Q: My nails have been splitting recently, and the skin around them is peeling and red. Could salon manicures be causing these problems?
A: Yes! Cutting or filing the nail so that it arcs in the middle and the corners sit smoothly against the finger can predispose the nail to crack and separate from the nail bed. (This type of “trim” on toenails can also cause them to become ingrown.) Letting the corners of the nail grow out — creating a square surface — may help prevent this.
Many manicurists remove the cuticles, first by softening them with strong alkalis that break down the cuticle’s protein, or keratin. This, too, can cause inflammation and infection of the surrounding tissue and nail root. The best solution is to either leave the cuticle alone or have it gently trimmed but not entirely removed.
If you get a French manicure, the under portion of the nail is often cleaned and smoothed with a sharp instrument that can contribute to infection and inflammation.
Nail polish, which contains a lot of chemicals and colorants, can also contribute to contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals. This means the skin around the nail becomes red, swollen or peals. (Occasionally if you rub your eyes, you can get eyelid dermatitis as well.)
Nail polish removers may also be a part of your fingertip problems. They contain solvents (either acetone alcohol or acetates) that can dry the nail and cause it to develop brittle white streaks. Nail hardeners — like the polish — can also cause allergic dermatitis.
Now let me go on to wraps used to strengthen the nail. These are usually glued to the top of the nail plate and then covered with polish. The glue can cause allergic contact dermatitis.
Acrylic nails are popular because they tend to be stronger than natural nails and can elongate the nail. As the underlying nail grows in and a space is created between the natural nail and the acrylic, it can become a source of infection. (That’s why, if you have acrylics, they should be touched up every three weeks.)
Now that you’ve had a 101 in the chemistry and mechanics of cosmetic nail care, let me make the following suggestion: give your fingers and nails an “au natural” break, especially if you are developing problems.
It’s also wise to take preventative measures to prevent transfer of bacteria from other clients when you do get a professional manicure. Bring your own manicure pack and make sure you clean the instruments very carefully (soak them in alcohol) between use. You can also ask if your local salon sterilizes its instruments between clients. (Some states require this by law.) If you do get manicures, wraps or tips, periodically stop and give your nails a rest. Surveying them in their natural state will enable you to check the nail and surrounding skin for signs of infection and maintain fingertip health.
Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: Many of us feel most attractive with elongated, colored or shiny nails, but the quest for pretty fingers shouldn’t come at the expense of basic nail health. So once in a while let your nails’ natural beauty shine through.
Dr. Judith Reichman, the “Today” show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins.