (There are plenty of other creative ways to open a can of soda.) And if you do indulge in an acrylic or gel manicure—which you should only do sparingly—proper removal is important. When you peel [acrylic or gel nails] off, you’re peeling layers of the nail, the nail plate, and that’s going to weaken your nails—so that’s a no-no.
5. Treat your nails like you treat your hair
It’s the new golden rule. Hair and nails are both comprised of keratin proteins, so it makes sense that many of the same rules for treatment apply. Both hair and nails can become dry and damaged from over-processing. Frequent polish removal, gels, and acrylics do to nails what dyes, chemicals, and warmness application do to hair. Just as hydration can help repair hair issues such as frizz and split ends, it can help improve dry and brittle nails. There’s no nail care equivalent to second-day hair, but operating as though there are hard and fast rules for how to wash, care for, and use your nails can help keep them in the same good shape as your hair.
It bears repeating: Hydration is the foundation. For healthy, growing nails, you should condition your cuticles the same way you would your hair.
6. Watch the weather
Winter can be a rough time for skin, hair, and nails alike. Not only can cool, dry climate cause nails to get extra brittle, but the drastic swings in temperature from going outdoors to indoors can cause additional damage. The shift from a heated home or office to the chilly open air can cause nail cells to contract and expand repetitively, resulting in a weakening between the cells, leading to breakage. For both your hands and nails, it's wise to wear gloves in the winter and to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.
7. Rethink your products
Instead of those old-fashioned emery boards that cause microscopic tears in the nail, opt for a glass or crystal nail file.
It would be best to avoid nail polish remover altogether in the most ideal scenario. The best alternative is to use non-acetone removers that contain hydrating oils and ingredients instead of giving up the joy of a nice manicure.
Nail brush: Instead of digging under your nails with tools such as a filer, use a gentle nail brush to clean out the dirt. Or, for a resourceful alternative, use an extra toothbrush you have lying around.
Nail growth products: Go ahead and pass on these. So many of the so-called nail treatment or nail growth products on the market are in reality clear nail polishes with marketing additives that have no scientific validity. Just stick to basic nail care products.
8. Be patient with nail growth
You probably know the victory of growing your nails past your fingertips if you're a chronic nail-biter. Healthy habits plus patience pay off in nail care. But the primary focus should be on figuring out how to strengthen your nails, not solving the puzzle of how to grow nails fast. Stronger nails can lead to longer nails if you practice good nail care, but it all takes time. If you battle brittle nails and constant breakage, it’s smart to keep your nails clipped short until they regain strength; then they’ll have the foundation they need to grow longer.