Strength training for troubled nails

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A do-it-yourself guide to maintaining healthy, great-looking nails

Few of us have the nails we'd like to have. "Some people were just born with weak, brittle nails," says Paul Kechijan, M.D., associate professor of dermatology and chief of the nail section, New York University Medical Center. "Then there's another group whose nails become thinner as they get older. There are also the people whose jobs or hobbies cause nail problems." (There are also many underlying diseases, such as psoriasis or thyroid disease, that may lead to fragile nails. A dermatologist can advise you in these situations.) Whatever the reason, you can help improve your nails' condition, beginning today. Here's how:

Moisturize. In healthy nails, a cell "adhesive" holds the tightly packed cells of the nail together. When something damages this adhesive, the result is weak, brittle nails. In your environment many elements--from cold, dry, winter weather to repeated soakings in water--can damage this inter-cellular substance, resulting in nails that chip, peel or break easily.

"The first step toward healthier nails is to apply moisturizers to your hands every time you wash them--or any other time they've been in water," says Dr.Kechijan. Nails absorb water and expand in volume. Then when you take your hands out of the water, the water evaporates and the nail volume contracts. "If you apply a lotion to your hands as soon as you've lightly dried them, while they're still a bit damp, it helps seal the moisture in your skin and nails. A moisturizer prevents that rapid expansion and contraction that can cause the nail to crack or peel," Dr. Kechijan says.

There are so many hand creams and lotions on the shelves that reading scores of labels and claims to choose one may seem a bit daunting. The best hand cream is the one whose consistency and fragrance you like enough to use often.

"Hand cream A may be a little better than hand cream B in terms of keeping the skin hydrated," says Dr. Kechijan. "However, if cream A is a little thick or sticky, you may not use it. While using a good brand is important, applying a cream regularly is the most important ingredient. If everything else is equal, some of the newer extra-moisture-enhancing ingredients to look for are any of the alpha-hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid,glycolic acid and urea."

To prevent future dehydration, start protecting your hands when they're exposed to environmental hazards like detergents, household cleansers or dry, moisture-robbing winter air. For indoor jobs, use lined rubber gloves with separate cotton gloves inside that can be removed as your hands become sweaty.

And don't forget to wear warm gloves outdoors, even when you're out for a short time.

Give yourself a treat and get the most from your moisturizer. When you apply your hand or cuticle cream, take a minute to massage the cream into the skin. Not only is this relaxing, it also stimulates the skin and helps the cream to be absorbed. Use your cuticle cream nightly (and during the day when necessary) to keep the cuticles from becoming brittle and dry. Massage it in, especially where the cuticle meets the nail.

`Exercise.' While so many things we do affect nail-plate growth negatively, a certain amount of trauma seems to help it a bit. "Certain people, such as computer programmers or pianists, subject their nails to chronic, low-grade trauma when they hit the keys," says Dr. Kechijan. "This has been shown to actually stimulate nails to grow a little faster and stronger than they would otherwise." Spending five minutes a day drumming your fingers on a table to help your nails grow might be worth a try.

Avoid physical damage. Most of us know when we're sabotaging our nails. Those who bite their nails, for instance, know that it damages them. Ditto for cuticle biting or picking off the polish, just to name a few.

It's obvious why nail biting and healthy nails are mutually exclusive, but pulling at your cuticle is just as bad. Your cuticle protects the living part of your nail and finger from outside attack. By damaging this barrier you can not only affect the nail's healthy growth pattern, but you also open the door for infection.

"Many children bite their nails, and most just grow out of the habit," says Dr. Kechijan. "If you're still biting them as an adult, then nail biting can be a very tough habit to break, and you could probably use some help. The easiest thing to try is a nasty-tasting liquid you simply paint on your nails. Nail biting can be a reaction to stress, so if you really want to stop and can't, it might even be worth your time to work with a psychologist to find another way of coping."

Healthy cuticles are vital to healthy nails. A common mistake people make is either to remove cuticles by cutting or to push back on them, both of which impair the cuticle's ability to protect the finger.

Trim and file properly. If your nails are thin or weak, you stand a chance of causing further damage when you groom them.

"To lessen the possibility of this happening, cut or trim your nails only after bathing because the nails will be softer," says Dr. Kechijan. "The reason is that if you cut the nail when it's dry, it will be a lot more brittle and crack more easily." If you file or trim your nails while they're still damp and soft, you're far less likely to start a crack or to make a crack become a bigger problem.

Fragile nails look their best if they're kept on the short side. "The less the nail extends beyond the end of the finger, the less likely it will be to incur more damage and break," Dr. Kechijan says. "And always file nails in the same direction."

Carry an emery board with you, and at the first sign of an uneven tip, gently smooth it. "You can be doing everything right and still get a little chip in your nail," says Dr. Kechijan. "If you deal with it at once, you can prevent further damage."

Polish with care. Use clear polish. It shows wear less and so requires less frequent bouts with polish remover. When you apply polish, brush it over the top of your nail, behind the tips. This provides a protective cushion.

All polish removers can be rough on nails. Try not to use them more than once a week. If your polish chips before then, just do a touch-up with your nail polish rather than using the polish remover and starting over.

PHOTO: A hand holding a small barbell. (JAN COBB)

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By Pamela Boyer

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