When your nails are feeling brittle and paper thin, it's easy to lose hope that they can bounce back. But with proper care and patience, nail pros say you can nurse your nails back to being strong and healthy.
Where to start? “Nail damage can be caused by many things, but it is important to know the root cause of your nail damage," says nail artist Laura Malarkey. "Improperly removing gel polish, over filing and over buffing, physical injury, and using your nails as tools can all cause significant nail damage."
If your nails are damaged, know you're not alone. It's something manicurists treat daily. So they know a thing or two about what to do—and what not to do—to damaged nails. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about caring for damaged nails.
Signs and Causes of Damaged Nails
There are a few dead giveaways that you're dealing with damaged nails. "Any abnormal discoloration is definitely a cause of concern," says ORLY educator Amy Oung. "Also, the nail bed (the pink part of the nail) should be attached to the nail plate (the real nail). The nail shouldn't be peely or too brittle. Additionally, the skin around the nail shouldn't be inflamed."
These things can happen for a few different reasons. All the pros I spoke to note that one of the most common causes of damage is peeling off nail polish and enhancements. "It's a huge no-no," says Oung. Beyond that, the causes tend to involve everyday mishaps.
"I've had clients that deal with environmental damage from having their hands in water/solvents for too long working in the service industry or nail biters, too," says Oung. "As far as toes, I've seen some damage from runners who, with constant pressure, lost their toenails. There are also those that have fungus on their toes due to health issues or environmental issues as well."
Going to a poorly trained technician can also result in nail damage, notes Jan Arnold, co-founder of CND. "If a nail salon service is not correctly matched to the custom client's needs, or if the natural nail plate is not properly prepared, the service could separate from the nail plate around the perimeter of the nail or even in the middle of the nail, which is known as center-pocket lifting," says Arnold. "When this separation takes place, the coating can take a few top layers of keratin with it, causing a weakened substrate and possibly lead to nail damage."
How to Heal Damaged Nails
1. Identify Areas for Improvement
Whether your dealing with brittle nails, discoloration, dry cuticles, or all of the above, there are treatments out there to help. Identify what issues you'd like to address so you can curate a tailored plan.
2. Get Proper Repair Products
"Choose the products for your needs, either through research or with your nail professional in the salon," says Arnold.
"A standard protocol for damaged nails is taking a break to let your nails breathe and treating them with a keratin-based treatment like CND Rescue RXx ($21)," says Mazz Hanna, nail artist and founder of Nailing Hollywood. "This is also a great time to work on the hydration and overall integrity of your cuticles. I love Dior Crème Abricot ($30), which is an overnight treatment for cuticle repair. If you are someone who can’t bear the thought of bare nails, ORLY's breathable polish line is a great choice when you are trying to repair your nails. It’s a one-step formula that has great retention, even on damaged nails."
Oung adds that the breathable collection is infused with argan oil and vitamins C and B5 to help nourish damaged nails.
3. Use the Products as Directed
"Follow the instructions or recommendations from your nail professional on how often you need to use these products at home or come into the salon for maintenance," says Arnold. This can make all the difference, experts agree.
4. Avoid Peel-Off Nail Treatments
While rehabbing your nails, it can be super helpful to lean into a gel polish to keep them from breaking as they heal. "Gel polish is good for all nails," says Arnold. “Soft gel is designed for normal-to-weak nails, hard gel is great for challenging nails that peel or break, and liquid and powder is [best] for nails that are thin, shapeless, and weak."
But this is only the case if you promise not to peel them off, adds Hanna. If you know you're a picker and peeler, stick to nourishing and strengthening treatments until your nails are back in working order.
5. Take Extra Good Care of Your Nails
"Remember, your nails are not tools," says Arnold, emphasizing the importance of being careful with your nails. For example, use a box cutter to open packages instead of your hands, wear gloves when washing dishes, and avoid soaking your hands in water. And again, don't pick! "You should never pick, peel, or bite damaged nails, as this will worsen the condition," says Oung.
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