There are various reasons why nails become weak, cracked, brittle and prone to breakage. Genetics, diet, pregnancy, medication and existing health conditions can all cause your nails to weaken.
But the most common culprit is lack of adequate hydration. Exposure to household chemicals, spending time outdoors and lack of hydration rob nails of the moisture they need to remain strong and healthy.
One way to re-strengthen your nails is by using a nail strengthener. There are three types: nail hydrators (also called nail strengtheners), nail hardeners and nail softeners. Let’s look at each of them.
These are the most common types of nail strengtheners and as the name suggest, they work by hardening the feel and texture of the nail. They are best for people with very weak or brittle nails, either caused by genetics, illness or any other factor.
There are two types of nail hardeners which work differently to strengthen your nails.
Cross-linking hardeners work by re-connecting broken bonds in your nail. These broken bonds are one of the main causes of weakened nails. These types of hardeners contain ingredients that react with proteins in your nails.
The reaction results in a re-linking of broken protein bonds or chains, which strengthens the nails. Basically, the hardener works from the inside of your nail.
The two most common ingredients in cross-linking nail hardeners are formaldehyde and calcium.
Reinforcing hardeners work from the outside. They do not penetrate the nail plate. Instead, they contain ingredients that coat the outside of the nail. The nail feels smoother and becomes harder. They basically reinforce the natural structure of the nail.
Pros of Nail hardeners
- They work really well and fast in hardening nails. They are a great solution for those with extra-brittle nails.
- They are easy to apply.
Cons of Nail hardeners
- If applied too often, cross-linking hardeners can have the opposite of the intended effect. They can harden the nail plate too much and make it inflexible. This makes it more prone to breaking when it bends.
- Reinforcing hardeners on the other hand tend to chip easily and will usually need frequent re-application to keep the nail strong.
- The formaldehyde in cross-linking nail hardeners can be irritating to the skin around the nail. This is especially so if you have sensitive skin.
To avoid damage from nail hardeners, only use them as shown on the label. If your nails start breaking or cracking, stop using the product immediately. You won’t grow your nails in a week.
Nail hydrators (strengtheners)
Nail hydrators work by moisturising your nails. If you look at the ingredients list of a nail hydrator, you’ll see several moisturising ingredients such as olive oil, sunflower oil and bees wax.
They essentially reverse the drying effect that caused your nails to weaken in the first place.
Unlike a nail hardener which leaves the nail hard and smooth, a hydrator actually makes your nails more ‘bendy’. They become more flexible without breaking or cracking.
Because they contain plenty of hydrating ingredients, nail hydrators also moisturise the surrounding skin, making it look healthy and vibrant.
One way to tell the difference between a nail hydrator and nail harder is their appearance. Nail hardeners are clear and thin. Nail hydrators are creamy like a lotion or cream.
Pros of Nail hydrators
- Contains nourishing and moisturising ingredients that make the nail and skin look great.
- They contain no irritating or potentially harmful ingredients such as formaldehyde.
- There’s no risk in over-hardening your nails that they become brittle and weak.
- They are temporary. You often have to keep reapplying them to keep your nails strong.
- Not ideal for very weak or brittle nails.
Nail hydrators are great for those with mild to average nail weakness and don’t mind having to keep reapplying the nail hydrator.
While they can help strengthen nails, nail softeners are technically not nail strengtheners. Instead, they are used to soften nails before clipping or a manicure/pedicure.
Nail softeners are often used on toe nails, which tend to get harder than fingernails. They need to be applied and left for several hours, typically overnight, to allow the ingredients to soak into the nails and soften them.
If you have naturally hard nails that are hard to clip or file or suffer quite often from ingrown nails, use a nail softener.