I often see questions and complaints about nail strengthening treatments, most along the lines of “I’ve been using Nail Envy religiously and my nails are still cracking and breaking – why does this not work for me?”. I tried nail “strengtheners” for a time with the result of brittleness and flaky tips, so I decided to do a little research to find out why.
First, a little nail science.
The nail is made of strands of keratin bound together by connectors which are also made of keratin. The balance of keratin connectors to keratin strands determines the strength & hardness or weakness & softness of the nail. When there aren’t enough connectors, nails are soft and prone to bending, tearing and peeling. When there are too many connectors (which means they’re too densely situated and don’t have enough space for hydration to be retained), nails are prone to splitting and cracking.
That said, the nail plate’s strength is not just a function of its hardness, but its flexibility. A durable nail should be able to withstand daily wear and tear (though if you’re using your nails like tools, which they’re not!, you’re going to notice more damage than you would otherwise) without breaking, peeling, folding, or cracking. This means your nail plates have to strike a delicate balance between sufficient keratin bonds and hydration.
The Way Nail Hardeners Work
Nail hardeners add connectors artificially, but this also means that by adding more connectors, they’re taking away from space wherein moisture can enter/be retained, potentially dehydrating the nail and reducing flexibility. If something becomes too rigid, it is less able to withstand great force (think of a tree branch – the drier and more rigid, the more easily it will snap).
For this reason, it’s SUPER important to make sure you’re using a strengthener and not JUST a hardener.
The Difference Between Strengtheners and Hardeners
Strengtheners, unlike hardeners, don’t just seek to fill in the gaps where keratin is missing, but instead seek to balance the nail’s needs of hydration and keratin bonds.
Hardeners, on the other hand, generally seek to fill in the gaps where keratin bonds are missing, and they often do so with formaldehyde (
which is now a banned ingredient in US markets, so many manufacturers have stopped using it outright – holla!**). This is where the dehydration, over-filling, and enhanced problems usually happen.
How do I know if my nails are brittle or soft, then?
While there is a lot of in between, these are my general observations that tend to be good starting points:
Dry, brittle nails will feel dry, rigid, and likely to crack if bent the wrong way. You’ll likely experience flaking on the nail plate. This is especially common if you’re changing out your polish frequently and using acetone polish remover.
Soft, weak nails will be flexible, bending easily at the tips. They can peel at the free edge if caught at a weak spot, leaving layered stragglers behind.
So what else can I do if nail hardeners aren’t right for me?
For all nail types, I recommend starting by cutting out acetone polish remover which is extremely drying and, as a temporary measure, glitter polishes (removing glitter polish seems to scratch the surface of the nail plate, encouraging flaking and peeling). Additionally, avoiding or protecting the hands from harsh chemicals, soaps, and even constant hydration to dehydration (like washing dishes, which makes the nail plate expand then contract once it’s dry again) helps a lot. Rubber gloves are your friend, friend!
Also remember that the nail grows from the inside! Eat healthy foods, especially colorful veggies (leafy greens are SO important, folks), and know that you can always supplement with biotin, which is available at drugstores and most grocery stores. Note that I’m not a doctor, so you may want to consult with yours before adding in new dietary supplements or vitamins, though.
You can also try hydrating treatments or a hydrating strengthening treatment. As someone who is treating dry, brittle nails, I highly recommend Sally Hansen Complete Care Extra Moisturizing 4-in-1 (which is also available at most drugstores & Target). I’ve also heard good things about Nail Envy’s Dry & Brittle formula.
Additionally, taking a break from polish (maybe one full week every 4-6 weeks) can do wonders for the nail plates. During this time, massage Sweet Almond Oil or Coconut Oil into the nail plate & cuticles twice daily.
However, if you do in fact have soft, weak, or peeling nails, original formula Nail Envy comes highly recommended. My word of advice? Follow the prescribed instructions for 2 weeks, then go back to a normal base coat (I’m particularly fond of Orly Bonder). Repeat this process again after 4-6 weeks.
What have you tried? What did work? What didn’t? Share your trials, errors, and results in the comments!
Fact Check Edit, courtesy of Emma at Nail Smiles:
Formaldehyde isn’t banned in cosmetics in the US, and is usually used at levels between 1-3%, which is negligible by many standards. However, it can cause allergic reactions for those sensitive to it.