All The Ways To Longer, Stronger, Healthier Nails, By The Experts

Photographed by Elena Mudd.
Thanks to TikTok trends like hand and nail slugging, not to mention our unwavering affinity for nail art, looking after your nails is no longer an afterthought. Dermatologists and manicurists will argue that your nails are just as worthy of a routine as your skin and hair.
You might apply hand cream diligently but that doesn't mean you won't encounter any gripes. Factors such as diet, your occupation, lifestyle and even the weather have the ability to affect nails negatively. So if they won't grow past a certain length without breaking, or you've noticed that they've taken on an unsightly yellow tinge, you've come to the right place.
We asked a handful of experts to answer some of the most commonly searched nail-related queries of the past few months. Here's everything you need to know about achieving your healthiest natural nails ever.

Why are my nails splitting down the centre?

Picture the scene. You've spent weeks growing your nails only to notice a faint white line appear down the centre of the tip. One wrong move could split your nail in two. Cue inevitable snagging (shudder) and having to start again from scratch. So what's going on? "Nails tend to split down the centre when the nail has become dry and brittle," explains nail and beauty expert Leighton Denny MBE. "The nail lacks the necessary moisture so it becomes stiff, has little flexibility and snaps, breaks and splits easily."
There are a few causes. "Firstly, overusing harsh, stripping products on your hands like hand sanitiser can cause nails to become dry, brittle and prone to splitting," says Leighton. However, he adds, the most common cause of nail splitting is water. Session manicurist Ami Streets agrees and says that soaking your nails or spending too long in water (like constantly washing your hands or doing household chores) significantly weakens them.
Leighton suggests always wearing rubber gloves when washing up or doing chores, but moisturising is key. This is especially true in dry, winter weather says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Hextall at Tarrant Street Clinic. "Weather like this will affect moisture in our hands and this can affect nails. Applying a rich layer of moisturiser to hands overnight, as well as oil to the nail and surrounding cuticle, will help."
If you're doing this but the splitting shows no sign of letting up, the damage to your nails could be a result of persistent application of harsh products such as varnishes, gels and extensions, or contact with household products, says Dr Hextall. The short solution? Give your nails a break from all of the above and moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.
That said, brittle nails and splitting can be an indication of a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis (yes, they can affect nails!) or a nutritional deficit, explains Dr Hextall, so it might be a good idea to visit your GP for a check-up and a blood test if it's really bothering you.

Why are my nails yellow?

Ami explains that yellow staining on the nail can occur for a number of reasons but it's mainly due to using strongly pigmented polishes for a prolonged period of time. Certain colours (think vampy reds and other darker hues) are particular culprits. Before painting your nails, swipe on a layer of base coat, like Barry M Green Origin Base & Top Coat, £3.99, to prevent the colour from seeping through.
To get rid of the yellow staining, Leighton suggests using the Trio 3 in 1 Buffer, £6, to exfoliate and remove light discolouration. Follow with Nail Illuminator, £14, which Leighton says is a nude nail polish and treatment in one. "You can also use one coat of Nail Illuminator as a base coat before applying nail colour, which will treat the nails and prevent staining in the future."
Ami says that new nail growth should not be discoloured. "If the damage hasn't been caused by varnish dyes, the discolouration means there may be an underlying issue such as an infection, nail fungus, allergic reaction or another illness."
The most common cause of yellow nails is a fungal nail infection (medically known as onychomycosis), says Dr Hextall. Though difficult to diagnose, she adds, she has seen some success when treated with an anti-fungal varnish — if the infection is caught early. "This is most commonly seen on toenails, however," says Dr Hextall. "There are often other associated changes with fungal nail infections, including a thickening and splitting of the nail plate. It's uncommon for all nails to be affected with infection, though, so if all nails are involved it may be another cause, for example psoriasis."
Again, a GP (or a dermatologist if your budget stretches) will be able to take a closer look for you.

Why are my nails flaking?

Much like splitting, nails that peel and flake can be a result of dryness and dehydration, explain Leighton and Dr Hextall. A quick fix is ensuring your hands and nails are treated daily with moisturisers and oils, says Dr Hextall, but forgoing nail treatments such as gels and acrylics can help, too. Invest in a gentle nail polish remover, like Cutex Ultra-Caring Nail Polish Remover, £2.99, as Ami says that picking off polish could damage nails and make them brittle. Often, a layer of your nail will come off with the polish, whether it's a simple varnish or a gel.
Leighton says you might also be using a harsh nail file, which could be weakening your nails. He suggests investing in a strong glass nail file like the Crystal Nail File, £13 (also an R29 favourite), which not only files seamlessly but – most importantly for thin, weak, dry nails – seals the ends of the nails. "This helps with any splitting and peeling, while also preventing any water getting in. This can cause further dehydration – weakening nails," says Leighton. Finish with a moisturising serum like Active Build Treatment Serum, £14, which boasts keratin (which nails are made of naturally) as well as calcium and moisturising vitamin E and argan oil.
On a deeper level, Dr Hextall says that our nails can reflect underlying deficiencies such as iron. "It is important to have a diet rich in important vitamins and minerals for nail health such as B vitamins like biotin, as well as calcium, vitamin D and oils such as omega 3," says Dr Hextall.

Why are my nails ridged?

You may spot two types of ridges, explain Ami and Dr Hextall: vertical and horizontal. "Vertical ridges are very common," says Ami, "and are usually due to harmless factors such as ageing." Dr Hextall says this is normal as we get older, as the cells which renew the nail plate are less effective.
Horizontal ridges are different. Firstly, they may be caused by trauma or inflammation, for example picking or biting the skin around the base of the nail, like the cuticle area, says Dr Hextall. Damage here might result in ridges or bumps when the nail grows out. If it bothers you, try essie Nail Care Smooth-E Nail Polish Base Coat Ridge Filler, £8.99, and treat cuticles to a glug of cuticle oil nightly to moisturise the skin and ensure you're less likely to pick at any loose bits.
Horizontal ridges may also be referred to as Beau's lines, says Dr Hextall. "They can be an indication of an underlying illness and can be seen as an important medical sign or clue. When we are very ill (for example with pneumonia, autoimmune diseases or treated with strong drugs such as chemotherapy) we may see the development of Beau's lines afterwards." Dr Hextall explains that these horizontal lines grow out once your health is back to normal. 

How can I get longer, stronger nails — and stop my nails breaking?

The best way to strengthen nails and boost their growth is to keep them nourished and hydrated, says Ami. She believes that cuticle oil is the single most important product for improving and maintaining your nails. Try Leighton Denny Renovate Cuticle Oil, £14, Revolution Nourish & Care Cuticle Oil, £5, or Boots 8-in-1 Recovery Oil, £6. "Not only does cuticle oil immediately work to moisturise and banish dry skin with its reparative ingredients but it keeps nails supple and flexible, which helps to strengthen and also stimulates new growth." Ami says a massaging movement enhances its effects, while Leighton says you can never over-moisturise your nails.
Dr Hextall agrees that hand care is important. "If the skin on your hands becomes dry, irritated and inflamed, this can have an effect on your nails. I recommend rich hand cream under cotton gloves and then adding a rubber glove to protect the hands further," says Dr Hextall. "This helps to seal the skin around the nail plate and it stops the area from becoming damp and vulnerable to infections."
Sitting in rubber gloves isn't particularly practical so Dr Hextall suggests an overnight treatment. "Apply an emollient hand moisturiser containing soothing and hydrating ingredients such as glycerin, panthenol, allantoin, shea butter and ceramides." R29 loves No7 Beautiful Skin Nourishing Hand & Nail Cream, £9.95, CeraVe Reparative Hand Cream, £6.50, and La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Mains Repairing Hand Cream, £7.49. And if you're in a rush? "Remember to rub any excess facial moisturiser onto your hands and nails before bed when doing your skincare routine," advises Dr Hextall.
Your nail shape matters, too, says Ami. "Short, smooth and snag-free nails in a natural, rounded shape help to reinforce strength and structure to prevent any breakage or chipping." Like Leighton, Ami suggests using a glass nail file rather than something scratchy.  
Lastly, Leighton says you can also make small changes to your diet and daily habits. "Increase your water intake, incorporate more leafy green vegetables into your diet and try to get at least seven hours of sleep a night," he concludes.
If you're concerned about the condition of your nails and it's getting you down or generating worry, visit your GP or a dermatologist for professional support and advice.
Refinery29's selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission. Transparency is important to us at Refinery29, if you have any questions please reach out to us.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series