Nursing Your Nails Back to Health
Long-time advice-taker here, first-time question-submitter. Awhile back you wrote a very compelling column about the need to give your toes a break from polish in the winter. I’ve been a year-round pedicure girl for AGES now, but it really made a lot of sense and I promised myself I’d embrace the naked-toenail look this year, once the open-toed shoe weather was over. (And to be honest, I was kind of looking forward to saving all those pedicure dollars. Sure, it’s a nice treat but so are groceries.)
Last week I went ahead and removed my polish myself, at home…but was COMPLETELY unprepared for the horror I found underneath. (I guess I never really looked at them during my pedicures.) Yellow nails! Cracked nails! And (oh my God I can’t believe I’m admitting this to the internet please use a pseudonym)…I have what appears to be a blackish fungus on my little toe. I never really look at my nails during my pedicures, and I am seriously shocked.
What do I do?? Even if no one else sees my feet all winter, I cannot stand to look at them myself. I admit I totally just grabbed the nearest bottle of polish and covered them up again, which I know is wrong and bad and making it worse (especially for that fungus, but everything I read online seems to suggest it will take MONTHS to get rid of it, oh crap). Clearly, they needed a break from the nail polish even more that I thought, but how do I get them healthy again in the meantime??
A Girly-Girl With Gross Feet
Okay. It’s going to be okay. We can do this. We can get through this TOGETHER.
I had a similar shock a couple (wait, no, FOUR) years ago, when I got a pedicure right before giving birth in late September. And then I gave birth. And…kind of stopped caring about my toes, except to occasionally touch up the chipped polish. When I finally got around to fully removing it…MONTHS LATER…I encountered a similar sight to yours. Since then, I’ve gotten pretty good at the pre-winter routine of whipping polish-damaged nails back into shape.
There are a TON of “nail saver” formulas out there — all promising to correct the cracks and brittleness — but my problem with most of them is that they often contain just as many chemicals and unpronounceable ingredients as regular old nail polish. Anything that promises “shiny” nails is especially guilty — you’re basically coating your nails with clear polish, which is just as chemically harsh as colored, with some vitamins mixed in. Personally, I avoid them.
Instead, I use a natural tea tree oil remedy. J/A/S/O/N makes a great one. This stuff is kind of a one-stop treatment for most nail woes, primarily dryness and cracks, but it also has pretty potent anti-fungal properties. I LOVE THIS STUFF.
There are a slew of different remedies for nail fungus — from a cotton ball doused in apple cider vinegar all the way to prescription drugs (which I imagine are best suited as a last resort) — but I can tell you from our own personal household experience (NOT SAYING WHO), that the tea tree oil, applied twice daily, killed the infection in about a week. Pretty much as soon the new nail growth was visible, it was clear. The “months” part of the problem that you read about is more about waiting for the stupid black spot to fully grow out. Since we’re talking about your itty bitty baby toe nail, it certainly won’t take that long. Particularly if you’re treating your nails well! Healthy nails will always grow faster. And yes, covering up a fungus spot — even an old, non-active infection spot — with nail polish is pretty much the LAST THING you want to do, and should be reserved for total emergencies only, like big fancy parties where open-toed shoes are your only option.
So. Tea tree oil. Twice a day, every day, until things improve. If the yellowing is REALLY BAD (it’s usually worse if you favored really dark reds and burgundies), juice a lemon and rub that on with a cotton ball. Get a good natural cuticle salve (like Burt’s Bees) and use that as needed.
As for the really bad cracks and just general ugliness, obviously the “best” thing to do is suck it up and live with it for a little while, but…I KNOW. Trust me, I know. No one wants to prop that up on the coffee table and look at that, and since you may be too tempted to cave and reach for the polish in the meantime, I am so totally on board with a compromise. You know those nail file/buffer things with all the different sides and steps? They sometimes get sold in kits at the mall where someone grabs you and files your nails until they’re like, CRAZY SHINY? Those aren’t especially good for your nails either. You’re essentially filing and buffing away actual layers of your nail surface, thus weakening them and leaving them more vulnerable over time. But…once or twice? Every now and then? Eh. Do it. File and buff away the cracks and dullness. It still beats polish.
As for the rest of your feet, winter is prime time for your skin to to suffer from dryness and cracks too. Especially your heel. Regular moisturizing is like, beyond essential, and avoiding bare feet while inside is another biggie. The artificial heat inside our homes is the main cause of dry winter skin, along with hot showers. Wearing socks and slippers will make your heels less prone to cracking and grossness-looking. (Yeah, I just made up a verb. Y’all know what I mean.)
Published October 5, 2009. Last updated August 30, 2017.