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Secrets for Stronger Nails

If you were rating health problems on a scale of 1 to 10, fingernail problems would rank down near the very bottom. Compared to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, brittle nails are a trivial complaint. But if you ask people about the little things that are a constant source of irritation, split, cracked nails rate high.

Rough cuticles are a huge temptation for nibbling or tearing. That sets up the conditions for infection, and an infected hangnail is painful and hard to ignore.

Women seem especially bothered by nail problems. They spend a lot of money on polishes and products designed to harden, strengthen, lengthen or otherwise beautify nails.

Guys, on the other hand, pay far less attention to the appearance of their nails. If the problem doesn’t interfere with operating a computer keyboard or the remote control, most men will shrug off ugly nails.

Ironically, much of the effort women put in to keeping their nails lovely may actually make them more susceptible to damage. Polish remover contains strong solvents that dry nails out and make them more brittle.

Even hardeners and the adhesives used for artificial nails can rob the nail of moisture and make matters worse. Dermatologists tell us fungal infections under artificial nails can be hard to treat and make nails split and crumble.

We answered this letter in a recent column:

“Thank you for sharing the ‘secret’ for strong nails. It was simply to stop wearing nail polish.

“I had become desperate and bought hardeners and strengtheners, but my nails still peeled and broke off.

“When I read your column I threw all my bottles away. As my nails started to grow out I used a moisturizer every night. Now they are not peeling or breaking off.”

We heard from a lot of people who hoped to repeat this reader’s success. Most wanted to know what moisturizers work best for nails.

Some folks were surprised at the idea that moisturizers would make a difference, but nails, just like skin, can dry out. Unlike skin, dry nails don’t itch or flake, but they can split, chip and crack. Exposure to detergents or solvents of any kind may accelerate drying.

Some people find that simply applying oil such as almond oil are helpful. Others use cuticle creams.

Ordinary moisturizers may work for minor nail problems, but there are some products that work especially well for problem nails. Elon Nail Conditioner contains oxyquinoline, which retards fungal infections, in a base of lanolin, petrolatum and beeswax. A dab four times daily can produce benefits within three weeks. A pharmacist can order it from Dartmouth Pharmaceuticals in Wareham, Mass., or call (800) 414-ELON.

We first heard about another nail moisturizer from an unlikely source. We got a letter from Jack Haire and Glen Grant of Willowbrook Feed & Garden Store: “The horsewomen in our area discovered that when they used their hands to apply moisturizers to their horses’ hooves, their own fingernails seemed harder and stronger.

“We sell Hoofmaker from Straight Arrow Company. About 80 percent of our sales are to women who don’t usually shop in a feed store.” The Straight Arrow Company can be contacted at (800) 827-9815.

So here is the secret to stronger nails: avoid detergents and solvents. Use no polish, so you won’t have to remove it. Moisturize your nails regularly. They may not be two inches long and scarlet, but they will be healthier and more comfortable.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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