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Warning Signs You Need to Lay Off Your Mani-Pedi Routine

Dr. Dana Stern gives us the nail health 411.

how to maintain healthy nails

Do us a favor—look down at your fingers and toes. When was the last time you left your nails unpolished? Do you even know what color your nail bed is without a few coats of your favorite formula? We know we’re guilty of letting a mani-pedi sit for weeks on end, even if it’s chipped and busted. But we’re proactive adults (most days), and it’s time for us to really consider our nail health as a vital part of our overall self-care routine. As a few girls in our office reminded us, you don’t think about how important it is until there’s a serious problem.

In order to avoid discolored nails, or even a possible infection, we consulted dermatologist and nail expert Dr. Dana Stern. Below is her advice for maintaining healthy nails year-round. 

We heard you need to keep your polish off your nails for as long as you have it on—is that true?

“This is a pretty arbitrary rule of thumb because everyone reacts differently to polish. There are many different polish brands, and even the way polish is applied and removed can influence how the nails recover. If your nails are tolerating prolonged polish use, then enjoy! Typically, basic polish should not be worn past one week on the fingernails, and two to four weeks is a good range for toenails.”

What other factors can cause damage to nails aside from a traditional manicure?

“Weekly manicures do not necessarily cause damage to everyone’s nails. Certain nail enhancements such as gel and acrylic removal can significantly thin the nail plate, causing nails to become damaged, weak, and brittle—in need of a nail polish holiday. Using products that contain formaldehyde can also lead to paradoxical nail weakness, because they cause the nail to harden and stiffen, preventing flexibility and often leading to separation and breakage.”

What are the signs that you need a break from your mani-pedi habit?

Brittle nails: Polish removers are solvents and tend to be very drying and dehydrating to the nail. Constant use of remover can lead to dry, brittle nails (weak, peeling, easily breaking).

Keratin granulations: These occur often after wearing polish for a prolonged period (think that cranberry red from the holidays when you finally get around to removing it in March). This occurs because when polish is removed, along with the polish, the superficial layers of nail cells are also removed, leaving uneven, white, rough patches. These will grow out and fade with time (it can take weeks to months), or you can expedite the treatment process with my 3-Step Nail Renewal System.

Nail yellowing: The most common cause for nail yellowing is from polish.  This happens because:

1. “The porosity of the nail is variable.  Certain people have more porous nails and are just more prone to pigment migration and yellowing.

2. “Polish remover. It dissolves the polish and makes the pigments migrate and leach.  This is why you may be seeing more yellowing with the no-chip/gel manicures, which require 10-minute soaks in acetone for removal.

3. “Dye content. Not all polish dyes are alike.  The darker the color, the more pigment. Yellowing is an issue with all brands; the issue is more shade-dependent (more common with darker colors) than brand-dependent. This can also happen with light colors.

4. “Not using a good-quality base coat.  A good base coat shields the nail.” 

What are the best ways to keep your nail beds healthy and prevent infection on the daily?

“Cuticle care is perhaps one of the most important ways to keep the entire nail healthy. The cuticle is the nail’s natural protective seal. A dry, dehydrated, or non-existent cuticle (if the cuticle is removed) will result in compromise of the cuticle seal, potentially allowing water and yeast to enter the nail and subsequently causing a paronychia (inflammation and infection of the skin surrounding the nail). If persistent, it can eventually affect the appearance of the nail (white spots, depressions).

“A dry and compromised cuticle can also [lead to] bacterial infections. In this scenario, the nail becomes red, swollen, warm, and painful and will often need to be drained and treated with an antibiotic by a physician.

“Keeping nails shorter keeps the surface area smaller to prevent absorption of water and chemicals. Also consider a dry manicure (no soaking), as water puts a strain on the nail.”

What are the top ingredients to look out for and avoid when choosing a polish formula?

“Here is my no-no list:

1. “Formaldehyde: Used as a preservative in cosmetics. A known carcinogen that is also linked to asthma, neurotoxicity, and developmental toxicity.

2. “Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP, and others): A class of plasticizing chemicals used to make products more pliable. Phthalates disrupt the endocrine system and may cause birth defects.

3. “Toluene: A volatile petrochemical solvent that is toxic to the immune system and can cause birth defects.

4. “Formaldehyde Resin: Helps polish adhere. Allergen. Environmental toxin.

5. “Camphor: Is used as a plasticizer in nail polish. Inhalation can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea, and seizures.

6. “Triphenyl Phosphate: A plasticizer used to make polish flexible and durable, but it is also an endocrine disruptor and possible marine pollutant.

7. “Xylene: A solvent that keeps your nail polish from getting gloppy; it’s also a known allergen and possible carcinogen.

8. “Ethyl Tosylamide: A film-forming plasticizer. It may not be used in cosmetics and personal care products marketed in Europe.

9. “Parabens (methyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, and others): A class of preservatives commonly used to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold. Parabens are endocrine (or hormone) disruptors, which may alter important hormone mechanisms in our bodies.” 

In between appointments, when you’re polish-free, what else do you recommend to promote nail health?

“Caring for [your] cuticles in between manicure appointments is key for manicure maintenance. Don’t forget to apply your favorite cuticle oil or cream throughout the day, especially in cold, dry months or when exposed to excess water.  Oil formulations are absorbed by the cuticle more effectively than creams are.

“Use a glass or crystal nail file instead of a cardboard emery board. Traditional cardboard emery boards create microscopic tears in the free edge of the nail that lead to splits and breakage. Glass creates a clean edge, resulting in a smoother nail and polish that is less apt to chip.

“Don’t use nail brushes. Whenever I have a patient who has nail separation that does not respond to treatment, I discover that they are using a nail brush.  These devices can harbor yeast and bacteria, as they can’t be sterilized. And don’t use nail products that contain harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde. If you feel like you have a ‘miracle’ nail strengthener, check the ingredients—chances are you will find formaldehyde or formalin.” 

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