Mind Your Manicures

Nail down the healthiest choices for your hands.
By Lindsey Galloway

Natural nails have never been more in style. Many spas and salons across the country have scratched those artificial acrylic tips from their repertoire, and most dermatologists advise against cutting back cuticles or applying toxic polishes. As awareness increases about the dangerous chemicals in many cosmetics, even mainstream nail polish companies have reworked their formulas in favor of better health. But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of complacency: Questionable chemicals still abound in many products. To keep your nail knowledge from getting rusty, we’ve gathered the best solutions for playing your hands right.

Hand hydration
Our nails need a daily dose of moisture, just like our skin. But since nails are made of a more compact, dense protein, they probably won’t absorb much of your delicate facial moisturizer, says Clayton, Missouri-based dermatologist Jerry Aronberg, MD. Look for a thicker emulsion, such as a cream made specifically for hands. These often contain humectants like glycerin and honey that attract a hefty dose of water from the air. The extra moisture will protect your nails from the dehydrating detergents and soaps they come in contact with throughout the day.

Cuticle care
Soft, pliable cuticles indicate that your nails are producing and retaining enough natural oil, but avoid pushing them back too far; you’ll only expose the nail bed to bacteria and fungi. Totally removing the cuticle invites the same risk for infection, so be gentle.

If you get a pesky hangnail (usually a sign of dehydrated cuticles), soak your fingertip in olive oil for 10 minutes and then trim it with an alcohol-sterilized trimmer. Rub a little tea tree oil on the area afterward to prevent infection.

File away
You never want to cut your nails short enough to disrupt the living tissue beneath, but leaving them too long will put them at an increased risk for daily traumas. “Anyone who has to use a fine touch in their profession should keep his or her nails trimmed to avoid injury,” says Aronberg. This includes carpenters, mechanics, and even those who do a lot of typing or piano playing. “The constant banging of the nails against the keys can cause small hemorrhages, which appear as purplish splinter-like streaks,” he explains. “Over time, it can even lift the nail from the nail bed.”

When using an emery board, file in one direction only from edge to center (as opposed to a sawing motion) so you don’t weaken the nail.

Polish up
Thanks to worldwide consumer pressure, most well-known nail polish companies have removed the hormone-disrupting chemical dibutyl phthalate from their polishes, as well as serious allergens like toluene and formaldehyde, both of which can cause the nail plate to lift off the nail bed and become permanently disfigured.

This may sound like a huge step forward for the mainstream beauty market, but don’t be fooled: Most have simply swapped one toxic and flammable chemical for another, usually butyl acetate. “They’re still all petrochemicals,” explains Liu Yingchun, chemist and founder of Toronto-based natural nail polish company Suncoat. “They’re a little better, but most are still 100 percent chemicals.”

Water-based polishes offer a safe and effective alternative. The color doesn’t always last as long as regular polishes, but instead of using evaporating (read: toxic-smelling) solvents to harden the color, water-based polishes harden as the H2O evaporates—a better option for air quality and for the strength of your nails.

Remove safely
When using water-based polishes, steer clear of conventional nail polish remover. Neither acetone- nor acetate-based removers will take off the polish very well—they’re specifically formulated to dissolve conventional polish. Instead, try a soy-and-corn-based polish remover. Not only is the blend biodegradable, it works on traditional polish as well.

Nail Tip:
Diabetics need to take special care of their nails. Nearly half of diabetics have some nail abnormality, the most common being the fungal infection onychomycosis. The condition both thickens and weakens nails, making them more likely to break and cause injury to the surrounding skin. Left unchecked, these injuries can lead to serious infections.

What Your Nails Say About You:
Changes in your nails can reflect changes in your health. From looking at your fingertips, doctors can sometimes identify the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, lung disorders, and liver and kidney problems. To find out more, check out Web Exclusives at www.naturalsolutionsmag.com/go/webexclusives.

The Nail File
Honeybee Gardens Nail Polish
Available in 21 colors, Honeybee’s water- based polishes look professional, but they won’t dry up your nails’ natural oils like traditional polishes do. ($6.99, 0.5 oz; honeybeegardens.com)

Naturetis Exfoliating Hand Mask
Organic oak bark and arnica help clear away dead cells and jump-start healing. Great for damaged cuticles. ($22, 1 oz; naturetis.com)

Jurlique Hand Cream
Scented with essential oils of lavender, rose, or citrus fruits, this glycerin-and-honey-rich emulsion soothes and protects the whole hand. ($25, 1.4 oz; jurlique.com)

Dr. Hauschka Neem Nail Stick
Filled with antibacterial neem oil, this portable pen will soften cuticles and fortify nails all day. ($17.95, 0.14 oz; drhauschka.com)

Suncoat Nail Polish Remover
This eco-friendly blend uses soy and corn esters to remove water-based and conventional polishes. ($5.99, 1 oz; suncoatproducts.com)