A very commonly asked question in the world of nails is, “Do nails need to breathe?” In short, the answer is no. But it’s not quite that simple – and I think we need to break down what people are really questioning when they ask about their nails breathing.

Do nails breathe?

No, nails do not breathe. Not in the way we think, anyways. The living parts of our nail are fed through blood supply. Nutrients and oxygen are delivered to the Matrix at the base of the nail through our bloodstream. The nail plate itself is a hard, dead layer of cells (similar to our hair.) Check out this post to learn more about your Nail Anatomy.

Now, although nails don’t breathe – the hard nail plate of dead cells is porous and can absorb things.

Your nail plate can absorb water and some oil. The oil absorbed will not penetrate the full nail all the way to the base (only water can be absorbed down in the nail plate) – but oil will create a protective barrier of sorts to keep water out of your nail plate. So your body hydrates your nails from the bottom up with natural sebum and moisture – and a layer of nail oil on top keeps it all in. Read more about Why Cuticle Oil is Important.

Do nails need a break from polish?

Now, the question I think most people are actually asking when they say ‘Do nails need to breathe’ is whether or not nails need a break from polish.

In general, no. Nails do not need a break from polish. However, everyone’s nails are different. Everyone’s routine and nail care is different. So here are some signs that indicate you may need to take a polish break, and focus on some nail rehab.

Rough, white patches on the nail plate. This is called keratin granulation, and usually appears when polish has been left on for a month or longer. Keratin Granulation is the removal of superficial layers of the nail plate along with the polish. Most commonly found on the toes when you remove polish, as toenails grow slower than fingernails. However, it can also be found on the fingernails when polish is removed too aggressively or incorrectly (like picking).

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Splitting and Peeling. If your nail plate is splitting or your nails are peeling, it’s probably time to take a little break and focus on some nail rehab.

Discoloration of the nail. If your nails are discolored, it’s time to take a break. Discoloration can be caused by a number of things. If your nails are turning black or brown, see your doctor. If they are turning yellow, it can be a sign of fungal infection or psoriasis – also time to see a doctor. If your nails are turning green, you may have a bacterial infection – and need to see your doctor.

Nail plate is lifting. If the nail plate appears to be lifting, this is called onycholysis. This condition will start at the distal end of nail (the free edge) and continue towards the base. The most common cause of Onycholysis is injury to the nail plate. It’s important to remember during application and removal of nail enhancements to not be heavy handed with implements. Over buffing and scraping too hard/deep with a cuticle pusher can cause injury. If you are experiencing lifting, it’s time to take a break from polish.

So my nails need a break – now what?

Once you’ve determined that your nails need a break or a ‘breather’, what’s the next step? In general, my recommendations (provided your issue isn’t one you need to see a doctor for) are as follows:

  • Remove all polish/nail enhancement properly
  • Cut your nails short with a quality Nail Clipper to avoid snagging and tearing
  • Use a high quality nail and cuticle oil daily to keep nails and cuticles moisturized and promote new growth
  • Protect nails with a Strengthener
  • Avoid further damage. Wear gloves when washing dishes, don’t use your nails as tools, etc.

You can also read more here for a detailed explanation of How to Repair Damaged Nails.

In summary, some people have naturally strong, moisturized nails that do well with enhancements on them nearly all the time. Others may suffer from dry, brittle nails that do need some breaks between manicures. There is no one size fits all solution to this age old question. You just need to be armed with the right information to make the best decisions for your nails.

Have questions? Leave a comment!

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