A celebrity manicurist on why your nails don’t need to ‘breathe’

If you’ve ever been told your nails need to breathe, you may want to reconsider what that really means.

Serial manicure investors will have heard time and time again from their mums or well-meaning friends that sometimes they need to let their nails ‘breathe’.

What on earth are they talking about? Nails don’t breathe – or do they?

To get to the bottom of this old wives’ tale, we enlisted the help of two fabulous nail technicians – beloved celebrity manicurist and founder of vegan and cruelty-free nail polish brand Ciaté London, Charlotte Knight and Jocelyn Petroni, founder of her much-adored eponymous nail bar in Sydney’s Woollahra.

When these ladies speak, we listen.

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Nails don’t breathe …but there is some truth to the phrase

Whatever you’ve been told, don’t take the ‘nails need to breathe’ statement at face value.

“It is a myth that nails need to “breathe” as they derive the nutrients they need from the body,” explains Knight.

While your nails might not respire, they do still need to be aired out and have ways for moisture to get into the nail systems below the nail plate.

“By the time the keratinisation process (nail development) is complete and the nail is fully formed, it is actually dead. However, it is vital to allow air and water to pass through to the nail plate and feed the nail bed and matrix (nail root) to optimise the growth process. Some synthetic nail treatments and/or polishes can be occlusive, meaning that the nail is literally suffocated and starved of vital ingredients for healthy growth,” says Petroni.

So, when your mum was begging you to take off your nail polish and let the nail beds breathe, she didn’t mean that literally. She meant they needed a break from the process of being manicured.

“The process of adding and removing polish, shellac and acrylics can damage the nail,” says Knight. “This can be for a number of reasons; dehydration, improper removal, very abrasive buffers or electric files.”

Prolonging the mani

If you like a manicure that’s going to stick around in good shape for longer than a week or two you’re probably going to opt for shellac or acrylics.

But what is the best option for your nail health? Polish, shellac or acrylics?

“It depends on your needs. For example if you are adding and removing nail polish every day it’s going to be tough going on your nails but generally they [polish] are better for your nails,” says Knight.

“The removal of gel and acrylics is where the damage can occur. Mechanical (scraping and filing) removal and chemical removal can cause nails to be brittle and dry. If you notice damage it’s a good idea to give your nails a break and let the damage grow out.”

While Knight says it’s up to you how long you leave the polish on, it’s essential to keep an eye on your nail health and if there is deterioration, it may be worth having some time out.

Give it a break

“Long-term use of synthetic nail treatments should be avoided to prevent nail softening and overall deterioration in health,” says Petroni.

When it’s time to give your nails a break from polish, consider other ways you can pay them attention and get them feeling stronger.

For example, at Petroni’s salon they offer a Naked Manicure, which includes a keratin treatment to improve the health of the nail. She recommends to start off with a week of intensive treatments to do some damage control, and then fortnightly until they’re in tip top shape again.

Bare nails are also important to see for your health

If you’re constantly onto the next mani, you probably don’t get time to see the natural colour of your nails all too often. However, it’s important you see them now and again.

“Nails can be a window into your overall health and it’s important to see your natural nail bed from time to time,” says Knight.

“Even if you have regular manicures, take a little moment to inspect your nails before your fresh paint is applied. Be sure to consult with your doctor/ dermatologist if you are concerned about any nail/ skin irregularities.”

Sounds like it might not be the worst idea to give our nails a breather now and again.

Tips for better nail health:

Check your acetone

“Acetone can certainly can dehydrate so it’s really important to look for a formula that is balanced with hydrating properties,” says Knight.

“There are also some nail polish removers on the market without acetone. Adding cuticle oil or hand cream at the end of your removal process will help.”

Avoid certain chemicals

“Avoid ingredients like formaldehyde, phthalates (including DBP), Toulene, formaldehyde resin and synthetic camphor,” says Petroni.

Look for more natural formulations

“Many brands are creating “free from” formulas which claim to be free of certain chemical ingredients in their nail polish,” says Knight.

“Natural formulas are becoming more advanced so now you don’t have to compromise on wearability and performance. Our new Plant Pots range is formulated with up to 80% natural ingredients, is ultra-long-wearing, and features ingredients like biotin that help your nails.”

Careful filing

If you get shellac you’ll be used to the nail sander that helps to take off the long-wearing formula. It’s pretty full-on.

It’s really important to go to a reputable salon to get your polish taken off because it’s quite a high stakes activity for your nail health.

“There is a danger of thinning the nail plate, so you need to make sure your manicurist is super careful when filing,” says Knight.

Give your nails some TLC

“The nail is made up of three layers. At the tip, these layers tend to separate, making it the most fragile part of the nail. I advise my clients to use Mavala’s Scientifique K+ regularly as a penetrating treatment to strengthen the tip of the nail – it binds the three nail plates together and improves the cohesion of the keratin fibres present in the nails, thereby making them more resistant to damage.”