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Nursing Your Nails Back to Health

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

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.)


About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Daisy

    October 5, 2009 at 8:36 am

    I read that same compelling column awhile back, so in January I took off all my polish and- um- it wasn’t pretty. It was what you describe above. But I didn’t know about said tea tree oil & the like, so I invested in a tin of Burts Bees cuticle rub & lemon juice and have been nipping & rubbing and soaking my feet on my own. Finally, now, IN OCTOBER my nails are pretty and shiny & lovely all on their own. I’m getting my first pedicure in TEN MONTHS (after going, oh, 5 years or so without a break?) but from now on I solmenly promise to take pedicure breaks. Shudder.

  • Jenny

    October 5, 2009 at 9:33 am

    I’d stay away from the prescription stuff for nail fungus, it is pretty hard on your liver. Not worth it in my opinion.

  • cagey

    October 5, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Budget cuts required me to nix the occasional pedicure (save for the Obligatory BlogHer Preparation Pedicure, because nothing like a ballroom full of WOMEN screams “must get a pedicure” quite as well.) And I agree, it is nice having MY nails back again.
    Regarding the fungus – if it turns into the serious sort of fungus, the “needs a scary prescription of Lamisil from a doctor” fungus, there is an alternative. My sister did not want to use the medicine because it can cause serious liver damage. She ended up soaking her toe in Listerine (even a storebrand.) It took a few months but it did clear up the fungus.
    I will definitely be passing along the tea tree oil info to her, though.

  • Kate

    October 5, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I recently discovered the Diamancel files, and they work miracles on cracked heels. ( I’ve been trying to nurse my feet back to health for a couple of weeks, and I’ve been doing exactly what Amy outlined, plus filing with the Diamancel #20 file and religiously applying Corn Huskers Lotion. The buffing of my toenails made a huge HUGE difference, and I have ex-ballerina scarred-from-toe-shoes feet, so it’s pretty ugly down there.

  • Someone Being Me

    October 5, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for the advice Amy. You should do a whole column on pedicure mishaps and how to cure/fix them. I got a pedicure 2 weeks ago that my big toe is still trying to recover from. I believe she caused an ingrown toenail on the side of the nail and I have been having to soak my foot in epson salt water and treat it with iodine, neosporin and everything I can think of.

  • LauraL

    October 5, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I will throw in my $0.02 for the PedEgg to help with rough, nasty skin, especially on the heels. My mother and husband laaaaaaughed but it does work for me, especially if I follow it with a crazy-good moisturizer (or even Vaseline) and socks at bedtime. My mother is now a convert.

  • Jamie

    October 5, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    FYI on using Listerine- it will turn your foot colors when you soak it. Just be prepared. I wasn’t and after soaking my weird looking pinky toe for a few minutes I was horrified to see that the Listerine had turned my toes and foot blue. It scrubbed off in hot water a day or two later, but I was totally freaked out. It did see to make my nails happy though.

  • Erin

    October 5, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    This is exactly what I’m going through right now, too! I do home pedicures with OPI nail polish, which has left me with orangey nails. No fun. Plus, I was really sick while I was pregnant, and one year later my hair and nails are still on the comeback. I love tea tree oil for this- although the smell takes some getting used to. I use it for house cleaning and diaper washing already- so it’s easy to integrate it into one more thing. Also- look into vitamins as well. Helps the nail grow strong. Prenatal vitamins are great for this, even if you’re not pregnant.

  • Amy

    October 5, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    I second the tea tree oil twice a day. After I read the column about giving your nails a break I took off my polish and discovered yellow, cracked toenails. After a few weeks the nails stopped breaking, and once the nails grew out the yellow was gone. I think part of my problem was that the manicurist would file my nails flat. Now I use a layer of base coat to fill in ridges, and really? No one is getting close enough to my feet to tell if they’re completely smooth.

  • Eva

    October 5, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Jenny said
    “I’d stay away from the prescription stuff for nail fungus, it is pretty hard on your liver. Not worth it in my opinion.”
    I guess you are referring to something you ingest? I was prescribed Penlac, a topical nail polish type thing that you apply to the nail once a week. It seems to work ok. It doesn’t seem to have any contraindications with liver function.

  • AP

    October 5, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    My grandma always says Vicks VapoRub for toenail fungus, although I haven’t tried it myself. You’re supposed to put it on before you go to bed.

  • CatherineJay

    October 6, 2009 at 2:45 am

    I got through periodic phases of being nail polish obsessed and after wearing a dark colour continuously for a couple weeks my nails got stained. Weirdly enough sitting with whitening toothpaste on my nails for an hour really helped and I figure that it can’t be that bad for me cause it’s only an hour and it’s toothpaste which they let you put in your mouth.

  • Jenny

    October 6, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Eva—yeah, I’m just talking about oral medicine for nail fungus. I’m not even sure on the name, but it is hard on your liver, if you were taking the stuff that is hard on your liver, you’d know it because they really warn you about it. I think the topical stuff is fine.

  • mox

    October 14, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    My cousin, a nurse, suggested Listerine mixed 50/50 with hydrogen peroxide. Put in a spray bottle and spray your toes 2x a day. She swears it works!

  • We Mama

    September 7, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    If you have white vertical stripes, spots, or pull back nails you may have a yeast infection. Fungicides wont help. The little cream tube in a vaginal yeast infection kit works well. If not see a doctor. I like vitamin e oil to keep my nails supple.
    Tree oil is very good too.

  • Danie

    January 6, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    My toe nails get pretty gross looking after months and months of polish. I typically use a few Efferdent tabs in a foot bath. It really helps to keep fungus away and it helps de- yellow your nails!

  • Sal

    March 11, 2015 at 8:18 pm

    I may have missed an answer to this…
    my nails toenails are not happy. the big toes seem to be ‘detached’ from the toe on the top third… I am worried that they won’t become attached as they grow out (does that make sense). blooming nail polish! how dare it be so destructive 🙁

  • Princess Kocourek

    June 27, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    Please tell me how I can cure flakey brittle nails that look dull and foggy?? I just took off my nail polish and my nails are looking very rough. I need to take a break to let them heal. If anyone can tell me please send me an email and let me know!

  • Dejy woo

    September 12, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    Tea tree oil and a long nail polish break helps tremendously if it is not a yeast infection. I’d say anyone should try it for a few weeks to start. Also formaldehyde causes a lot of these symptoms. Think about it… It could preserve a corpse; turning your nails white could definitely be the cause of formaldehyde ridden polishes/base coats!

  • cleo123

    November 2, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    I am also on a pedicure break. My nails show white powderish looking patches. I will try the tea tree, listerine or vaporub fixes that has been recommended.
    Does anyone know what the gentlest brand of nail polish… so we won’t have these ucky nails next year?

  • Vicki

    February 2, 2016 at 5:41 am

    I have black spots on my big toe nails after removing red nail varnish that has been on since Nov/ Dec last year….what do you recommend? ??

  • Amy

    February 20, 2016 at 5:56 am

    I used the Vick’s Vaporub liquid to get rid of some seriously bad nail fungus. The doctor prescribed the oral medicine for me but after taking it for a few weeks I started having stomach upset issues. Read about Vick’s Vaporub and gave it a try. I put it on with a cotton ball as soon as I got out of the shower in the morning and every night before I went to bed. Also, I am severely allergic to formaldehyde so it makes sense that my nails turn white from nail polish!

  • Kate Riggs

    February 24, 2016 at 9:00 am

    After 3 days of tea tree oil and an inexpensive athlete’s foot cream alternately on my toenails, the white spots are gone.  Nails don’t look glossy and fresh, but I expect they will look better when grown out (and I am 60).  The oil makes them look immediately better, so I oil them when going out wearing sandals.  I’m making a trip to Whole Foods to look for clear and colored nail polish without formaldehyde.