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How do I help clients whose nails are frequently in water?

December 26, 2012

I have a few clients who swim or do water aerobics a few times a week. They have a lot of trouble with keeping polish on and their nails becoming dry. They peel and split. Is there anything I can do, or tell them to do, to help this problem? So far I have just told them to apply cuticle oil every night before bed to try to hydrate the nails.

Answer

Frequent exposure to water definitely contributes to peeling and splitting (brittle nails). This is because the nails can absorb water even more readily than the skin and when water goes in and out of the nails, the small cells that make up the nail (onychocytes) expand and contract. This constant change in water content puts a tremendous strain on the bonds between these cells and results in a weakening of the nail, which is what we observe when we see peeling and splitting. Swimming and water aerobics are great exercise and your clients should certainly continue to enjoy these activities. They should, however, be sure to wear gloves for added protection when doing additional wet work such as washing dishes. Nail polish is actually protective for those who swim because it helps to reinforce the weak bonds between the cells within the nail. Your clients’ nails may be worse without polish.

— Dana Stern, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in nails. She works in private practice in New York City.

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