What to do with brittle nails?

13 01 2010

Trying to put a finger on the cause of frail nails?

You could blame dry, overheated houses: When we stoke up the dry heat in winter, dry nails are one of the results. Or you could blame Father Time: After age 35, the natural aging process makes nails more brittle. Mostly, though, you should blame water. “People don’t realize that when your hands are soaking, your nails can absorb between 20 and 25 percent of their weight in water,” says Herbert Luscombe, M.D., professor emeritus of dermatology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University and senior attending dermatologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, both in Philadelphia.

“So if you do a lot of dishes, or swimming, or even bathing, you’re more prone to brittle nails.” Nails expand as they absorb water, then contract when hands are dry. The more water you expose nails to, the more they expand and contract-and that weakens them.

But here’s how to keep them firm, so they’re tough enough to withstand the rigors of clean living and water sports.

  • Chow down on cauliflower. A little-known nutrient called biotin can thicken nails to help prevent splitting and cracking. “Biotin is absorbed into the core of the nail, where it may encourage a better, thicker nail to grow,” says Richard K. Scher, M.D., professor of dermatology and head of the Nail Section at Columbia University-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Cauliflower is a rich source of biotin, as are legumes such as peanuts and lentils. One study showed that people consuming 2,500 micrograms (2.5 milligrams) of biotin daily had marked increases in nail thickness after six months. To get this much biotin, you’ll need to take it in supplement form.
  • Get cookin’ with cooking oil. “A regular soaking with vegetable oil is very effective. It replenishes the moisture lost from having your hands in and out of water frequently,” says Dr. Luscombe. In fact, vegetable oils are better than many commercially sold nail care products because they don’t have the alcohol-containing fragrances that can dry out nails. Messy soaking in oil isn’t necessary: Just brush on the oil and massage it into the nail. “I put some safflower or vegetable oil in a clean, empty nail polish bottle and brush it on my nails several times a day,” says hand model Trisha Webster, who works for the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency in New York City. “And don’ t forget to put a drop of oil on the underside of the nail at your fingertip.”
  • Use an over-the-counter moisturizer. You should moisturize nails right after you wash your hands. “And do it every time,” says Paul Kechijian, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology and chief of the Nail Section at New York University Medical Center in New York City. If you use a commercial moisturizer, look for the kind that contains urea or lactic acid, two ingredients that attract and bind moisture to your nails.
  • Trim nails short. If you’re plagued by brittle nails, trim them shorter, advises Dr. Kechijian. Longer nails are just more likely to crack or tear. Trim your nails right after washing or bathing, when they’re softer and less likely to crack or break.
  • Massage your fingertips. “Regularly massage your fingertips to improve blood circulation around your nails,” says Webster. She suggests three or four times a day–or at least in the morning and evening. If you use some petroleum jelly while you’re at it, you’ll moisturize as you massage.
  • Don’t play taps. Forget that old folk remedy that calls for tapping your nails on a hard surface in order to toughen them. “If you traumatize them in some way, they will grow faster,” says Dr. Scher. “And because they are newer, younger nails, they may seem like they are stronger, but they’re really not.” For the same reason, avoid nail biting: Your nervous nibbling is just another trauma for your nails.
  • Glove ’em if you love ’em. Washing dishes? “Always wear rubber gloves with separate cotton gloves inside,” says Dr. Kechijian. “The rubber keeps water off your nails, and the cotton absorbs sweat, so nails wont get soggy inside the gloves.” He suggests keeping a half-dozen pairs of cotton gloves on hand and washing and drying them after each use. That way, you’ll always have a clean, dry pair each time you do the dishes.



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