You might have to give up your weekly shellac habit. Sorry. 

When your nails are neat and tidy, the rest of you feels neat and tidy too. However, as much as we love a professional manicure, sometimes the treatment doesn’t love us back. 

Overdoing it on shellac, acrylic and SNS manicures in the short term can lead to weak and brittle nails in the long term. And that’s not taking into account the bad habits (yes, nail biters, we’re looking at you) and nutritional deficiencies that can exacerbate the problem. 

The good news? It is possible to bring your nails back from the brink. Here, Jocelyn Petroni, founder of Jocelyn Petroni salon and official CHANEL manicurist for Australia, along with dietician Jessica Spendlove, share their expert advice.

THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

In her Woollahra salon, Petroni has seen an uptick in the amount of women coming in with weak nails. The culprit? COVID-19. During lockdown, many women removed their gel, acrylic or SNS nails without professional help and the results weren’t always pretty. Overall, consumers are more reluctant to go into the salon and “some women are struggling with where to start without professional advice”. 

“Unfortunately, now that they’ve stopped getting professional treatments you can see the damage that has been done to the nail from having these repeated preparations.”

“For some people, gel polish acts like a plastic shield and helps the nail to grow and get stronger. However, for most people, the occlusive that the product forms, prevents the nail from breathing so it does start to deteriorate underneath. Incorrect removal does further damage the nail plate because it lifts away part of the nail with the gel polish itself.”

However, poor nail health can be a signifier of more than just dodgy manicure removal. “There can be a number of reasons including age, individual behavior (constantly biting nails or exposure to chemical/toxins), or too little or too much moisture,” Spendlove tells Gritty Pretty. “There can be some underlying medical reasons as well including low iron levels (anaemia), thyroid disorder or malnutrition.” 

YOUR TREATMENT PLAN

Treating brittle nails is a two pronged approach: do you need to treat the nail itself, reassess your diet or both? 

TREATING THE NAIL ITSELF

If your nails are suffering from your gel polish habit, Petroni recommends letting your nails breathe. “I would strongly recommend avoiding any type of gel polish, even regular nail polish for a period of time and focus purely on the nail health itself.”

At Petroni’s salon, she has created a 45 minute Naked Manicure ($70) for clients who still want to feel polished without the, ah, polish. This polish-free service starts with a keratin treatment to boost the health and strength of the nail. Then, the nail plate is buffed, creating a high-shine effect to rival that of clear polish. The Naked Manicure has become very popular amongst women whose nails are recovering from years of acrylics and the like. 

IS YOUR BODY TRYING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING? 

“[Weak and brittle nails] is most common in women, as they age and also potentially those who have low iron levels, which is often women of child bearing age,” Spendlove says. 

In terms of diet, there are a few nutrients in particular that can help strengthen your nails: 

  • Protein. “Nails are largely made up of a type of protein called keratin. Eating enough protein is important for boosting keratin production and maintaining strong nails. You should be aiming to have a source of protein at each meal and snack.”
  • Iron. “If a person has low iron levels or anaemia, they should consider boosting their haem (animal) and or non-haem (plant based) sources of iron. The dietary recommendations are 18mg/ iron per day in women of child bearing are.”
  • Biotin. “Biotin promotes healthy cell growth and aids in metabolism of protein. Deficiency in this nutrient is rare, but there are some studies showing supplementation with this vitamin may help strengthen brittle nails.”
  • Zinc. “Zinc is required for growth and division of cells, and inadequate zinc intake can contribute to degeneration of nails. Most animal proteins are a good source of zinc.”
  • Collagen. “Collagen is found in large amounts in the body, and as we age the levels decline. Collagen is naturally found in animal based products and foods like bone broth, lamb shanks, and other animal products contain the amino acids needed to make collagen.”

A caveat from Spendlove: “supplements won’t override a poor diet, so focusing on optimising what you consume is the most important place to start.” If you do want to take a supplement, both Petroni and Spendlove recommend taking a bioactive collagen supplement as some studies have shown that this can help strengthen nails, leading to less breakage. 

Always consult your GP or Accredited Practicing Dietitian before taking any supplements, including collagen, iron or otherwise, to assess any predisposing medical conditions.

Words by Erin Cook, September 16, 2020.