Updated: Apr 7
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First Off, What Exactly are Nails?
Nails are mainly made up of keratin (a hard protein, same one you find in your hair!) and we evolved to have them because they help us do delicate things like picking off bugs or holding onto things tightly. Many other animals have finger nails like ours including gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos!
The basic structure of your nails is the nail plate (the part you can see), the nail bed (the skin below the plate), the cuticle (the skin that overlaps onto the nail at the base, the part that gets pushed back during a manicure), the nail folds (the skin around the 3 sides of your nails that supports it), the lunula (the pretty half-moon part), and the matrix (the nail below the cuticle that you can’t see) [i].
What Makes Your Nails Weak
Poor Hydration and Diet
These are the most straightforward ones. You need to drink enough water because without it your nails and hair become brittle and break easily. You also need to be eating enough vitamins and minerals in a well-balanced diet because all parts of the body need those things to work properly.
Constantly Using Nail Polish
Nail polishes can cause a lot of issues for your nails if you aren’t giving them a break in between manicures. They can cause permanent nail staining, granulation (your nails start to shed their top layer as a powdery substance which makes the nails thinner and weaker), and nail peeling [ii]. Gel manicures and acrylic nails have similar problems as nail polish [iii].
It is usually the most effective way to get your nail polish off but acetone is a very strong paint stripper so it can cause dryness, brittle nails, and even dermatitis [iv]. This is an even bigger problem for gels and acrylics because you have to soak your fingers in acetone to get them off. There are acetone free polish removers you can use or try to keep acetone use to as little as possible.
Here are a few acetone-free nail polish removers that take a little more time but work well:
4 Ways to Strengthen Your Nails
Moisturize Your Nails
Using creams and cuticle oils can really help bring moisture back to your nails which will lead to stronger nails over time [v]. This is especially important when you are using polishes/removers/etc. because the ingredients in those products often dry out the nail.
Some moisturizers I’d recommend based on ingredients:
Use Biotin (talk to your doc first!)
Biotin is a water soluble B vitamin that does a lot of different things in the body [vi]. The reason it is used to treat weak and brittle nails is because animal and human studies show that biotin deficiency causes weak and brittle nails and claws [vii]. Lots of studies show that taking biotin supplements can improve your hair and nails [viii,ix,x] but usually most people ingest enough biotin in their diets so make sure you talk to your doctor about using it as a supplement. It is also important to mention that biotin deficiency in humans is really rare so you probably don’t have it [xi].
Some Biotin supplements I'd recommend if your doctor thinks it's a good idea (including gummies!):
Use Supplements That Have Cysteine
Cysteine is an important amino acid that has jobs throughout the body [xii]. If you take a supplement that has cysteine in it you will usually see “N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC)” on the label. Cysteine supplements have been shown to help harden nails, both when ingested and applied topically [xiii,xiv,xv]. You may also see an improvement in hair quality! You can overdose on cysteine so always pay close attention to the instructions on the label.
Some cysteine supplements I’d recommend:
Use a Collagen Supplement
There is not as much research on this one but what I found looked pretty promising [xvi,xvii]. If you want to learn more about collagen click here for our “Should I be drinking collagen?” article. Quick reminder though, collagen is a structural protein made of amino acids and found throughout the body.
It looks like collagen can increase your nail growth rate, decrease the likelihood of your nails breaking, make your nails less brittle, and generally can make your nails look better and glossier [xviii].
Collagen supplements I’d recommend, from both bovine and marine sources:
I think the most important things to start with are giving your nails a manicure break (quarantine is the perfect time!), eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, and moisturizing your hands and nails. If you are finding your nails still aren't behaving then it might be time to add some supplements to your diet and see how that goes!