Nail Care 101

I love to do my nails. I don’t know when this obsession started to take hold but at some point I went from a nervous, nail-biting teen to a perpetually manicured thirty-something. Nail care has become a regular part of my weekly schedule and something that I look forward to with great anticipation. It is not a chore for me, rather it is a quiet, concentrated escape from a life spent working at a not-for-profit organization and juggling numerous other obligations and commitments. I am rather loathe to do laundry and cooking really isn’t my thing. I love a clean house but a broom in my hand entices my sarcastic and bitter alter ego out of hiding. Try to get me to do chores and I’ll do them… but I won’t like it… unless it’s time to file, buff and base coat!

This past year I have taken up nail art as a favourite hobby. I try to work on a new design every week or two (more often when work becomes more of a trial than usual) and my nails have become one of my hallmarks. Since I began this new artistic endeavor my nails have become a regular topic of conversation. Cashiers ask about them, people at work, in meetings, family, friends, random individuals at the coffee shop and servers at restaurants all seem to notice my coloured digits. I’ve even been hauled behind the counter at the local Starbucks to show my nails to the other baristas. One of the most common question I am asked is “How do you keep you nails from breaking?”

I don’t consider myself an expert of the subject but I do know what works for me. There are many different nail types. Some nails are soft or brittle, some are flat and bendable, and some, like mine, are thick and rounded. Whatever your nail type, basic nail care can help you to maintain stronger nails. Here are my top 10 favourite tips for taking care of my nails, maybe they will help you!

1. Make Time
We have all heard it. We have probably all said it: “I just don’t have time”. The simple truth is that if you want to do something, you have to make the time to do it. I cannot emphasize that enough. There are no miracles here. I set aside up to 5 hours per week to make sure I care for my nails. I make time because it is important to me. If you long for nicer nails, their care has to be important to you as well.

2. Regular Beats Sporadic, Hands Down
Leaving your nails alone for a few weeks is a major cause of weakening and breakage. Small cracks always appear but taking care of them early can stop them from turning into a bad break.

3. Show Them You Care
I have a nail file in my car, one in my purse, one in the desk drawer in my office and about 5 at home. When I feel a crack, I get out the file. When a corner breaks off, I get out my file. You have REALLY got to be a boy scout about this. Always be prepared. If you don’t want things get worse, take care of it immediately (ok, not in the middle of a meeting or when you’re having some adult fun, but as soon as you get back to your desk/out of bed, get out the file). I also have rubber gloves for washing dishes, washing my car and cleaning around the house. Nails are softened when immersed in water, especially hot water, and are much more likely to break. Be careful after you have a bath. It sounds silly but if you want them to be long you have to care for them.

4. Learn Your Length and Play to Your Strengths
Just like each of us has a different body shape and natural size, each of us has our own nail type. Different nails are meant to be different lengths because of the work and activities we do, our natural nail type and our personal preferences. If you do not have nails that will grow long and remain strong, keep them short and care for them at that length. Regardless of your nail length, try to keep all of your nails at the same length and shape. Well cared for nails are beautiful, regardless of length.

Filing the side of your nails helps reduce or eliminate the fine lines that can cause cracks.
Filing the side of your nails helps reduce or eliminate the fine lines that can cause cracks.

5. File Right
There are many different instructions for filing your nails. I keep my nails square because I like the way they look and I find that they are stronger but rounded tips work fine for some people. My number one filing tip is this: FILE THE SIDES REGULARLY. If your nails are anything like mine, small cracks are most likely to appear on the sides, near where the nail meets the finger. This area is where most of the stress from nail bending appears and, when it weakens too much… SNAP… off comes the corner or top of your nail. I file my nails every week, regardless of if I feel I need to. I take a millimeter or two off the tops (more when I want to shorten them) and I file the side where my nail extends beyond my finger.

This does two things: 1) it keeps my nail narrow rather than allowing it to spread out and weaken, and 2) it removes those tiny hair-line fractures and splits that begin on the edge and work inward.

*Be careful cutting long, strong nails. Cutting a very rounded nail and cause it to snap. When I want to take my nails short I use a coarse file and work it down that way, just to be safe.

6. Buff When Required
I would advise against over buffing. I rarely buff but there are times that it is called for. When a split or a break occurs I use a buffer, rather than a file to buff down any edges on the top surface of the nails that could catch and cause further breakage. I also do this when I accidentally hit my nail with the knife when cutting vegetables (yes, this has happened, I mentioned my kitchen prowess remember?) to reduce the divot that forms. When I do this I am careful not to overly thin the nail.

7. Be Careful With Cuticles
I am lucky, I have very light cuticles. If you do have a cuticle problem take care of them carefully. Soften cuticles with lotion or appropriate oils before attempting to remove them and be careful not to dig into the base of the nail too much, it may not cause weakening right away but the damage could remain as the nail grows. Also, always be careful to use sterile tools so as not to risk infection.

Clear coat for strength
Clear coat for strength

8. Clear Coat
Even when I leave my nails natural (rare, but it happens), I keep them covered in a clear coat and reapply every few days to every week. The polish adds strength and protects the surface of my nails. Make sure to get the sides or your nails where those little cracks are likely to appear!

9. Careful With Manicures 
(Remember, these are my rules… they may not be yours!)
I LOVE getting my nails done professionally. There is nothing quite like having your hand massaged and sitting in a comfy chair while someone dotes upon you! This having been said, I’ve had a few manicures after which my nails have inexplicably broken. After the third time this happened I started to think that the manicure might be the culprit, specifically the buffing. I don’t often buff my nails and this aspect of the manicure is the one thing that I could point out that was different from my at-home care. This may not be the same for everyone but if you find that you have my problem, look around for what might be causing it. It could be an aspect of how your care (or do not care) for your nails. Now, on the rare occasion that I get a professional manicure, I simply ask them to skip the buff.

10. Polish Properly
I already mentioned the importance of a base coat but I am quite serious about this. When you apply polish, try to do so in thin layer that build up slowly. Use quality products that will not peal off, or ship causing you to pick at the polish, pulling a think layer or your nail off along with them. A quality base coat protects your nail from polish as well as helping to strengthen and preserve.

It should be noted that I do NOT sit around in white gloves all day, sipping tea (though I quite like tea). I am an active person. I have been a gymnast for years and did so with long nails. I am active in yoga, I do household chores, I wash my car by hand when it is warm enough outside, I climb trees and swim and do random handstands. I work at a desk, typing on a computer all day. None of these things are a problem, even when my nails get long. I also do not let my nails get much longer than half a centimeter above my finger before I file them back down… longer than that would start to affect these daily activities. One of the only things I have found that I have wanted to do and cannot if I wish to maintain somewhat long nails is rock climb. Unfortunately a perpetually injured long biceps tendon and rotator cuff also make rock climbing an impossibility so the nails can stay!