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How to keep fingernails strong?

Strong Nails / March 23, 2024

A hands-on approach to the most common nail problems.

It’s so annoying when your fingernails are all looking good and a careless little bump sends one ricocheting off into the distance. Why are nails perfect one day and decimated the next? Put it down to water – not enough, or too much, can make the world of difference.

Did you know your nails are actually 18 per cent water? Hard to believe, but true. They feel so hard because they are made up of millions of tiny keratin cells packed firmly together. The cells produce keratin fibres that cross each other like a net and keep the whole arrangement hard. Your nail strength depends on how the cells are arranged, how well they stick to each other and how well those keratin fibres interconnect.

Genes play the biggest role – if your parents had strong nails you’re likely to as well – but dermatologists know that some of the things we do in our everyday lives have an impact on nails.

The most common nail problems, such as brittleness and splitting, can be improved when you know what is causing them.

Brittle nails

It’s a lack of moisture that makes nails snap off when you bump them. Brittle nails typically don’t flex and feel very hard. Most people notice the problem gets worse when the temperature drops simply because there isn’t as much moisture in the air.

It’s also a very common problem for people whose hands are in and out of water. Both lanolin and vitamin E creams are cheap moisturisers you can use to seal moisture into your nails. Rub into the nails and cuticles straight after your shower or bath to prevent moisture loss. Keep a tube in the kitchen and apply whenever you remember.

Wear gloves for cleaning and dirty jobs. Nail polish can also help to seal in moisture, but avoid the quick-dry formulations, which can make the nail cells even drier.

Dermatologist Dr Catherine Reid suggests taking 2.5 milligrams of the vitamin biotin daily, but don’t expect to see results overnight. It takes six months for nails to grow through to the tip.

Nails that bend

The average fingernail is 0.5 millimetres thick, but some people’s are thinner, and bendy nails are a sign you have a looser arrangement of cells, the keratin fibres are fewer in number than average, or the nails are thinner because they don’t have as many cells.

Look for nail hardeners that contain formaldehyde. This stimulates keratin cells to produce more fibres, which cross-link with each other and make the nail stronger.

You’ll find formaldehyde in many of the strengthening products such as the Sally Hansen Hard As Nails range. But don’t use it all the time. It can make nails too strong, which creates problems such as nails lifting off the nail bed. Using it for just a few weeks can help.

Nails that split

Splitting happens from repetitive wetting and drying of hands over a reasonably long period of time. Even children’s nails will start to split over the summer holidays when they are constantly in and out of swimming pools.

Dr Reid says exposure to household cleaning products can also cause the nail layers to separate and split. Rarely, she says, has it anything to do with vitamin deficiencies.

Ridges in the nails are caused by the same reasons, Dr Reid says. So wear gloves whenever you’re cleaning, apply nail polish to help protect the nail, and keep nails short until they recover.

White spots

The most common cause is an injury to the nail matrix, which lies under the skin. When the matrix gets damaged, the injury leaves a scar on the keratin cells, which appears white when the cells grow through to the nail.

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