There exists no shortage of skin care regimens designed to preserve and protect our faces, our hands and even feet. But our nails — made of the same protein the body uses to create the top-most layer of our skin — sometimes get overlooked, potentially resulting in nails that split or break in uncomfortable ways.
Having brittle nails that crack or peel is not uncommon — in fact, Harvard Medical School suggests that over one in four women have onychoschizia, or nail fragility. This can be caused by a range of factors, including dehydration, nail-biting and even mundane, everyday tasks like typing. Because of this, nail care experts recommend nail strengtheners for folks who frequently find their nails splitting or cracking.
LEARN MORE Best nail strengtheners | How to shop for a nail strengthener | How to use a nail strengthener | Are gel manicures bad?
“Nail strengtheners work by providing extra protection to your nails and helping them to become thicker and stronger over time,” says Dr. Randa Jaafar, who specializes in interventional pain and wrinkle reduction. “They contain ingredients such as calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E, which help to nourish and protect the nail. When used regularly, these ingredients can help to improve the overall strength and health of your nails.” While nails generally become weaker over time, with regular use, nail strengtheners can help to rebuild and revitalize nails.
“A great strengthening regime would be to remove and reapply a nail strengthener every four to five days,” says Rita Remark, Essie’s global lead educator and nail artist. “This can help to keep your manicures fresh and your nails protected” from beneath your polish layer. Alternatively, for lotions and oils designed to help with nail strength, daily application and use can be most effective.
Best nail strengtheners
There are dozens of nail strengtheners on the market today, many of which use similar ingredients to achieve the best results for your nails. Deciding which brand works best for you depends on a range of factors, including application type, frequency of use and price point. To help you, we’ve rounded up some highly rated picks that nail enthusiasts say they are loving right now.
OPI Nail Envy
This well-known brand is a customer favorite, with over 40,000 Amazon reviews giving this product an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars. You can use OPI Nail Envy either as a standalone treatment or as a base coat underneath your manicure. Ingredients like hydrolyzed wheat protein and calcium help to build stronger nails over time.
Vaseline Healthy Hand & Nail Conditioning Lotion
Customers love this hand and nail lotion for its dual purpose - not only does it help to moisturize skin with Vaseline Jelly, but it also contains mineral oil and keratin, two ingredients that Green recommends in any nail strengthener. Over 2,000 Amazon customers have given this product 4.6 out of 5 stars, with several citing a noticeable improvement in nail strength in a couple of weeks.
Essie Hard To Resist Advanced
With over 14,000 customers giving this Essie product an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars, this is another tried and true fan favorite. The primary active ingredient in this product is methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), which studies have shown to benefit nail strength. Reviewers note longer-lasting manicures when using this nail strengthener as a base coat on a weekly basis.
CND SolarOil Nail & Cuticle Care
This nail and cuticle oil gets a 4.6 out of 5-star rating from over 26,000 customers on Amazon. Vitamin E, which Green notes is critical for healthier nails, is a primary ingredient of this product, as well as jojoba oil, which helps lock in moisture over time.
modelones Nail Strengthener
Remark warns customers to steer clear of nail strengtheners that include formaldehyde, and this nail strengthener from modelones emphasizes that its formula is free from not only formaldehyde, but other potentially toxic and weakening ingredients (including fragrances and phthalates). Instead, the product relies on expert-recommended ingredients including keratin and jojoba oil. This quick-dry formula gets an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars from over 7,000 customers on Amazon.
QUIMICA ALEMANA Nail Hardener
Expert-recommended ingredients including vitamin E, amino acids like arginine and tea tree oil play a role in this Quimica product, which gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from over 2,000 Amazon customers. While the brand notes that the product should first be used as a base coat to directly aid in nail health, it can also be used as a top coat to prevent chipping post-manicure.
Elon Lanolin-Rich Nail Conditioner
This nail cream works best when applied a couple of times a day, the brand notes. Its main ingredient, lanolin, has been found to reduce the amount of water lost through the skin by up to 30%, which in turn helps to prevent nail cracking and cuticle peeling. Over 1,300 customers have given this cream a 4.5 out of 5-star rating on Amazon.
ella+mila "First Aid Kiss" Nail Strengthener
Expert-recommended vitamin E helps to enhance this vegan and cruelty-free formula, made without harmful chemicals like acetone and formaldehyde. One particularly pleased Amazon customer notes that this product helped to heal previously peeling and splitting nails, and promoted nail growth after just a few days of usage.
Nail-Aid Keratin 3-Day Growth Nail Treatment
Given that keratin is one of the primary proteins involved in nail growth, it comes as little surprise that it is often cited as a key ingredient in nail strengtheners, and one that comes recommended by our experts. A favorite of editor Lauren Swanson at NBC Select, this product helps with nail growth in just a few days' time, especially with regular use.
duri Rejuvacote 1 Nail Growth System
You can use this duri product for both base coat and top coat to help keep in moisture and provide a healthy dose of collagen and fatty acids - two expert-recommended ingredients for stronger, healthier nails. It has an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars on Amazon from over 3,000 reviewers.
How to shop for a nail strengthener
When it comes to finding the right nail strengthener for you, experts say that there are a few ingredients to look for, a few ingredients to avoid and best practices in terms of application.
Ingredients to look for in nail strengtheners
“When looking for a nail strengthener, you should look for key ingredients such as calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E,” says Dr. Jaafar.
- Calcium: Brittle bones and nails are often linked to calcium deficiencies, especially since calcium is often considered a key mineral for stronger nails. Insufficient intake of calcium could result in nails that break or chip more easily, or become thinner over time.
- Magnesium: Given that magnesium is necessary for protein synthesis in your body (which nails need to grow), it comes as little surprise that this mineral is important for healthy nails. Folks with vertical ridges in their nails may be suffering from a magnesium deficiency.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A helps to keep your nails hydrated, and also promotes nail growth, says Dr. Jaafar. In particular, vitamin A promotes the synthesis of keratin, which is what our nails are made of.
- Vitamin C: Collagen production in the body is dependent upon vitamin C intake, and the collagen protein helps to build fingernails (as well as hair and teeth). Insufficient vitamin C intake could result in more brittle nails, or slower-growing nails.
- Vitamin E: Vitamin E is crucial for keeping your nails hydrated and protecting your cuticles. Our experts note that using vitamin E oil – especially around your nail bed and cuticle – can help to undo the damage done by polish use.
Ingredients to avoid in nail products
In addition to using nail strengtheners, Dr. Jaafar recommends steering clear of nail polishes and other products that contain harsh chemicals, which can cause damage to your nails.
- Formaldehyde: Both Jaafar and the FDA warn that excessive use of products containing formaldehyde can make nails more brittle and likely to peel. Moreover, some folks have sensitivities to this compound, which could result in allergic reactions.
- Toluene: While toluene can help to keep your nail polish smooth upon application, the chemical has been linked to nervous system damage; so much so that the EU has restricted toluene inclusion in a range of beauty products, including nail polish.
- Dibutyl phthalate: While dibutyl phthalate (or DBP) can make your nail polish more durable, some studies have linked the compound to endocrine issues, specifically, making it difficult for the body to produce hormones. As with toluene, the EU has banned DBP use in nail polish and other beauty products.
How to use nail strengtheners
“When using a nail strengthener, it is important to apply it to the entire nail, including the edges and underneath the nail,” saysJaafar. “Make sure to apply a thin layer and allow the strengthener to air dry for the best results. You should also take extra care to protect your nails from chipping, splitting or breaking,” even aside from using nail strengtheners Jaafar adds.
While some nail strengtheners claim to be appropriate for top-coat usage, our warn that this is a dubious claim for proper nail strengtheners. “Make sure to always apply nail strengthener to clean bare nails,” says Remark. “Never apply them over a base coat - it’ll prevent the strengthener from working.” Our experts also recommend regular application (at least once a week) for maximum results.
Do gel manicures make your nails brittle?
While the safety of gel manicures has been called into question with respect to nail health, our experts note that these types of manicures are not in and of themselves harmful – that said, repeated exposure to UV light (which is used to seal the gel manicure) can be problematic. For that, our experts suggest applying sunblock before and after gel manicures.
More significant nail damage, however, can be done if the gel is applied or removed incorrectly. Remark notes that gel manicures should be removed by a professional in a salon whenever possible, or follow best practices;
First, buff down the surface of the gel with a file to help the product break down faster.
“Next, saturate a cotton pad with pure acetone (regular nail polish will not suffice for this task), place it directly on top of the nail and wrap it tightly with a square of tinfoil,” she says.
“Repeat this on all nails and leave them on for 10-15 minutes. Working one nail at a time, remove the tinfoil and, if the gel has begun to flake off, remove the rest by gently pushing it away with an orangewood stick or cuticle pusher.”
Repeat this process on all nails, and buff with a 240 grit (or higher) buffing block.
Meet our experts
- Dr. Randa Jaafar, MD, is an anesthesiologist, interventional pain specialist, and the founder of FILD Studio, which focuses on precision wrinkle prevention.
- Thea Green MBE is the founder of Nails. INC. Since founding Nails. INC. in 1999, her brand portfolio has expanded to include INC.redible Cosmetics, My Mood, and Holler & Glow.
- Rita Remark is an editorial manicurist and educator in New York. Her creations can be found on runways and fashion magazines, including Alexander Wang and Vogue Korea.
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