Nail & Skin Disorders

Turning Irregular Nails Into Beauties

Problem nail challenge a technician’s skills, but the reward is professional satisfaction for the technician and boosted self-esteem for clients.

A nail technician makes her living by enhancing the appearance of her clients’ natural nails. The task can be relatively easy when the nails are in good shape, but what do you do when client comes to the salon with scoop nails, claw or club nails, or another nail malformation?

Often, this client is embarrassed by her hands. “Your hands are out in public view, just like your face,” explains Jackie Willoughby, president of Keren-Happuch Ltd. in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a paramedical cosmetics company, “I don’t know who doesn’t talk with her hands. No one wants her hands singled out. People want their nails to look like anyone else’s. and when the nails look better, the person feels better.”

The challenge for the nail technician is to determine how to make the nails more attractive. You can make irregular nails look more natural once you know the cause of the irregularity and what you can and can’t do with your products.


Illness, injury, or chemical exposure can cause the nails to change in appearance. Take a look at all 10 of your client’s nails. Is the problem on just a few nails or all 10?

“Any time a deformity occurs in all nails, it’s a sign of internal infection or poor nutrition,” says Julie Clark, director of training at Volpe Nails in Endicott, New York. “If it’s a severe case, I have the client talk it over with a doctor before getting her nails done. Usually if it’s severe, they’re already seeing a physician and didn’t know the deformity was caused by their condition. Our hands and nails tell a lot about us. If it’s one or two fingers, I’ll ask them if they use chemicals or harsh detergents in their work.”

Sometimes the technician can help the nails’ appearance while the doctor takes care of the underlying condition. “We had a client with cancer who had thick, opaque spoon nails, and who was seeing a doctor,” says Clark. “With doctoring and an acrylic correction, her nails began to look natural. It’s cosmetic on our end; the doctor takes care of the internal problem.”

When an injury causes the deformity, be sure the finger isn’t sore and that there’s no open wound before beginning a manicure. “Any time any nails have a look of inflammation, such as redness, swelling, or peeling, you should send the client to a doctor,” says Donna Kohl, a nail technician at Hairmasters in Scottldale, Arizona. She suggested that you ask your client about the nail. “People know if they’ve had the problem all their lives or if they hit it,” she says.

Once you’ve determined that despite the deformity the nails is otherwise healthy or that the client is currently seeing a doctor who has approved cosmetic treatment, your next step is to decide how to improve the nail’s appearance.


Some technicians prefer to keep the nail natural. “If the deformity was just on one nail, I’d start out with a good manicure and a good enriching lotion, and work with it that way,” says Shirley Thomas, owner of Hair Port in Palmyra, Illinois. “I wouldn’t put a nail on it right away. My next step depends on the results of the natural nail care. If there was nothing wrong with the client, I might use a gel overlay just to make the nail look better.”


Koilonychias is marked by nail plates shaped like a scoop or a spoon. The nails grow upward at the free edge and may be rippled or thickened on the nail bed.

“Spoon or scoop nails are common in diabetics and in people with poor nutrition or anemia.” says Clark. Other causes of koilonychias are old age, chronic eczema, tumors, chronic infections, or chemical exposure. With a doctor’s permission, you can manicure these nails.

“The scoop nail has a tendency to go up at the edge,” says Clark. “We use sculptured acrylic to fix that. We clip the free edge and apply the form at a 5-degree downward angle. The concave area is filled with acrylic. We make the stress area very strong because the nail will resist it. The nail has to be monitored. Sometimes you’ll have to correct the free edge by clipping it again with new acrylic. It should be noted on the client’s card that there’s a problem.”

“Don’t use a tip or wrap because it will look false or unattractive,” adds Khol. “Normally a tip will not fit perfectly on a scoop nail.”


“Onychogryposis comes in two forms. One of them is a claw nail, which has a high arch in the nail. The other is a club nail, which is flat and wide, with the free edge curving around the finger,” says Clark. :If it’s one or two nails, the condition may be related to injuries – a smashed finger or a pinched nail matrix. Or it could just be how the client’s body formed itself. The correction is to use acrylics and put the form on a little flat. Try to get just a 5-degree angle.

“I’ve seen mostly mild cases, but I have seen one case where the tip of the finger was cut off in a machine.’ continues Clark. “Here the nail immediately curled over the edge. We have to correct it every time, but it makes it look much better. When you correct it, you get a thick stress area but you can thin the edge so it looks more natural.”

Extreme onychogryposis from an injury can make the nail thick and ridgy. By smoothing the area gently and applying a thin layer of acrylic, it’s possible to correct the angle. A client who is athletic, however, may do better with a natural manicure.

“For eggshell nails or claw nails, a natural works well,” says Khol. “Keep them short. If a nail is thick, you can gently buff it down. There’s not a lot you can do, but you can give the illusion of looking clean and neat. Or you can sculpture the nail. If it’s a soft, weak nail, the product will normally help keep the nail straight. But don’t put a false nail on a person who plays racquetball.”


A fragile nail may split vertically from the free edge toward the cuticle; this condition is called onychorrhexis. Severe splitting should be referred to a doctor, but mild cases may be alleviated with moisturizing treatments.

“Onychorrhexis, or a split nail, is usually caused by an injury,” explains Clark. “It’s a fragile nail that splits from the cuticle to the tip. Depending on the extent of the injury, you can put a nail on to protect it. Prep it lightly. The acrylic will keep the client from feeling  the pressure of the crack.”

Kohl feels a wrap helps in mild cases of onychorrhexis. “Often people pick at the nail. if you put a silk wrap on the spot, it makes them aware of the habit and helps them stop picking at it.”


Occasionally you’ll find a client with a crooked or short finger. You can adjust the length and shape of the nail to compensate for the deformity. “If a nail is crooked, you can use a false nail and give in the illusion of being straight.

We’re kind of magicians in a way,” says Kohl. “If the finger is short, you can vary the length. If the nail on the short finger is longer and the one next to it is shorter, it gives the illusion that it’s the normal length.” 

“A crooked finger can be made to look straighter if you sculpt a nail in line with the finger,” says Clark. If it’s shorter, you can sculpt it the same as other nails. Just having nails will make it look longer. I might play with the shape to make it elongated. It depends on which nails is shorter.”



“Beau’s Lines are wavy lines across the nail plate,” explains Clark. “They suggest internal problems. The condition doesn’t interfere with the nail service unless it’s so bad it splits or cracks the nail. Pregnancy can cause it because of the hormone changes that affect the nail matrix. Heart disease or alcoholism can cause Beau’s Lines on all 10 nails, and they won’t go away until the cause is emotional shock or pregnancy, you’ll see the lines in one or two nails and then it’ll grow out. As long as it’s a mild case, you can go ahead and manicure the nails. I wouldn’t do it if the lines are deep and the nail is cracked. I’d send the client to a doctor.”


It’s as important to know what the products you use can and can’t do as it is to know when to send a client to a physician. For example, many acrylic products shouldn’t be applied to the skin. But some products are non-toxic and have been used successfully on skin. “We had one woman who had rheumatic fever when she was a baby,” says Clark. “She lost her nails and hair. There were pits where her nails should have been. We put the product on her skin and made artificial nails for her. Our president, Maureen Volpe, even placed in a competition because of the difficulty of the nails.”

Kohl discourages the use of acrylics on skin, because the chemicals may be harmful and may not adhere properly due to the skin’s natural oils. When in doubts, ask a doctor.

It’s a good idea to develop a relationship with a physician, says Kohl. “You can go in to a professional and ask to consult with her,” she says. “Doctors don’t usually know much about nails, but they have a background in infections. You can also go to a dermatologist or a podiatrist.”

Educate your client so that she can take better care of her nails, especially if you choose to give her natural manicures. “Usually when you explain nail care and they see your point of view, they reason that a natural manicure will help them,” says Thomas. “I work with these people and get them on a good home maintenance program.”

When you make an unattractive nail look more natural, you’re giving your client more than healthier, better-looking nails. The client will feel a surge of self-esteem that is bound to give you, in turn, a sense of achievement. In addition, you’ll have a faithful client. It’s worth taking the time to learn how you can improve a problem nail.

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