They brave soapy water, dry air, and the occasional sticky situation. Wherever the day takes us, our fingernails are on the front lines. Utilitarian? Sure, but when it comes to nails, strength and beauty go hand in hand. And with a little care, healthy, gorgeous fingertips are well within reach.
Although supported by a healthful lifestyle, nails are not actually living material. Primarily composed of the protein keratin, fingernails grow from the half-moon-shaped white “lunula” at the nail base. The cuticle, a thin, flexible layer of skin, protects this area from dirt and bacterial infection. Healthy nails are transparent; you should see the rosy nail bed underneath.
Beauty From Within
Naturally glowing or carefully polished, great nails signal elegance, self-confidence—and wellness. “The condition of your nails is an excellent indicator of inner health,” explains Kim Erickson, author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous. Dry, brittle nails? Consider essential fatty acids (EFAs), vitamins A and B complex, and sulfur, recommends Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS.
Along with plenty of pure water, EFAs (from coldwater fish or flaxseed oil), boost nails’ natural moisture. Biotin, a B vitamin, promotes healthy cell growth and protein metabolism. The popular supplement methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) contains sulfur—an important mineral for strong nails and more.
To help eliminate white spots on the nails, increase zinc intake (but take care not to exceed 100 mg daily from all sources). These nutrients, plus ample protein and calcium, provide a beautiful foundation.
What goes on our nails is important, too. Banned in Europe and considered a reproductive toxin, the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate is legal for use in cosmetics, including nail color, in the U.S. Formaldehyde and toluene, linked to cancer and birth defects, may also appear in conventional polishes. “Since our nails are extremely porous,” explains Erickson, “they can absorb the chemicals used in nail polishes, removers, and cuticle creams.” While a few manufacturers have recently pledged to reformulate their products, concerns about toxins—and distaste for the chemical smell of conventional polishes and removers—have many looking for better choices.
“Why use questionable products when equally as effective (or even better) alternatives exist?” asks Melissa Hertzler, founder of Honeybee Gardens, who suggests looking for a safe, new form of polish. “Water-based polish uses an emulsion resin in the form of billions of very small particles suspended in water. As the water evaporates, the particles touch each other and form a hard film which is no longer soluble in water,” explains Hertzler. Removed with odorless alcohol, these enamels look and feel like typical nail color.
The Natural Choice
Check your favorite store for natural hand and nail moisturizers with wholesome ingredients. “Grape seed, apricot kernel, walnut, and avocado oils are all skin nourishing plant oils used in high-end skin care products because they are such efficient moisturizers,” says Autumn Blum, CEO at Organix-South.
Why is moisture key? “Nails become brittle when they don’t have enough hydration and when the skin around them is unhealthy,” explains Celeste Lutrario, head of research and development at Burt’s Bees.
Antibacterial neem oil helps soothe and repair cuticles. Vitamin E, horsetail extract, lemon oil, and chamomile all support healthy nails when applied in topical formulas.
Creams or balms containing cocoa or shea butters are other natural choices. Melinda Garland at the W.S. Badger Company explains, “Shea butter is thought to be a ‘youth enhancer’ and<