Ask Belle: Rehabbing Dry, Brittle Nails

Mar 15, 2016

Hi Belle,

I got my first gel manicure and I loved it! Unfortunately, the nail tech who removed my gel manicure *wrecked* my nails. 

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I’m considering having a new gel manicure done, since it will allow my nails 3 – 4 weeks to grow out. Assuming I can find someone to take it off more delicately (or just do it myself), do you think this is a good plan for nail recovery? Other suggestions?

Thanks, Caitlin

Do not, I repeat, do not get another gel manicure.  Your nails are not going to be strong enough, and there is no gentler way to remove a gel manicure.  Soaking weak, brittle nails in acetone and then peeling them off is a no good, very bad idea.  And coating them in polish can actually prevent healing.

To rehab shredded nails, you need to keep them trimmed short to protect them from breakage.  It will take weeks to get them back to their pre-wrecked shape, but your patience will be rewarded.

First, moisturize your nail bed with Essie Apricot Cuticle Oil.  And keep your hands and nails hydrated with a strong hand cream.  I like J.R. Watkins Cuticle Salve for hydrating and healing my nails.

Second, take extreme measures.  Buy a pair of moisturizing gloves and sleep in them.  For a less-expensive option, try Earth Therapeutics.  The gloves use the heat from your hands to intensify your lotion’s hydrating effects.

If the gloves will interfere with your nocturnal activities (name the movie!), Ciate makes a paint on Overnight Nail Mask that rehabs nails.

Third, paint on a nail strengthener like Sally Hansen Nail Growth Miracle.  Orly’s Nailtrition is another great choice for reviving brittle nails.

Fourth, heal from the inside out.  Prenatal vitamins or a multi-vitamin with extra biotin for hair and nail growth will help your nails bounce back faster.

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  1. Em says:

    Sweet Ocean’s 11 reference!

  2. K says:

    try Nailtique formula 2. You can get it at the drugstore and it’s a tiny bottle, but it works miracles. it can slightly burn, but really makes your nails strong. The slight pain is worth it. I use it before my base coat regularly now.

  3. Monica says:

    For a very very short time in my 20s I got fake nails at a salon, was pretty cool until I had them removed and my nails were totally in pieces underneath. Never again.

  4. Melissa says:

    I get gel manicures, but it is a time and financial commitment. I am very rough with my nails and they are naturally weak, so for me it is totally worth it to spend an hour and $40 every two weeks. And I don’t usually have the time to sit and give myself a mani for an hour and let it dry for an hour once a week. I think they are great, but you have to keep up with it.

  5. Liz says:

    Most nail salons soften the polish with an acetone soak and then SCRAPE and FILE the rest of the polish off. It makes me cringe just to think about. But I once had a tech tell me “blame the fools, not the tools.” Basically, the scraping and filing (which is done to save time) is what really wrecks your nails (in addition to the filing most salons do BEFORE application to increase adhesion). Moisture loss is easier to fix (paraffin and oil soaks!) than the damage done by manually gouging your nail beds. I have naturally weak brittle nails that tear and peal, so I love how strong gel makes my nails but have to be careful about application and removal. I started doing them myself so I could control the process, and I found that you can actually paint your nails with regular polish and then just use a gel topcoat for that long lasting ultra strong finish. A quick 5 minute acetone soak takes the top layer off and I can use a gentler remover for everything underneath. LIFE CHANGING. I also recommend a “ruby stone” nail file, which you saw back and forth across your nails and it seals the tips instead of tearing them up (another nail tech recommendation). Good luck on your nail rehab!!

    • Allison says:

      Get tips, thanks

    • Heidi says:

      While I’m sure you’re completely right, that acetone only is a gentler way to remove I have some evidence to counter the fact that it’s the removal that leaves nails brittle. My nails are naturally so repellent (I guess, oily) that even a gel manicure (whether the nail has been roughened before or not) only lasts about 5 days with me. After I can just pull the gel off in one piece => no acetone or physical exertion required. However, my nails are still much weaker after.
      Now I read, that nail polish drying out nails due to the sealing off is a myth as your nails don’t actually have pores to breathe, but whatever the underlying cause, that’s been my experience. I now save the gel manicures for “occasion weekends away” and take it off the day after the event.

  6. Alli says:

    I love the long-lasting and shiny finish of gel manicures like everyone else, but the damage done to my nails is only worth it to me for major events (e.g., like being IN a wedding, not merely AT a wedding). A typical at-home mani for me lasts 3-4 days if I reapply polish. I do use a keyboard daily, but for me it’s more the chronic hand-washing and lotion application that dulls the shine. I HATE waiting for a traditional topcoat to dry and the fast-dry formulas aren’t as shiny or long-lasting.

    I tried Sally Hansen Miracle Gel (no UV light needed) color polish and coordinating topcoat for a while. My results were fine; the colors were saturated though some neutrals were a tad streaky. The topcoat sealed the color well and an at-home mani would last about 4-5 days without any chipping. The shine would start to wear off after day 2, so I’d reapply the topcoat. It didn’t take any extra work to remove with a standard nail polish remover.

    I tried Essie Gel Setter on a whim, and I’m a total convert. I love that I can use it with any standard Essie polish, so unlike Sally or OPI, I don’t have to buy separate polishes for different applications. The formula is a bit thick, which gives it a gel-like finish instead of simply a gloss on top of your color. It dries completely in 10 minutes (usually a bit sooner) and it lasts me a solid 4 days before I feel like I need to reapply the topcoat. It’s about $10 at Target, CVS, Walgreens, etc.

  7. K says:

    I’m not sure about gel mani’s, but I’ve been getting ANC for the past couple of months (a kind of acrylic colored powder/liquid spread on top of your actual nail) and in between replacements my nails seem super healthy and strong. So far so good – I haven’t heard any horror stories yet! Eventually I want to switch back to normal mani’s, so the advice here is really helpful!

  8. Yael says:

    I get Shellac manicures from an amazing nail tech who is CND certified and have never had problems with her removal process. Crappier places that I have tried don’t cure the gel properly to begin with, making it harder to remove. Now I only go to certified techs (they’ll cost more, but leave my nails stronger) and do my own removal to save money. I rough up the surface of the gel, put cotton pads with regular nail polish on them, and cover them with foil for 10 minutes. The gel flakes off easily. No scraping. No soaking. Get someone who knows what they are doing, and your nails will be happy!

  9. Addie says:

    I’ve had an acrylic overlay on my natural nails for over 4 years now. Last week two of them lifted so much that they popped off. I discovered that my natural nails were super strong (which they aren’t if left to their own devices) and once I buffed off a little leftover acrylic, they looked like normal healthy nails.

    • Anna says:

      Is that different than regular acrylics? I remember growing up hearing about your nails being filed down to super thin for acrylics.

      • Jenn S. says:

        An overlay just means no tip or form is used. It’s basically just putting acrylic on top of the natural nail without enhancing length.

        A lot of places use dremels to sand the natural nail down. Go to a place that will hand-buff the shine away (which is ALL that is nailed for an enhancement application; the cheap places lie).

  10. B says:

    I’m a gel manicure regular, and I love whoever above said “blame the fools, not the tools.” My nails naturally grow slowly and aren’t that strong and I absolutely hate painting my nails myself. To me, gel is a godsend, and I get about 3 weeks out of every mani.

    I go to what most would see as a “cheap nail place”, but the place is super clean, well organized and the techs are phenomenal. They rough up the nail really, really well pre-soak. Like, using a file to take 90% of the top layer off before soaking the nail. Then if a simple swipe doesn’t take it off, they put the pad back on instead of scraping.

    Bottom line though is that they’re your nails, its your money, and you need to be sure to communicate with your tech if you don’t like what they’re doing. If they start scraping, nicely ask them to stop and put the pad back on for a couple minutes longer. If your tech doesn’t speak great english, the manager usually does and can explain. I’ve always found that they’ve very motivated to accommodate preferences, they want you to become a repeat customer! If they don’t accommodate you, run, don’t walk.

    • saramel says:

      I agree wholeheartedly with this. Gel helped me grow out a bad removal experience. When taken off properly my nails are just fine afterward.

  11. Jenn S. says:

    Another tip – dish gloves. Seriously! It can sound so, “old lady,” but I’ve been wearing dish gloves to wash dishes and do household cleaning tasks since I flew the coop. Absolutely worth it.

    I do my own gel manicures at home. It sounds like your manicurist was overzealous and filed your nails down too long. Take Belle’s advice. Wait it out (it sucks, I know!). This cheap Sally Hansen base https://www.sallyhansen.com/nails/nail-care/strength-growth/triple-strong is decent for the tough waiting period.

  12. Jessica says:

    I LOVE getting gel manicures and used to get them regularly. The first time I had them redone and go through the process of the person scraping off my polish and digging up my nails was horrifying. after that, i started to remove them myself with an acetone soak at home. they do the digging part to save time but boy it gouged up my nails so bad that i had no other choice but to get another manicure to cover it up while i figured out removal options.

  13. Leila says:

    “Blame the fools, not the tools,” isn’t just a genius line for nail salons… it’s pretty much applicable for anything. THANK YOU.

    Another long-lasting polish to try are those strips by Sally Hansen, Essie, etc. I’ve found that if you apply the strips according to the directions, they are incredibly difficult to chip and remove. But if you don’t… then they peel off in sheets, so buyer beware. Also they can dry out so I think you have to buy ones that are newer. But they may help in a pinch.

    Additionally, I had a great nail technician tell me the way to make your gel last longer is a regular application of cuticle oil, morning and night. Or just once a day if that’s all your time allows for. I found not only did it work, but it also helped make my nails much healthier than otherwise.

    Also I love Orly’s “Color Amp’d” topcoat and use it on my nails now. It also has some sort of bizarre quick-drying element to it I haven’t been able to figure out yet. I found it gave my regular nail polish a few more days of life.

  14. Heather says:

    I had the same experience, after only having a gel manicure ONE time. I will never do it again. I used duri nail strengthener religiously for about 3 weeks and it was a miracle. If you want long lasting nail polish, try CND’s 10 day polish, which isn’t gel, but longer lasting. I get a good 10-14 days out of it. Good luck!

  15. Dallas says:

    They can steam the gel off and it’s much better for your nails. Find a high quality salon or spa who uses LED not UV and steam not the foil and scrape method.

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