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Is Your Manicure Ruining Your Nails?

May 14, 2012

Ever since discovering the $10 manicure years ago, my natural, bare nails have hardly seen the light of day.

Related: 10 Best Nail Polishes

I put on a fresh coat of polish weekly (that way I get to try out all the colors-du-jour), and my ever-changing nails have become somewhat of a signature accessory.

Related: 12 Secrets Your Nail Salon Doesn't Want You to Know

But during my most recent trip to the salon, I took a rare break from texting and checking work emails and happened to glance down while the technician was stripping away the previous week's shade. To say I was horrified by what I saw, would be putting it mildly. My nails looked cracked, dry, and flaky around the edges. And, sure, while a new coat of polish would cover the ugly right up, I now knew what was underneath and also that something was not right.

Related: The Top Nail Art Trends from Fashion Week

After talking to a doctor, a manicurist, and a spa director to try to find out what was going on, I was shocked to find out that my regular manicures were the root cause of my nail disaster and that I was making a mistake by never letting them breathe.

If you're addicted to manicures as much as I am (was), keep reading to learn the biggest nail mistakes you're making -- and how to keep wearing nail polish without ruining your fingertips.


According to New York City podiatrist William Spielfogel, DPM, people often confuse nail polish damage for a fungal infection and vice versa. "In the beginning stages of a fungal infection, the nail becomes discolored, thickened, or brittle," he says. "It's important not to self-diagnose." If you're concerned, go to the doctor and have him or her take a sample of the nail to figure out the problem -- there are oral medications, topical treatments, and lasers they can prescribe or use. And even if your nail problems are due to polish damage, be careful: A crack can lead to an infection.


Your cuticles determine how your nails grow -- so if you have significant cuticle damage your nail might become ridged, malformed or even fall off. If you're doing your manicures yourself, be especially careful with scissors. "I like to call it bathroom surgery -- when people start picking," says Spielfogel. "You can create an ingrown nail, which can lead to an infection." Whether you're doing your manicure at home or in a salon, he believes that cuticles should never be cut. Yes, you read that right: never. "Your cuticles are an important barrier that protect you from germs and other organisms -- if you have to do something, you can push them back."

Related: The Best Nail Polishes of 2011


I used to switch my nail polish color constantly -- as often as once a day -- and most of the time I wouldn't use a base coat underneath. It was a timesaving measure, but it turns out it was also one of my worst habits. "A base coat acts as a barrier between the nail polish and your nails," says New York City manicurist Kristina Konarski. "If there are harmful or drying ingredients in your polish, a good base coat will prevent it from damaging your nails."

Another reason to take the (annoying) extra step: There are even base coats with treatment ingredients built in. Next time I do my nails I'm going to try Sally Hansen Salon Manicure Smooth & Strong Base Coat, $8, which contains biotin and Spirulina to fill ridges and help prevent splitting.


If you're having nail problems, there are three chemicals commonly found in polishes that you should avoid: toluene, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and formaldehyde. "I have patients come in all the time thinking they have a fungal infection, but it's not -- it's actually damage from commercial polishes," says Spielfogel. "These polishes strip all the moisture from your nails and cause discoloration."

Try swapping out your regular polish for a "healthier" brand like Butter London, Zoya, SpaRitual, or Dr.'s Remedy Enriched Nail Polish, $17, which Spielfogel co-created. "It has vitamins and nutrients to help keep your nails healthy," he says.


During my manicure phase, I only tried a gel manicure once. While I loved the long-lasting aspect, I hated how my nails felt after I had the polish removed. They were more brittle than ever. Spielfogel is adamantly opposed to gel: "I can't see how it's a good idea at all," he says. "The polish is so tightly adhered to the nail for a long time, and it's full of chemicals. Even putting your hands under that UV light -- why would you want to expose yourself to that?"

If you do go for a gel mani, be sure the technician uses the proper technique to take off the polish. "There are a lot of salons where they file the polish off," says Parco. "That would be far more damaging than the manicure itself. They should use an acetone-based remover and wrap the nails in foil." If you're not sure whether the service will hurt or help your nails, try it once and carefully monitor the effects.

To see more manicure mistakes you could be making, click here.

More From Total Beauty:

12 Nail Care Products That Will Transform Your Hands
3-Minute Manicure Tutorial
Can You Wear Nail Art Past 30?

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