We dote on our nails, picking out the perfect polish color and spending a pretty penny to keep them looking beautiful. So why do we also sabotage their looks (and health) with bad habits?
We turned to two of the top nail experts in the beauty industry, Katie Jane Hughes, Butter London Global Colour Ambassador, and Jin Soon Choi, celebrity manicurist and founder of JINsoon Nail Polish, to get their take on the poor practices that lead to less-than-pretty hands.
The bad habit: Biting
Kids and teens aren't the only ones who struggle with onychophagia — also known as habitual nail biting. Plenty of well-groomed grown-ups are susceptible. Biting obviously makes hands unsightly in the short run, but it can also have longer-term effects, reveals Choi: "If you bite your nails, over time they will be become deformed with bumps and ridges." Plus, it's unsanitary. "There's dirt under your nails," explains Hughes. "So by biting your nails, you're effectively eating the dirt" and the bacteria that comes with it.
How to break it: Always keep your nails painted. The polish acts as a mild form of aversion therapy, since it tastes bad and visually camouflages the "edible" part of the nail. Investing time and money in professional manicures (even if your nails are super-short from biting), may enhance the effect. "You'll eventually trick yourself into leaving them alone," says Hughes. If you tend to bite at night, consider a mouth-guard that's custom-fitted by your dentist. Over time, you'll break the habit of using your teeth to release stress.
The bad habit: Picking at your polish
Unless you're wearing a peel-off polish marketed to 'tweens, peeling and picking at your past-its-prime manicure is a big no-no. "A lot of people start picking when their polish starts chipping instead of removing it with nail polish remover," says Choi. "This habit can remove the actual top layer of your nail bed, which sets the stage for weakened nails."
How to break it: Choi's ingeniously simple solution: Carry pre-moistened nail polish remover packets in your purse for quick removal when you get the urge to pick or peel. "They're gentle on nails and you can keep them on your person at all times." Also, to prevent the problem in the first place, maintain your mani as long as possible with a top-quality topcoat.
The bad habit: Attacking your cuticles
Poor, unwanted cuticles. So many of us pick at them, gnaw at them, cut them and otherwise disrespect their sovereignty. "Cuticles should be left alone because the more you pick at them, the harder it is to stop," says Hughes. "The habit leaves your cuticles looking ragged and dry," adds Choi, and also leaves you vulnerable to infection. Equally ominous: Recent reports suggesting that damage to cuticle beds causes ridging over time.
How to break it: Try topical solutions — using a product to clean up your cuticles instead of scissors, hands or teeth. Hughes advises a cuticle remover to remove offensive dead skin without damaging the healthy nail bed and cuticle you need.
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The bad habit: Gel addiction
Although gels last for a long time, taking them off can be murder on your nails. "The thing I like least about gel manicures is the removal process," explains Hughes. "Removing gels weakens the nail bed as it's most sensitive when wet. The manicurist will most likely scrub at your nail with a metal tool to remove the gel polish, which can damage the nail bed very easily. Also, the UV light used for gels is not healthy for your nails." Seconds Choi: "Removing gel polish also requires the use of acetone nail polish remover, keeping it on nails for about 15 minutes, which is an additional source of nail dehydration. It can make the nail brittle and prone to deterioration and breakage."
How to break it: Choi advises alternating between gel manicures and traditional polish-based manis as well as moisturizing nails with cuticle oil, especially while sporting gel lacquer. Or, better yet, get the plump, shiny finish you want with one of the new gel-finish polishes. We like Nails Inc. Gel Effect. They were designed just for this reason — to give you the look of gels without the damage.
The bad habit: Wearing polish for weeks
"This has nearly the same effect as using gel: it's going to dry out your nails," advises Choi. "When you remove nail polish that's been left on too long, you'll often see white spots, which means your nails are too dry."
How to break it: Choi advises removing your nail polish when it starts chipping. Same goes for pedicures, which should be removed after two to three weeks. Give your nails a chance to breathe!
The bad habit: Living on coffee and cocktails
If eyes are the windows to the soul, then nails just might be windows to your refrigerator. "Your nails are a barometer of your health," says Choi. "Eating junk food causes such things as ridges and thin, weak nails." Adds Hughes: "The better your diet, the better your nails, skin and hair."
How to break it: Eat to best support your overall health, including dark, leafy greens and plenty of calcium and magnesium, and drink plenty of water. Also, incorporate gelatin-rich foods into your diet, suggests Hughes. These include chicken soup and, yes, Jell-O. In the meantime, "use a great nail strengthener to give your nails the vitamins they really need," she advises.
The bad habit: Using your nails as tools
Peeling off labels, scraping off gunk, unfastening a key ring ... "We've all been there," says Hughes, but she notes that these actions "can easily break your nails."
How to break it: Slow. Down. "I suggest taking the time to open cans, jars, boxes, etc., with scissors or a tool," says Hughes. "You will save your manicure if you do!"
The bad habit: Cleaning sans gloves
Applying cleaning products with bare hands is a major mistake. "Nails swell in water, which leads to chipped nails and weakened nail beds," cautions Hughes. "Washing detergent can really dry out every single part of your hands and reduce the life our your nail polish," adds Choi.
How to break it: "Splurge a bit and get a nice pair of cleaning gloves that you don't mind wearing," recommends Choi. "Keep gloves available and slip them on whenever you clean the house or do the dishes."
The bad habit: Skipping SPF
How to break it: In the morning, treat your hands to the same sun protection you do your face. And both experts advise carrying portable hand cream with SPF everywhere you go for touch-ups. "It will dramatically change the way your hands look," says Hughes.
The bad habit: Going without lotion
Dry, cracked hands are never pretty ... or healthy. "A nice manicure is pointless when your hands are dry," Hughes advises. "You don't want your hands like crocodile skin," adds Choi. No, no we do not.
How to break it: Carry hand cream with you and use it often. "The best thing you can do for your hands is to constantly apply moisturizer" to create a protective barrier against irritants and dehydration, counsels Choi. "It's very easy to do, so why not start right away?"
This article was originally published May 6, 2014 on TODAY.com.