If You’re Struggling With Breakage, It’s Time To Make This Nail File Swap

Go on, up your manicure game.

by Natasha Marsh
glass nail files

Prior to sheltering-in-place, it was rare that my nails were ever seen bare (sans polish). My manicure frequently displayed line art, dramatic 3D stickers and rhinestones, or a rainbow of alternating colors. But while having to fend for myself when nail salons closed, I really got into prioritizing the health of my nails. I began wearing less colored polish to minimize the discolored yellow-ish tint, and most importantly, I started filing my nails more regularly. But rather than using the standard emery board, I swapped for a glass nail file — and my nails have never looked (or felt) better.

For the uninitiated, there are two main filing options for your nails: glass or emery. A glass nail file (also known as a crystal nail file) is a thermal-tempered, chemically-etched glass that buffs your nails down. “Made with fine particles of glass that is less damaging to natural nails, this file ‘seals’ the nails [meaning the smooth edge has no cracks] as it files,” says Syreeta Aaron, LeChat Nails Educator. “It is best on natural nails and for keeping the keratin intact within our natural nail.”

Suzanne Shade, founder of at-home nail kit company, Bare Hands, adds that the fine texture of these files gently abrade the nail edge, which means less trauma or damage for your nails. She also makes a polisher that buffs the nail bed to create a high shine finish.

“When our nails chip or break, not only can it be very painful, but it can potentially damage the structure underneath the nail,” says Dr. Orit Markowitz, board-certified NYC dermatologist. “If there's enough repeated trauma that impacts the nail bed proper, which is what the nail grows on top of, it can be irreversible. So it is important that when our nails are being groomed, or manicured, we’re utilizing tools (like glass nail files) that are less likely to harm that nail bed.”

If you’re someone dealing with chronically weak and brittle nails, this simple swap might be the easiest first step to repairing that damage. However, the benefits don’t stop there.

Glass vs Emery Board Nail File

The most obvious difference between a glass and emery board nail file is the material itself. An emery board (the nail files you usually see at a nail salon) is a paper file with a thin layer of foam between the two grits (the abrasive paper). But while these options are generally cheaper and more common, they aren’t exactly the safest choice for your nails. “These larger granular files can damage the pores and structure within the nail, making the nail more susceptible to developing a nail fungus,” says Dr. Markowitz.

The two also differ in how you can use them. “A glass nail file can be used in multiple directions, whereas an emery board can cause breakage if used in several directions — leaving nails more prone to splitting and breaking,” Aaron tells TZR. And because glass nail files have finer abrasion, they are better suited (and more gentle) on natural nails. A 180 nail grit file (typical of glass nail files) is what you should look out for when shopping. For gels or acrylics, where the nails are a bit thicker, Shade suggests opting for an emery board for coarser filing.

What Are The Additional Benefits?

Even though the texture of glass nail files are finer, they are extremely effective at shaping. “The glass will serve to seal the free edge of the nail,” says Shade. “When doing a rough shape, you can use the file back and forth across the edge. But when finishing, use in only one direction to keep the ‘mesh’ of the nail keratin from fraying.”

Although glass files tend to be more the expensive option, they do have the added benefit of lasting much longer than an emery board. “Glass nail files last longer because of the material, the durability, and the fact that it can be sterilized and disinfected and reused over and over,” says Shade.

How To Maintain A Glass Nail File

Depending on how often you use it and how well you take care of it, crystal nail files can last up to six months before you need to replace them. “When the nail file is not in use, it is always best to put it in its protective case to avoid breakage,” Aaron tells TZR. To clean the nail file, place it underwater with a bit of soap to remove debris and gently sweep the surface with a brush or a sponge. Then pat dry to avoid trapping dust onto the file.

Unlike emery boards, where the paper can peel up at the edges, glass nail files don’t absorb anything, so there is no need to sterilize it further or after use. But if you share the file or would like to deep clean it, Aaron suggests using alcohol or antiseptic spray periodically.

Ready to invest in a glass nail file and achieve your healthiest nails yet? Ahead, six editor-approved options.

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