Hands-Down Beauty
Keep your digits looking their best with these grooming tips and natural home remedies

By Carlotta Mast

Our hands and nails take a lot of abuse. We expose them endlessly to sun, wind, and cold—not to mention a barrage of chemicals, detergents, and other harmful agents. Washing dishes, sorting newspapers, and even applying certain lotions can take a toll on our hands, making them look and feel parched, ragged, and older than they really are. Although people with severely dry and inflamed skin and advanced nail infections should seek professional help, many hand and nail problems can be effectively treated—and, more important, prevented—with simple grooming techniques and natural remedies.

Feeding Dry Skin
Dry skin on the hands is a common irritation—and one that can trigger a barrage of other problems, says Benjamin Cohen, MD, a dermatologist and director of the Dermatology and Laser Center in Long Branch, New Jersey. "Any inflammation or dryness of your skin will affect the way your nail matrix makes nails," Cohen says. "If you have very dry hands, your nails could very easily not grow nicely." Dry skin can also lead to more serious conditions such as eczema, a disorder that involves painful inflammation, itching, and cracking of the skin.

Fortunately, Mother Nature makes a bounty of good things to nourish chapped hands. Shea butter, for instance, is a popular natural choice for rehydrating thirsty skin. "Shea butter is superb for the hands," says Aubrey Hampton, author of Natural Organic Hair and Skin Care (Organica, 1990) and What's in Your Cosmetics? (Organica, 2000) and the founder of Aubrey Organics. "It is so gentle, you can even use it on a baby's skin."

Made from the fat of African karite tree nuts, fragrant shea butter is available in numerous natural hand creams and lotions, as well as in a pure, cakelike form. Hampton recommends mixing 1 tablespoon of pure shea butter—melted in a microwave for about 30 seconds—with approximately 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt to make a simple skin cream that is less greasy than pure shea butter. Adding more shea butter increases the thickness of the cream, which should be stored in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage.

When shopping for an effective yet gentle hand cream, look for other natural humectants, such as glycerin, beeswax, and lanolin. "Glycerin is one of the best moisturizers because it contains natural fatty oils and fatty acids," Hampton says. "It not only softens the skin, but also attracts moisture to the skin." And glycerin rarely causes allergic reactions. Beeswax is a much thicker humectant that tends to lie on top of the skin, while lanolin—a fatty substance obtained from sheep's wool—can trigger allergies in some people, says Hampton. Also try using a product with sea-buckthorn oil or rosehip oil as an ingredient; both oils are rich in antioxidant vitamins A and E and are known to nourish the skin.

If you have sensitive skin or want to use a 100 percent natural moisturizer, Hampton suggests using products that contain vitamins E and C rather than chemical preservatives, such as parabens (methyl-, propyl-, butyl-, and ethylparabens) and imidazolidinyl urea, which can irritate the skin. Parabens are the most commonly used cosmetic preservatives in the United States and ingredients in many conventional and natural products. "Grapefruit-seed extract and vitamins C and E work well as preservatives, and they are also good for the skin," says Hampton. "If you are worried about a product staying fresh, you can always store it in the refrigerator."

Revealing Fresh Skin
Lotion isn't the only remedy for dry hands. Because you can't rehydrate dead skin cells, proper exfoliation is crucial for the prevention and treatment of tight, flaky skin.

Stores now carry numerous scrubs that contain natural ingredients such as apricot or strawberry seeds, which gently exfoliate the skin. You can also make a natural hand scrub at home by combining 1/2 cup coarse cornmeal and 2 tablespoons sugar with enough olive oil to make the mixture feel like wet sand. When you work the mixture into your hands and in between your fingers for five minutes, the glycolic acid in the sugar loosens the cohesiveness of the dead cells, and the cornmeal provides the abrasion needed to remove lifeless skin. The olive oil serves as a moisturizer for the fresh skin underneath.

Creams containing lactic acid or fruit acids such as glycolic acid can also gently and naturally exfoliate the hands. Use such products with caution if you have cracked or severely dry hands, Cohen advises, as these acids can burn and sting. If you suffer from eczema or the skin on your hands is red, scaly, and painful, Cohen suggests soaking your hands in a bowl of milk and water to cool the irritation before applying a deep moisturizer, such as shea butter.

Treating Nails Nicely
As noted earlier, dry digits can lead to dry, brittle nails that easily break, crack, and peel. Because nails are made of dead skin cells, it's impossible to fully rejuvenate an already dry nail. Still, nourishing your nail cuticles with vitamin E, tea tree oil, or a cream containing copper can help treat and prevent dry nails, Cohen says.

In addition, regularly applying rosehip oil—which is high in vitamin C—makes your nails stronger and may help prevent breakage and painful tears, says Hampton. He suggests rubbing the oil into the nail bed and around the cuticle every few days. "The nail will become really hard in time and resistant to breakage," he says. "You could possibly never have a problem again."

Using tea tree oil—long known for its antiseptic properties—also helps treat nail fungus and other nail infections. To treat a fungal nail infection, soak your hands in a bowl of warm water containing four or five drops of tea tree oil, or apply the oil directly to your nail beds.

Yellowing nails are another common complaint. The typical culprit? Nail polish that has been left on for too long. To prevent this unsightly stain, consider forgoing nail polish altogether, or at least allow your nails to go bare for a week between manicures. Natalie Tessler, president and founder of Spa Space in Chicago, advises her clients with yellow nails to soak them in lemon juice and water for five to ten minutes several times a week until the nails are bleached to a desirable shade. Because the acid in lemon juice can dry out nails, follow with a soak in olive oil for moisturizing, Tessler says.

Proper grooming is also important. You can help keep your hands looking healthy by regularly filing your nails and hydrating and pushing back your cuticles, Tessler says. Remember: Always file your nails in one direction; don't saw back and forth because this promotes breakage and splitting. Buffing nails regularly keeps them looking shiny and vibrant.

Of course, polish is a must for some women. Fortunately, a handful of companies—including Firozé, Sante Kosmetics, and No-Miss Nail Care Products—now make nail polishes that are free of dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. These harsh chemicals are believed to be toxic. For instance, research conducted in 2000 by the Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (CERHR) found that dibutyl phthalate caused numerous birth defects in lab animals (NTP-CERHR Expert Panel Report on Di-n-butyl Phthalate, October 2000).

Start From The Inside
Perhaps the best way to get naturally beautiful hands and nails is to take care of them from the inside. "I look at nails as an indicator of overall health," Cohen says. "Softening of the nails is often due to a deficiency of iron, biotin, or zinc." If your nails are soft or have deep longitudinal ridges, seek testing for a dietary deficiency, Cohen adds.

Soft nails are often caused by an iron, biotin, or zinc deficiency. Today, numerous natural hair and nail supplements are on the market. Cohen recommends choosing a daily supplement that contains 25 to 80 mcg of biotin and 25 to 50 mg of zinc. "Biotin and zinc are important in the synthesis of collagen [the fibrous protein found in nails] and are essential for the normal production of hair and nails," Cohen says. Some other nutrients thought to aid in collagen formation—and often present in hair and nail supplements—include methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), folic acid, and horsetail (Equisetum arvense), a botanical that is rich in the mineral silica.

Finally, because nutrition is at the root of our health, drinking at least eight glasses of water a day and maintaining a well-balanced diet that includes nuts, legumes, fresh vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids will help keep your skin and nails healthy and young looking.

While researching this article, freelance writer and new mother Carlotta Mast happily discovered that shea butter, an excellent natural hand moisturizer, also does wonders for preventing stretch marks.