You *can* get the claws of your dreams.
For many people, the only way to get long, enviable nails is via a set of acrylics or dip powder. But with salon openings fluctuating across the country, and at-home manicures becoming the norm, we wanted to know the best way to grow a set of claws that would make Megan Thee Stallion proud. Is it even possible to achieve longer, stronger nails naturally?
According to dermatologist and nail specialist Dr. Dana Stern, yes—with a few conditions. “Think of a brittle nail that has a tendency to break as analogous to overly processed hair that frizzes and has ends that split,” she says. “We condition and protect our hair to avoid these issues. To avoid future broken nails, you need to begin taking care of your nails and using effective products.”
Nail Genetics 101
Like other aspects of your appearance that you can inherit from your family (hair texture, eye color, etc.), you are born with certain nail characteristics that can determine the relative strength and quality of your nails. First and foremost, your nail matrix, which can be visualized the best on your thumb, where the half-moon, or lunula, appears. This half-moon is half of the nail matrix—the other half is under the proximal nail fold. “The nail matrix is what produces the nail plate (what most people refer to as ‘the nail’) and determines the size and thickness of the nail. So if you have a very small nail matrix, then you are predisposed to thinner, weaker nails,” says Dr. Stern.
You can also be more likely to have brittle nails based on your genetics, as found in this 2007 study, which discovered that “family history was significantly associated with likelihood of having brittle nails. Odds were 5.9 times greater among those who reported family history [of brittle nails].” There are also a variety of medical conditions that can affect the strength of your nails, such as hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid), Raynaud’s disease, and severe protein deficiency.
Aging will affect your nail quality as well, much like how it affects the texture of your hair. As Dr. Stern explains, “Your nail physiology can change, and parts of the nail growth plate can become thinner or atrophy, resulting in ridges. Aging also leads to compromised peripheral circulation (less blood flow to the extremities),” which can cause weak nails that are prone to breakage.
Nails and Your Environment
The second main factor that may be inhibiting your nail strength and growth is your environment. Things like hand washing and hand sanitizer use, which have become such staples of pandemic life, are unfortunately taking their toll on our nails. “Nails are extremely absorptive of water, even more so than skin. When water is constantly moving in and out of the nail, it puts a tremendous strain on the delicate onychocytes (nail cells) and can result in weakening, softening, and breakage. Cuticles become dehydrated and lift and separate, causing hangnails or openings where infections can more easily gain entry,” says Dr. Stern.
Weather is another source of stress for your nail health. If you have issues with nail breakage during the colder months, rest assured you’re not alone. “Exposure to extremes of temperature creates a flux nail-cell state, constantly expanding and contracting and consequently undergoing tremendous strain,” explains Dr. Stern. “This is more relevant in winter, when we move from cold to heated indoor environments.”
And as much as it pains us to admit it, manicures (whether traditional, gel, or acrylic) can also negatively impact your nails. “If your nails are peeling, weak, splitting, or you have keratin granulations (white patches most often seen on the toenails from prolonged polish wear), it is time to take a nail polish holiday,” she says. The removal process—and using removers that contain solvents like acetone, alcohol, ethyl acetate, or butyl acetate—can dry out the nail and cuticle, thereby leading to breakage and weakening. Dr. Stern recommends looking for conditioning remover formulas that contain ingredients like soy or have additional oils to help moisturize the nail plate.
She also advises to be wary of any nail-strengthening products, as many contain formaldehyde, which “will initially harden the nail; however, with time, the nail becomes paradoxically brittle and is at risk for lifting or separating off of the nail bed (onycholysis).”
Steps Towards Longer, Stronger Nails
It may not be your ideal scenario, but taking a break from your manicure routine, and thereby avoiding the need to use polish remover, is the easiest way for you to strengthen your nails—even if you’re using a safe formula. Even the safest and gentlest of polishes and removers will cause some nail dehydration, so if you really want to see results, giving your nails a rest is crucial.
Lifestyle choices, like nutrition, do affect the quality of your nails, but Dr. Stern stresses that as long as you are eating a normal diet with plenty of protein, adding nail growth supplements is unlikely to help. Stick to a balanced diet, and you shouldn’t see any issues when it comes to your nail health.
And since we’re eating more meals at home these days, and therefore dealing with the subsequent dirty dishes, Dr. Stern recommends using gloves to rinse and wash your dishes. Remember, your nails are able to absorb even more water than your skin, so it’s wise to keep them away from long periods of soaking. Investing in a reusable pair of gloves will go a long way to keeping your nails protected—and once you’re finally ready to embrace nail polish again, it will also help prolong your manicure.
If you’re looking for a few more tools to help you on your nail journey, Dr. Stern recommends her Nail Renewal System, a once-weekly, three-step nail system that uses botanical ingredients to condition and hydrate your nails and cuticles. We’re also fans of the Nails Inc. NailKale Superfood Base Coat to prevent splitting and breakage, and the Olive & June Cuticle Serum Duo to help moisturize your cuticles and help your nails grow as long as you always dreamed.
Want more stories like this?
You’re Probably Filing Your Nails Wrong
“Lipstick Nails” Are Fall’s Hottest New Nail Trend
Deborah Lippmann’s Genius At-Home Nail Art Technique