Here's What Nail Hardener Is, Plus More Tips For Growing Strong Nails


"Beauty Glossary" is a HuffPost series that breaks down beauty product techniques, treatments and ingredients so you know exactly what you're putting onto and into your body.

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Breaking a nail or two just minutes after leaving the salon is a serious buzzkill. Annoyed by the appearance of an unkempt mani, we usually reach for a nail file or clippers to even them out. But, this often makes our fingernails feel weaker and more likely to split along the edges.

Nail hardeners are a popular polish treatment that helps to strengthen flimsy nails, but what exactly is it made of and does it actually work?

According to celebrity manicurist Deborah Lippmann, a nail hardener treatment is enriched with proteins to encourage healthy nail growth. "It reacts with the natural protein in your nails to create chemical bonds that tie the protein chains together to make nails harder," she told HuffPost.

Gina Edwards, the leading manicurist for Kiss Products, said most nail hardeners contain a key ingredient, ethyl acetate, to bond other agents together. "A nail hardener may contain calcium for soft or weak nails and nail conditioners for brittle nails, which add a balance of structure in the nail plate surface," she said.

Both manicurists highly recommend using a nail hardener a few times a week and wearing it alone or with a nail polish color. For best results, Lippmann suggests applying a thin layer every day until you change your nail polish.

But not all nail hardeners are formulated with safe ingredients. Board-certified dermatologist and nail specialist Dana Stern points out that some may contain formaldehyde or formalin. "These ingredients are very damaging to the nail," said Stern. "Formaldehyde will initially harden the nail, however with time, the nail becomes paradoxically brittle and is at risk for lifting or separating off of the nail bed."

She added, "Formaldehyde can also cause severe allergic reactions at the surrounding nail folds. The skin becomes extremely irritated, swollen and painful. There is also significant concern that these ingredients are carcinogenic."

These pros do believe that there are simpler ways to grow stronger, healthier nails.

For starters, Lippmann cautions against filing and buffing nails incorrectly, as this can definitely lead to peeling and weakness. "When filing your nails, never 'saw' back and forth on the tip of the nail. Instead, gently run the file across the nail in one direction," she explained. "Beginning at the outside edge, pull towards the center and repeat, starting at the other edge of the nail coming towards the center." If your nails are thinner, Lippmann said to be especially careful while filing. Rather than holding the file flush to the nail, tilt it so it's underneath. This allows you to see exactly what you are doing and helps protect against over filing.

Stern says to always wear gloves for household and wet work chores, especially when washing dishes. Also, avoid excessive use of hand sanitizers containing alcohol. She said, "Alcohol is extremely drying to nails and skin. Instead, consider using a moisturizing cleanser or body wash in a travel dispenser such as Dove."

Hydration is key to promoting healthy nail growth, according to Edwards. "Brittle nails stem from overexposure of water and lack of moisture in the nails. Steer away from harsh chemical such as detergents and frequent use of acetone-based nail polish remover. Alleviate dryness by applying coconut oil at night around and on the nail plate," she said.

Searching for a supplement fix? Stern says the B vitamin biotin has been shown to strengthen fingernails in some studies. "Two to three milligrams of biotin daily may help with nail growth and strength," she explained. "Since fingernails grow out every four to six months (toes every 12 months), biotin should be taken for at least that length of time to see any results."

If you're experiencing sudden onset nail weakening, Stern advises that you see a dermatologist as the cause may be something internal.

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