So much of your summer beauty routine revolves around protecting the skin — SPF to ward off UV damage, wide-brimmed hats to avoid unnecessary exposure, and driving gloves to keep hands protected. But, there’s one part of your body that may not be on your radar when it comes to shielding it from summer damage (but certainly should): your nails. Blistering temps means more time spent dipping in the pool, beach, or lake, and while this may feel refreshing in the short term, it could come with some significant nail damage in the long term.
The reason? Nails are a very sensitive part of the body. “Much like the skin, nails can also absorb water, which contributes to the weakening of the bonds in your nails over time,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. “This is also the case if the water is chlorinated, or if it contains other chemicals and cleansers.”
Below, TZR tapped dermatologists to learn about how and why water causes nail damage, how to spot said damage, tips to prevent the damage before it occurs, as well as how to treat it after the fact.
How Water-Damaged Nails Happen
Generally speaking, frequent exposure to water isn’t great for the nails. Think of your nails as a sponge — highly porous plates that expand and contract when coming into contact with water. “When water enters the nail cells (onychocytes), they expand,” explains Dr. Dana Stern, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at The Mount Sinai Hospital. “After water immersion, these cells contract, putting significant strain on the onychocytes and making them more prone to weakening, peeling, and breakage.”
Add on to this chlorinated water — which you’re likely swimming in during the summer — and you’ve also got dehydration to deal with. “Chlorinated water can induce similar nail changes as plain water, but it’s often even more harsh because chlorine can also strip your nails of the natural oils that keep the cuticles hydrated,” Dr. Nazarian told TZR. And when it comes to your cuticles, you want to keep them as hydrated as possible to protect them from getting infected and ensuring proper growth. As Dr. Stern explains, the cuticle overlies the nail matrix, or the nail-producing center of the nail, and when the cuticle is dehydrated, this can affect the outgrowth of the nail.
What Water-Damaged Nails Look Like
“Water damage is frequently characterized by soft nails that split and peel easily,” notes Dr. Geeta Yadav of Facet Dermatology. “Some people can also develop ‘Green Nail Syndrome,’ which is when pseudomonas, a type of bacteria, grows under the nail plate. This is seen in people who do frequent wet work with their hands.” Inevitably, weak nails will tear and break, says Dr. Yadav, so keep this in mind if you frequently submerge your nails in water for long periods of time (for instance, swimming or soaking in a tub).
Sporting gel nails? You’re, unfortunately, not off the hook. In fact, gel polish — like your nails — is also porous, which is why you may notice staining in lighter-colored manicures after extended wear, says Dr. Yadav. Thus, your gel manicure (especially lighter shades) may get discolored with frequent exposure to chlorine.
How To Treat & Prevent Water-Damaged Nails
While you may think water-damaged nails are unavoidable during the summer season, there are several ways you can ward off soft, peeling nails. Here are a few expert-backed tips on how to treat and prevent water-damaged nails.
Use A Hydrating Base Coat
According to Dr. Stern, a high-performance base coat is an essential first step for nail color application because it’s the layer that directly contacts the nail. Combine it with a top coat and you’ll have several cured layers between the nail and the water, which is helpful in keeping your nails protected. Look for a base coat that’s formulated with plant extracts (like aloe, coconut water, prickly pear), glycerin, hyaluronic acid, beeswax, and nourishing oils like castor and coconut oil, recommends Dr. Yadav.
Apply A Topcoat Before Swimming
“Applying a layer of topcoat to your nails before swimming not only helps to harden and strengthen the nails, but it may block water from penetrating to a certain degree, thus helping to counteract the weakening and softening effects of extended exposure,” says Dr. Yadav. This won’t completely protect your nail on its own, though, especially in the case of longer nails (as there’s more surface area available to absorb water). So, be mindful of using a base coat and a top coat to round out your nail routine.
Both Dr. Nazarian and Dr. Stern recommend wearing gloves when performing household work like washing dishes or using cleaning solutions. This helps to not only protect your nails against water-related damage, but it keeps your skin from drying out, too. If you’re so inclined, you can also wear gloves while swimming, which comes with the added benefit of shielding your skin from harmful UV rays.
Moisturize After Chlorine Exposure
Because chlorine can be dehydrating, you should aim to restore your nail (and skin’s) moisture level post-exposure. Try a hand cream containing ceramides, hyaluronic acid, or lanolin to draw in and trap moisture, says Dr. Nazarian. Or, dab on a cuticle oil that’s formulated with essential oils and antioxidants to protect and boost hydration.
Avoid Acetone Nail Polish Removers
If you’re spending a lot of time in chlorinated water (which is dehydrating in and of itself), avoid further drying out your nails with acetone. “Acetone nail polish removers can significantly dry out the nail leading to brittleness, splitting, peeling, and breakage,” says Dr. Stern. Because acetone soaks are needed to remove gel polish, it may be worth it to take a summer break from gel nails if you’re concerned about dehydrating your digits.
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