When clients complain that their natural nails aren’t strong enough your first inclination may be to reach for a bottle of nail strengthener. But if you give them the wrong type of product you might create problems for your clients and yourself in the long run. Beef up your natural nail knowledge so you can help your clients beef up their nails.


The Nitty Gritty

First, a short lesson in nail chemistry. The nail plate is made of keratin strands that make it tough and durable, so it resists breaking and cracking. Acting like rungs on a ladder, cross-links between the keratin strands lend the keratin its considerable toughness. The cross-links join individual keratin strands into a tough, web-like structure — the result being nails that are tough, strong, and have hard surfaces. These same type of cross-links can be found in hair, but there are many more in the nail plate.


“Natural nails with too few cross-links are weak, flimsy, and have soft surfaces,” says Doug Schoon, director of research and development at Creative Nail Design. “Nail plates with excessive amounts of cross-linking will have very hard surfaces, but will be brittle, rigid, and prone to splitting or breaking. Clearly a proper balance of cross-links is best.”


Nails that split, peel, and crack are usually the result of dehydrated nail plates. “The average amount of moisture in a normal nail plate is 18%,” explains Richard Scher, M.D., professor of dermatology and head of the section for diagnosis and treatment of nail disorders at Columbia University-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. “When moisture dips below this level, the nails become brittle.”


“The repeated wetting and drying of nails causes them to expand and contract, expand and contract,” points out Schoon. “This creates a stress on the nail plate, and each time a nail is subjected to the stress, it becomes a bit weaker. Eventually, the weakened nail will crack.”


Though dehydration can stem from a wide variety of sources — from health conditions to external factors — it’s safe to assume that a client’s brittle nails are likely caused by such things as excessive handwashing, wet work, or exposure to moisture- and oil-sapping chemicals.


Nails in Need

Knowing the difference between weak, soft nails and brittle, fragile nails is crucial in finding the right remedy. Soft, weak nails need what is known in the industry as nail strengthener or nail hardener. These same nail treatments will make brittle nails notably worse.


Brittle nails are treated with moisture treatments and protective coatings. Keep nail strengtheners far, far away from brittle nails! (For more information on brittle nails see “Just Add Water” in our August 2002 issue.)


To help differentiate between brittle nails and flimsy nails, Sue Irwin, an educator and the national sales and marketing manager for Poshé, gives these hints: Weak, flimsy nails “lacking in protein [or cross-links] will tear, leaving a rough edge,” she explains. “While a brittle nail, lacking in moisture, will snap on impact, leaving a smooth edge.”


When a client complains of needing stronger nails, carefully examine her nails before proceeding. “Natural nail care is a constant process of evaluating the condition of the nails and adjusting products and services to compensate for these changes,” says Irwin.


Determine if she has been using a nail strengthener or has her hands in water or harsh detergents all day. Ask her about her nail care regimen. Using acetone-based products on already dehydrated nails makes a bad problem worse. Certain medications can cause nail-related irregularities. In short, learn as much as you can about a client’s “weak” nails before suggesting a plan of attack.

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