There has been much discussion lately on the subject of nails “taking a break” or “breathing”. Are we smothering our nails with enhancements and polish? ‘Natural nails’ are very popular right now, and that begs the question of whether or not natural is the best or healthiest way to go. To answer this question, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of the nail and our biology at work!
Image Credit: AAPC
First, we need to know a bit about how nails grow. According to Doug Schoon -who is probably the foremost scientist and researcher of all things nails and nail enhancements, and nail-industry educator – they grow from the nail matrix. The matrix produces these nail plate cells in rows, front to back, and many of these rows lay side-by-side to form the nail plate. ” Each row of newly made nail plate cells is slowly pushed upward and slightly forward by rows of even newer nail cells created from below, which are also being pushing upward as they are made by the matrix.” Therefore, the shape, curvature, width and thickness of the nail plate are all controlled by the matrix below.
It’s important to note that all the blood and nutrients are provided to the matrix from within, via the circulatory system of the body. The better your circulation, the more nutrients that will come from your blood, and the faster your nails grow. Efficient circulation explains why our nails grow faster in the summertime and when we are younger.
Second, fingernails and toenails, as well as hair and your top layer of skin, are made of layers of keratin. As your fingernails grow upwards and forwards, the cells actually die. This, of course, is why it doesn’t hurt to get a haircut or to trim and file the free edge or your nail.
Finally, it is believed that only water and oils with smaller molecules will penetrate the layers of nail keratin. Similarly, there is debate about what or how much can be absorbed through the skin, though we do have some research showing that skin health might be enhanced by topical application of micronutrients to the skin.
By putting this all together – that 1) the nail grows upwards and forwards, 2) blood and nutrients are provided to the matrix by your circulating blood, and 3) the rows of keratin cells are dead – we can draw some conclusions:
- You cannot “revive” dead nail cells by applying products. However, if you apply a carrier oil with certain micronutrients to the nails and surrounding skin, some micronutrients may penetrate to the matrix and epidermis, thus improving general nail health. This is the idea behind cuticle oils. Additionally, some oils provide a protective layer that assists the epidermis in retaining moisture already in the skin.
- Applying or manipulating products on the upper layers of keratin, which are simply dead cells, may break them down or wear them away over time. This is why your nails seem to be “damaged” by nail products.
- Additionally, some chemicals, such as acetone, remove moisture from the top nail or skin layers, resulting in the dehydrated, “dry” nail or cuticle.
- Properly applied and removed nail enhancements will not damage your nails.
- Internal factors including aging, hormones, stress, and medications, and wear and tear on nails and the surrounding skin, external factors, can both affect your nails’ appearance. Therefore, proper nutrition is essential for maintaining healthy nails (and overall health!).
In short, nails do not need to breathe. “One hundred percent of the oxygen needed by the nail matrix to create a new nail plate comes from the bloodstream, and zero percent comes from the outside world,” according to Doug Schoon. “Nothing is gained by removing artificial nail enhancements or coatings for a few months before reapplying them.”
However, taking a break from nail products will allow time for new nails cells to grow upwards and forwards and, therefore, they will appear healthier after a few weeks of going bare. This is especially true if you apply oils daily and wear gloves when cleaning, gardening, etc.
If you are not used to going bare for so long, and would like a thin coat of polish to create a shiny yet natural-looking nail, there are many products from companies like Gelish, OPI, Orly and Zoya that you can try. Just keep in mind that calling these polishes “breathable” is more of a marketing term than any health claim.
I have used Strength VitaGel by Gelish when taking a few days off from gel polish (usually because I just didn’t have time to do anything fancy). For me it didn’t last as long as Gelish gel polish… only a couple days really. This should be considered a “treatment”, and I don’t recommend applying Gelish gel polish over it (though you can if you want).
In the end, if you like the product, I say go for it! Don’t stress over the marketing jargon if you love the look or application of a treatment. You are an informed consumer who knows that nails don’t actually breathe!