We live by the mantra: "A manicure a week keeps chipped nail polish at bay." But are we doing more harm than good to our nails by not giving them time to "breathe"?
The reality is that nails do not actually "breathe," as they receive their nutrients and oxygen from the blood stream and not the air, according to board certified dermatologist and nail specialist Dr. Dana Stern. But that doesn't mean you should wear polish all the time -- it just means oxygen deprivation is not the reason for your peeling and dryness.
"When nail polish is left on for a prolonged period (usually on the toenails for greater than one month) something called a keratin granulation can develop," Stern said. "These are white, rough patches on the nail that form when the polish is removed along with the superficial layers of nails cells."
The solution: a "nail polish holiday," which Stern says should last at least three weeks, depending on the severity of damage.
"If you are experiencing excessive peeling, dryness, discoloration, and/or ridging, it is time for a break from nail cosmetics to allow for the repair and regeneration of the nail cells (onychocytes)," Stern explained. Nail ridging may also be a sign of aging or, in rare cases, disease, so ask your dermatologist if you're unsure of the cause of your ridges.
Art by Tiara Chiaramonte
To paint a clearer picture of how nails work, the dermatologist suggests envisioning the cells that make up the nail as similar to tiles on a roof. "These tiles are made of protein, specifically keratin, just like our hair," said Stern. "These cells are very delicate and can become damaged with prolonged exposure to certain chemicals."
The most common chemical culprit of nail damage: acetone.
"A strong solvent that is usually used to remove polish, acetone dries these delicate onychocytes causing them to separate, split, peel and break," Stern explained.
Overexposure to water and alcohol -- like that found in hand sanitizers -- is another problem that can result in nail weakness and dryness. Peeling off polish can inadvertently remove the superficial layers of nail cells and result in white patches and surface irregularities, according to Dr. Stern. And you should never cut your cuticles, as any trauma to this area caused by cutting, biting or picking can disable the cuticle's ability to protect the nail from water and infection. Instead, celebrity and editorial manicurist Jin Soon Choi suggests regularly applying cuticle oil to soften, then gently push cuticles back.
You can also maintain strong and healthy nails by simply wearing gloves while doing household or wet work chores. Celebrity and Fashion Week manicurist Deborah Lippmann also recommends keeping a hydrating moisturizer on hand, like her Rich Girl Broad Spectrum SPF Hand Cream.
"Easy access is key because when adding a step to any routine, often times, out of sight means out of mind. In addition to topical hydration, drinking water is imperative. It keeps the entire body healthy, including the cuticles and hands," said Lippmann.
Taking biotin will help to strengthen nails and promote growth, but it's no quick fix.
"Since fingernails grow out every 4-6 months (toes every 12 months), biotin should be taken for at least that length of time to see any results," explained Dr. Stern.
Check out other beauty myths that we've debunked -- or proven true -- below.