While short nails look chic and sleek, there is so much more real estate for nail art when your nails are long and healthy. Textured, micro French, negative space? With long nails, they’re no problem. Not to mention, when your digits are healthy, there is less of a chance of hangnails, infections, and peeling. But what do you do if your nail buds aren’t hand model status? And how do they even become brittle, weak, or short in the first place? Luckily, there are simple tips and tricks for growing long, strong nails, and preventing damage in the first place.
Ahead, TZR spoke with a dermatologist and a couple celebrity manicurists for the 411 on how to achieve the long, healthy nails of your dreams, plus their go-to products to help speed up the process.
What Causes Weak, Brittle Nails?
First, it’s important to know what causes weak, damaged nails in the first place. According to Dr. Dana Stern, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City who specializes in nail health, it comes down to two main categories: genetics and environmental factors.
If genetics is the root cause, you have a family history of brittle nails that you could inherit. “Nail physiology can change and parts of the nail growth plate (nail matrix) can become thinner or atrophy, resulting in ridges as we age,” Dr. Stern tells TZR.
Although there is not much you can do about genetics, environmental factors (think excess water washing, chemical exposure, weather, and nail products) are easier variables to control.
Water can be damaging to nails because they easily absorb it. “When water is constantly moving in and out of nails, it puts a tremendous strain on the delicate onychocytes (nail cells) and can result in weakening, softening, and breaking,” Dr. Stern continues. “[With too much water] cuticles become dehydrated and lift causing hangnails or openings where infections can more easily gain entry.”
Chemical exposures are a lot less grandiose than they sound: think acrylic, shellac, and gel manicures, nail polish remover, and other nail care or personal care products like hand sanitizer. Dr. Stern recommends looking for conditioning formulas that contain ingredients like soy or have added moisturizing benefits from oils, and avoiding formaldehyde and formalin. “Formaldehyde will initially harden the nail, however, with time, the nail becomes paradoxically brittle and at risk for lifting off the nail bed,” the dermatologist tells TZR.
And then there are weather conditions that could impact nail health. “Environmental stresses such as cold temperatures or dryness can also weaken nail strength,” says Nadine Abramcyk, founder of Tenoverten. And Dr. Stern agrees: “Exposure to extremes of temperature creates a flux nail cell state, constantly expanding and contracting and consequently undergoing tremendous strain.”
Best Practices For Growing Long, Healthy Nails
Tip 1: Apply A Cuticle Oil Daily
Like the skin on your body, adequate hydration is absolutely necessary for your nails to thrive. Luckily, cuticle oil hydrates the cuticle (the nail’s natural protective shield that blocks out bacteria and infection, and seals in moisture) and the nail bed. “When the seal is removed or becomes dry, and dehydrated, it becomes compromised and then water and moisture are able to enter the nail unit causing all sorts of problems including chronic paronychia (redness and swelling at the skin behind the cuticle),” Dr. Stern tells TZR. “If the cuticle is chronically compromised, the nail will eventually grow irregularly and will potentially be weak and aesthetically compromised (white patches, bumps, thickening, discoloration).”
For that reason, the expert encourages the pushing back of the cuticle versus trimming, and to apply a cuticle oil daily for deep absorption and nourishment. Remember, dry nails break and chip, while hydrated ones grow long and healthy.
Tip 2: Opt For A Soft Nail File
To prevent tearing or splitting your nails, opt for a soft nail file instead of an emery board. “Cardboard emery boards can create microscopic openings at the tip of the nail that lead to splits, breakage, and poor growth,” Dr. Stern tells TZR. Instead, Vanessa McCullough, celebrity nail artist recommends a file with 240 grit (number that represents the amount of abrasive particles per square inch) or higher. “Using a low grit nail file (under 200 grit) will promote peeling of the nail plate.”
And with that, the way you file your nails is important, too. Avoid the back and forth, see-saw motion as it will cause nails to split. Instead, file in one direction with long, gentle movement. As for the cadence, the pro recommends filing every few days to reestablish shape, prevent snags, and stimulate blood flow.
Tip 3: Invest In A Strong Base Coat
According to Anastasia Totty, LeChat Nails educator, base coat polish, packed with nourishing ingredients to fortify nails and promote growth, should be the beginning of all paint jobs as they prevent the nails from peeling and becoming weak.
Tip 4: Avoid Acetone Nail Polish Remover
As tempting as it might be, the experts strongly advise against picking your nail polish. Over time, too much picking could weaken nails and have nail buds feeling soft and bendy, says Totty. When nails chip, either fill the space in with more polish to prolong your manicure, or take it all off with nail polish remover.
Regardless of price, not all nail polish removers are created equal. Some contain high concentrations of acetone (solvent that dissolves nail polish quickly) that is super harsh on nails and can dehydrate the nail bud and surrounding skin – causing flaking, brittleness, peeling, splitting, and slow growth. “Non-acetone formulations with good-for-the-nail moisturizing ingredients are less dehydrating to the nail,” says Dr. Stern. If you are looking to grow long, healthy nails, it’s time to go acetone-free. These gentle yet effective formulas will work hard to quickly remove all remnants of polish, without drying out the nail.
Tip 5: Use A Keratin Treatment
Keratin — the protein responsible for forming the tissues of hair, nails, and the outer layer of the skin — needs to be present or reestablished for optimal nail health. To increase the keratin in your nails, the experts all recommend nail strengtheners and treatments, packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and hyaluronic acid, to add an extra layer of protection that will help harden and grow nails.
Tip 6: Give Nails A Break
Once a month, as good practice, Abramcyk recommends giving nails a break from polish. “During that break, apply a nail strengthening oil, like Tenoverten The Celery Oil, that naturally boosts nail strength, and stimulates cell regrowth.”
Tip 7: Fine Tune Your Diet
Eating a well-balanced, protein diet (think: fish, eggs, meat, beans, vegetables, etc) is not only great for total health, but will help with growth as well. “If you want to grow your nails long you need to start with eating a well-balanced diet,” says McCullough. “The better you eat, the better your nails will look because they will be healthier and stronger.”