How to make your nails stronger: a manicurist's guide.

Everyone wants longer, stronger, healthy nails, and there’s thousands of products out there promising to do it. As a manicurist who has worked on countless nails over the years and tried countless more products, I’m going to share with you what works – and what doesn’t. It’s all much, much simpler (and cheaper!) than you ever expected.

First, I have to hit you with some nail science:

Each of your fingernails is made up of around 100 layers of keratin cells. These cells are dead, and they do not “breathe”.

Water molecules are so small they can move through and inbetween the keratin cells.

Your body’s natural oils are between these keratin cells, keeping your nail hydrated. The oil molecules are bigger than the water molecules, so they stay between the cells and do not move through them.

When you wash your hands, your nails absorb water, weakening the keratin cells. Soap washes away the natural oils, drying your nails out and causing the water in the nail to evaporate even quicker. Repeat this numerous times a day and you’re left with thin, weak, and/or peeling (delaminated) nails.

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In my professional opinion, exposure to water is the number one cause of weak or brittle nails. There are lots of other variables (medications, or in very rare cases diet), but the most common are water and solvent exposure. A solvent can be soap, shampoo, household cleaning products, nail polish remover, hand sanitizers, etc. Your manicurist doesn’t nag you to wear dish-gloves for no reason! I can usually pick a new mum or a medical professional.

What about nail hardeners/strengtheners?

When it comes to consumer nail treatments, most do nothing except to provide a protective layer on your nail (which stops the nail from absorbing water). But any nail polish will do that. All of those fancy ingredients like wheat protein, silk protein, or hydrolised soy protein are simply long-chain amino acids that link together forming a web, making the product stronger, which makes your nail feel stronger while you’re wearing it. Add in solvents (to make the polish spread nicely), and plasticisers to make the dried product flexible, and there you have pretty much every nail hardener/strengthener on the market. They do nothing for the health of your nail in the long run.

So, what can you do to bring your nails back to life? Well, it’s simple, but it takes commitment. If you follow this plan, I promise you’ll have stronger, healthier, better-looking nails – without taking a trip to the manicurist (fade to me listlessly flicking through a magazine at my manicure table as cobwebs gather on my polish collection).

What you want to do is put that oil back into your nails. What oil should you use? There’s so many out there! Jojoba oil has the same molecular size as your body’s own sebum, so you want to choose a nail oil that is mostly made up of jojoba oil. Anything else in it will just be for added fragrance or skin conditioning. You can buy a big bottle pure jojoba oil, put some in a clean, empty nail polish bottle, and save the rest for your body post-shower. If you want to use a nail-specific oil, just make sure jojoba oil is the first ingredient. Almond, avocado, coconut, and other oils great, but their viscosity is not lightweight enough to penetrate the upper layers of the nail plate.

french manicure
Image via Getty.

Step 1: Remove Polish

Do me a favor. Throw out your non-acetone polish remover. The ones with vitamin E, aloe, and all the other stuff in it do nothing but make it harder to remove your polish. Get yourself some pure acetone. Acetone will remove your polish faster, staying in contact with your nail plate for a shorter amount of time, thus causing less dehydration. Hold a saturated cotton pad/ball on each nail for a count of 10, and then pull away from you using firm pressure and a twisting motion. When all the polish is removed, rinse your hands with warm water.

Step 2: Cuticle Care

Want to keep your cuticles in perfect condition? It’s very simple. After every shower, bath, or anytime your nails have had extended exposure to water, take a damp face-cloth, cover your thumb with it, and use it to rub your cuticles back. This will exfoliate any dead, dry bits of skin and keep the cuticle from growing up the nail. Follow with Step 3. Do this regularly and you will never again need a manicurist to push (or god forbid, cut) your cuticles back.

Step 3: Hydrate

Apply the oil to your cuticles, sidewalls, the underside of the free edge, and the nail plate. Rub into the entire area, all the way up to the first knuckle. Firmly massage the base of the nail, as this stimulates blood flow to the nail matrix, where initial nail growth occurs. Continue this routine as often as you can for around 3 days. After a while, your nails won’t absorb as much oil - this means they are finally hydrated! You can now switch to the maintenance phase, where you only apply your oil at night before bed.

Image via Getty.

Step 4: Protect

Wearing nail polish, gel polish, or anything that covers the nail plate will help protect your nails from water absorption. Simply use a good quality polish with a separate base and top coat (those 3-in-1 jobs don’t cut the mustard, sorry). Wipe your nails with rubbing alcohol or acetone to cleanse the nail of any surface oils before you polish. This ensures maximum adhesion. Continue with the oil application while wearing polish, as the oil will penetrate the cuticle, sidewalls, and the underside of the nail. This will also help to prevent chipping, as your nail will remain hydrated and flexible. Remove polish after one week, as at this stage it can become brittle and start chipping.
Note: If you wear any kind of nail enhancements like acrylic, gel, or soak-off gel-polish, you will also benefit from daily jojoba oil application. It will nourish the new growth of the nails at the cuticle, keep your enhancements from becoming brittle, and keep your nails from dehydrating and peeling away from the enhancement at the free-edge/tip.

Optional Step: The IBX in-salon nail strengthening treatment

Normally, at the stage, I would wish you luck in your nail endeavours and hope to see you again for a fun manicure when your nails are long, strong, and well-hydrated. This year, however, there is a new nail strengthening weapon in the professional nail tech’s arsenal. It has the seal of approval from veteran celebrity manicurist Marian Newman, which was enough for me to rush to my supplier and order it. This is the first nail treatment of its kind - it penetrates the upper layers of the nail plate, filling in those damaged keratin chains and locking them together. Nails are immediately stronger and hydrated after one treatment. The best part - there’s nothing to remove later.IBX has also been designed to act as a protective layer between your nails and soak-off gel-polish, providing longer wear and easier removal. Hand on my heart, it works.

Check out these before and after photos:

If you perform the four steps outlined for natural nail care and limit your nails’ exposure to water and solvents as much as is practical, you will see a difference in your nails and cuticles, at no more expense than a bottle of jojoba oil (which you may already have lying around) and no more time than it takes to give the tips of your fingers a quick rub. Good luck!