You moisturize your face, your body, your hair… but what about your nails? Yep, your tips need extra moisture, too. If you’ve ever had issues with manicure longevity or nail growth and aren’t already addressing dryness, doing so may be the key to achieving the healthy mani you want.
A variety of factors, both internal and external, can contribute to dry nails. For example, age and gender can play a role. “Cholesterol is the main lipid found in the nail, low levels of which can compromise the nail’s ability to hold onto hydration,” explains Dr. Dana Stern, MD, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in nail health. One study found that women had decreased levels of cholesterol in their nail plate as they aged, supporting the fact that dry, brittle nails are more common in women over the age of 50, she adds. On the external side, environmental factors can take a toll. Cold, dry weather can contribute, which is why people tend to have dry nails during the winter months, says Tina Wang, owner of Lunula Salon.
Stern says that along with being a nuisance that can affect the longevity of your manicure (polish won’t adhere as well to dry nails, leading to peeling and chipping), dry nails are also more prone to splits and breakage. They can also lead to your cuticle cracking at the nail base, increasing the likelihood of infection, Wang points out. The good news? If you take the time to moisturize your dry nails—and do so properly—repairing dry nails can usually happen pretty quickly. Ahead, learn our experts’ six top tips on how to moisturize nails, so you can achieve your healthiest manicure yet.
Prevent Moisture from Escaping
Fun fact: “The nail is 1000 times more permeable to water than the skin is,” Stern shares. That means that water exposure—think everyday activities like hand washing and doing the dishes—can weaken and break the bonds of the nail’s structure, compromising its ability to retain hydration. The solution: Wear gloves any time you’re washing the dishes, and make sure to apply moisturizer (more on that point in a moment) immediately after your nails are exposed to water, Wang advises, explaining that you’re essentially taking the same steps that you would to prevent your hands from drying out.
Don’t Forget to Exfoliate
This may sound like a strange one—do you really need to exfoliate your nails? According to Stern, the answer is a resounding yes. Picture the nail cells on your nail like overlapping tiles on a roof—because they’re dead, they’ll often become separated and peel or lift up, just like you might see flaky skin on your legs in the winter, she says. And just like you’d need to buff off that skin in order for your moisturizer to better penetrate the cells below, the dead nail cells need a little extra help with removal, too.
Glycolic acid, in particular, is one good option: “Research has shown that controlled exfoliation of the nail plate with glycolic acid showed good improvement in dry, rough nails,” Stern says. This is because it breaks down the bonds of the keratin that makes up those nail cells, and also is a humectant that helps hold onto moisture. (It’s why Stern created her eponymous nail renewal system, $26, that contains a glycolic-based exfoliant.) Using a product with glycolic acid or urea (or even alternating between the two), exfoliate your nails once per week—think of it as a bit of extra self-care for your DIY manicure practice.
Choose the Right Moisturizer
Post-exfoliation, it’s time to add back that much-needed moisture. Wang recommends looking for a nail-specific cream, like Londontown’s Kur Restorative Nail Cream ($25), which contains vitamin E to strengthen nails and prevent cracking. Alternately, you could simply use your go-to hand cream on your nails (more on exactly how to do so in a moment). As yet another option, Stern says oils tend to absorb into the nail even better than creams, especially products with sunflower oil and Brazil nut oil, both of which are phospholipids that increase nail flexibility and combat dryness. In terms of how often to moisturize your nails, more is more. Definitely do so after water exposure as well as before bed, but the more you can do it, the better.
Massage the Product In
Whether you’re using a cream or an oil, how you apply it matters. “It’s not enough just to plop it on. You need to massage it into your nails, not only to reduce peeling and brittleness, but also to stimulate blood circulation around the nails in order to encourage healthy nail growth,” Wang points out. Ideally, you’ll want to do so for at least a minute.
Try Nail Slugging
The K-beauty trend is good for more than just your skin and hair: Nail slugging means applying a thick, occlusive agent on top of your exfoliated, moisturized nail bed to seal in moisture and improve absorption, Stern explains. After applying your cream or oil, coat each nail in a thick layer of an ointment, such as Vaseline or Aquaphor. Bonus points if you pop on cotton gloves to keep everything really locked in and leave it all on overnight.
See a Professional If Needed
While the basics of caring for dry nails are possible (and even recommended) to do at home, you should consider seeing a professional if you experience any dramatic changes in color, texture, or shape, all of which can occur alongside nail dryness, Wang says. Similarly, if you’re trying all of the above and nothing seems to be working, seek outside help, as our nails can be a reflection of underlying vitamin deficiencies and other health issues, she points out. Stern adds that you should also have your nail health assessed by your dermatologist or primary care physician if your nails suddenly become dry and brittle, as this may indicate thyroid issues and sometimes anemia.
Why is it important to moisturize dry nails?
Moisturizing dry nails will both improve their appearance and ensure the nail and surrounding skin stays healthy.
What can I put on my nails to moisturize them?
When in doubt, any type of cream that you’d use on your hands can work on your nails, too. There are also nail- and cuticle-specific creams and oils.
How can I naturally hydrate my nails?
Along with the products you’re using, your diet can play a role, too, according to Wang. “To prevent dry and brittle nails, eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, walnuts, soy, eggs, and seeds,” she says.