Whether au naturel or painted in bold hues, your fingertips look best polished—and healthy. Are chipped, peeling, brittle, or discolored nails leaving you with your hands shoved in your pockets? Assessing your habits inside and out can help you get the stronger, healthier nails you desire, say natural beauty experts.
Eat a nail-building meal
Nails are made of keratin protein, so a diet containing less-than-optimum protein levels can lead to weak nails. Aim to get about 25 percent of daily calories from protein (94 grams of protein for a 1,500 calorie diet). Include a spectrum of sources (try fish, poultry, lean red meats, dairy, eggs, beans, peanut butter, and tofu) for a mix of essential amino acids that give nails structural support, recommends Lisa Drayer, MA, RD, author of The Beauty Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2009).
For longer and smoother nails, Drayer recommends at least 1,000 mg of dietary calcium from low-fat or nonfat milk, yogurt, and cheese (vegan sources include tempeh, kale, and fortified orange juice)—which comes out to about three to four servings a day. If your calcium intake is too low, calcium-carbonate or calcium-citrate supplements can help you reach a healthy level, says Drayer (calcium citrate is better for elderly people who may not be producing enough stomach acid, which can make it difficult to absorb the mineral). For lines or white spots, increase zinc to at least 8 mg daily. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, crab, beef, beans, cashews, walnuts, chickpeas, and dark-meat poultry. An 8 mg serving would be about 6 ounces of dark-meat chicken, 8 ounces of milk, 3 ounces of cooked beef, 1/2 cup beans, or 1 ounce of nuts.
Supplement for moisture
Splitting, peeling nails are calling out for moisture, so drink plenty of water (at least 68 ounces each day) and supplement with healthy fats, especially gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a well-known nail strengthener, says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, and author of Fat Flush for Life (Da Capo Press, 2010). Take a daily black currant seed oil or borage oil supplement with at least 360 mg GLA to increase skin-cell strength and regulate water loss, moisturizing from the inside out. The B vitamin biotin helps the body better use fatty acids, making nails more flexible and resilient, says Gittleman. Try: Barlean’s Organic Oils Borage Oil, 1,000 mg; Country Life Biotin, 500 mcg
Let nails go nude
Solvent-based nail products—including acetone-based nail polish remover, most nail lacquers, and even nail-strengthening products—can strip away natural nail and cuticle oils, which is why having manicure-free hands for at least a week helps to revive dry, brittle nails, says Karina Restrepo, manicurist and co-owner of Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa in Philadelphia. When you remove polish, look for acetone-free polish removers with natural oils like vitamin E.
Because hand creams and oils won’t penetrate nail polish, it’s important to moisturize nails during those polish-free times: Apply jojoba or neem oil or cocoa butter nightly for increased nail flexibility and softer cuticles. Also keep nails short, making them less prone to chips and tears, until they regain durability in a few weeks, Restrepo says. If you have severely damaged nails, plan for a month of polish-free fingers. Try: Karma Organic Nail Polish Remover, Badger Creamy Cocoa Every Day Moisturizer, Organix South TheraNeem Nail & Cuticle Pen
Buff and shine away discoloration
To refresh stained nails, a result of dark-colored polish or formaldehyde, Restrepo recommends gently buffing them with a buffing block to remove discoloration. Or make a paste of one part lemon juice to two parts baking soda and apply to nails. Leave on for five to ten minutes; massage into nails before rinsing with warm water. At your next manicure, choose formaldehyde-free polish: In addition to its link to skin irritation and cancer, formaldehyde reacts with your nails’ keratin protein, causing yellow and brittle nails. Try: Honeybee Gardens Four-Sided Nail File/Buffer, No-Miss nail polish