This Seemingly Harmless Habit Can Be Even Worse For Your Nails Than Biting (2024)

This Seemingly Harmless Habit Can Be Even Worse For Your Nails Than Biting (1)

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Picture this: Your manicure is on its last legs, and your knee-jerk reaction is to start picking it off. Sure, it may seem like you’re just getting rid of unsightly nail polish, but really, your nails are suffering — perhaps even more than they would from biting.

“Think of your nails as a notepad, and imagine that each time you pick off your polish, you’re tearing pages out of the notepad,” said Los Angeles-based manicurist Vanessa Sanchez McCullough with the nail brand CND.


Here’s what experts want you to know about picking off nail polish.

How Are Nails Structured?

First, let’s look at how nails are structured. The nail plate is the hard, keratinized structure composed of layers of nail cells, or onychocytes — and this is what most people refer to as “the nail,” said Dr. Dana Stern, a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of nail care brand Dr. Dana.

Then there’s the nail bed, a soft-tissue structure under the nail plate that carries a rich supply of nerves and blood. The “root” of the nail is called the nail matrix. It’s known as the nail-producing center and includes the lunula, the partially visible half-moon at the base of the nail plate. Finally, the cuticles are directly over the nail matrix and serve as a protective seal that prevents moisture and infections from entering the nail unit, Stern explained.

Why You Shouldn’t Pick Off Your Nail Polish

It may be difficult to resist the urge to pick off your nail polish, but McCullough said that this habit is one of the easiest ways to damage your nails. “I have experienced clients who think they are peeling just polish, but in fact are peeling chunks of their natural nail, leaving the nail bed exposed,” she explained. Not only can this be painful, but exposed nail beds can also make the nails more vulnerable to environmental conditions that might cause further damage.

Stern agreed, adding that when you apply nail polish, it adheres to the top layers of nail cells, which can already be fragile and prone to peeling and sloughing. “When nail polish is picked off, these top layers of onychocytes can also be inadvertently removed along with the polish, leaving the nail with an uneven surface and white patches called keratin granulations,” she said. Though keratin granulations aren’t inherently harmful, they are a sign of dehydration, and treatment may require you to take a break from nail polish in general.


What’s more, picking off nail polish can cause a condition called onycholysis, in which the nail plate separates from the nail bed. “I have seen women cause onycholysis because the repetitive peeling is traumatic to the nail,” said McCullough. “The nail then needs to be cut back short, and it can be really painful.”

In addition to removing the superficial layers of nail cells and leading to surface irregularities, the nail plate can thin out over time if the picking is continuous and chronic. “Thinned-out nails no longer have any structure,” warned McCullough. “They will likely snag on the simplest things, like socks, shirts or your hair, and you’ll likely have to keep your nails trimmed short to avoid this from happening.”

That’s not all. Picking off nail polish can cause your nail beds to appear red and can lead to sensitivities to both hot and cold temperatures, said McCullough, explaining that it also prevents longevity with gel manicures since gel polish works best on healthy nails.

This Seemingly Harmless Habit Can Be Even Worse For Your Nails Than Biting (2)

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Does It Matter What Type Of Nail Polish You Pick Off?

“Traditional nail polish is a bit less damaging to pick off because there’s less adhesion compared to gel polish,” McCullough said.


Gel base coats, in particular, are formulated to adhere to the keratin in the natural nails and remain until they’re properly removed with acetone. That’s why gel polishes are well loved for being long-lasting.

So if you pick off a gel polish, you’re likely picking off pieces of your nail that are firmly bonded to the base coat — which is a recipe for onycholysis.

What To Do If You Picked Off Your Nail Polish

It’s unlikely that your nails are forever doomed if you had one bad episode of peeling off polish. But if you’re engaging in the habit repetitively, it can become an issue. “Each time you pick, you’re peeling off layers of your nail plate, and there are only so many layers to work with,” said Stern.

It’s important to give your nails time to recover, and this will vary depending on the severity of the damage. Stern explained that keratin granulations typically grow out as the nail regrows, usually over a few weeks. But keep in mind that toenails have a much slower growth rate than fingernails and may need months to recover.

If your nails are damaged as a result of peeling off nail polish, there are some at-home remedies to consider. One is exfoliation. “When your skin is dry and peeling, you reach for the nearest loofah or brush to exfoliate the dead cells — the same concept is true of the nail,” Stern said. “If you were to look at a peeling, picked-at nail under the microscope, you would see that the nail cells are detached, lifted and separating.” Reaching for a nail exfoliation product can help expedite recovery.


Cuticle oils can also be a big help since nails, like hair, are less prone to breakage if they’re properly conditioned. “Keeping your nail plate and cuticles conditioned will promote healthy nail growth and help keep the nails looking and feeling better,” McCullough said.

Finally, give your nails a breather from any polish. “It’s always a good idea to let the nails recover before jumping back into nail cosmetics,” said Stern, who also recommended wearing gloves when using home cleaners or washing dishes to prevent further dehydration and damage.

Need to give your nails a break? Try these strengthening products as your nails are restored back to health.

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The 'First Aid Kiss' nail hardener

This elephant-themed nail hardener is more than just cute — it can also help strengthen and harden your nails, thanks to a unique vitamin E-enhanced formula. "This is the first time in my whole life that my nails are STRONG and LONG," an Amazon reviewer wrote. "I’m using this just as directed and people frequently asked me where Im getting my nails nails are so beautiful now that I don't need to go back to the nail salon. I will buy this again and AGAIN. No regrets!"


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Intensive therapy for your nails

Take your nail goals to the next level with Nail Tek's nail strengthener, which promises to strengthen nails and boost shine. Nail Tek uses a unique formation that seals the layer of the nail together while and repairing weak, damaged nails. "My nails were super thin and peeling from a few months of having a manicure/polish," an Amazon reviewer wrote. "I have used this stuff for the past couple of weeks and there is a noticeable difference in my nails. They are stronger, the peeling isn’t there, and I am less likely to pick at them with this clear coat on them. Awesome product."


A pretty pink formula that promises to strengthen nails

While this nail strengthener is pricier than others on the market, reviewers swear it's worth the money. "This is the only product I've found that really works to keep my nails from splitting and helps them grow as long as I want. I do keep my nails pretty short though," one customer wrote. "A good price for this size and even better with the auto delivery which is every 6 months......perfect timing for me."

This strengthening polish can also be used as a top coat or nail polish, and is formulated without harmful chemicals like parabens or phthalates.



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A keratin strengthener with almost 33,000 5-star reviews

For an inexpensive product that promises to help grow longer nails in just three days, consider this Nail-Aid keratin option. Keratin is the hardening protein that naturally occurs in our nails, so the keratin in this nail strengthener is easily absorbed into thin, peeling nails.

And according to the people who bought it, it works. "This product is absolutely amazing," one reviewer wrote. "I used the product as stated, two coats (which dried quickly) and then another coat the next day, and another coat 3 days later. Nails harden immediately, I normally have very soft nails, so if they grow any they break easily...My friends can't believe how long my nails have grown, I can't believe how long they have grown in 3 months."


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An organic strengthening formula you'll use again and again

Your nails will be instantly transformed when you use this "ridge-filling" nail polish, in the sense that they'll be shinier and healthier-looking — but they'll strengthen over time, too, thanks to natural ingredients like keratin and jojoba oil.

This nail strengthened also has almost 66,000 five-star review on Amazon. "I have HORRIBLE nails. Splitting, peeling, cracked," one reviewer wrote. "I don’t wear powders, gels or acrylics. Just really bad nails. I have been using this for 2 weeks and I have notice my nails have stopped splitting and the peeling is less...I will use up the bottle to see if it makes a huge difference but in 2 weeks I am happy."


A strengthening cream that promises to fortify your nails

Made with calcium, jojoba oil, and nail-strengthening vitamins, this nail strengthener absorbs deeply and quickly to repair weak, damaged nails. And reviewers say it works amazingly well. "I have always had soft nails that tear and just never get I saw [this] and gave it a try," one customer wrote. "Glad I did. All I do is rub it into the nail a few times a day. It provides a healthy looking natural shine as opposed to a gloss, and I prefer that. It says to get it under the nail too, so I open the small jar and dip my nails into so the underside gets the cream too."



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A classic nail strengthener that reviewers swear by

Sally Hansen's advanced nail hardener helps protect and strengthen nails while filling in ridges and giving them a shiny, healthy look. For stronger nails, 2-3 coats should be applied on bare nails, and be sure to let them dry in between.

"My nails don’t seem to grow to a point I notice but ever time I put this on it seems I have to quickly cut them cuz they grow [longer] than what I’m used to," one reviewer wrote. "It definitely works and I don’t understand how but it makes... nails so strong and long when using."


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An envy-inspiring nail strengthener

Popular polish brand OPI's Nail Envy uses vitamins A, E, C, biotin and calcium to help strengthen nails, and reviewers say it works wonders. "OPI Nail Envy stands out primarily for its quick-drying formula and the ability to apply multiple layers without compromising the finish," one reviewer wrote. "The fast drying time is a major plus. Impressively, despite adding several coats to strengthen and thicken the nails, the product maintains a smooth, glossy finish. Each layer applies seamlessly, enhancing rather than detracting from the overall appearance. This makes OPI Nail Envy not only a practical choice for nail strengthening but also ensures nails look polished and professional, layer after layer. It's an ideal solution for anyone seeking to fortify their nails without sacrificing aesthetics."


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An advanced vegan nail strengthener from Essie

This clinically tested formula from Essie promises to strengthen and hydrate damaged nails. It can also be used as a top coat or nail polish, and it uses a vegan formula customers love.

"Bought this nail polish due to my natural nails being very thin and weak after many years are wearing acrylic nails," one reviewer wrote. "After a couple of weeks using this product, I’ve noticed my nails are getting feeling thicker and stronger. Highly recommend this product.



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A moisturizing formula enriched with calcium

With keratin, aloe vera, calcium, collagen and more nourishing ingredients, this water-based formula promises to deliver results in 5-7 days — simply apply it to your nail and cuticles up to twice daily for best results, according to the brand. “After several years of trying to get my peeling/breaking nails stronger after abusing them at nail salons, I now have extremely strong nails and they look wonderful naturally,” wrote a reviewer.

This Seemingly Harmless Habit Can Be Even Worse For Your Nails Than Biting (2024)
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