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In today’s “I can do it all” beauty industry, makeup is skincare, skincare is makeup, and nail polish is oily. Not texture-wise, but in promise: Brands are loading up formulas with natural oils and antioxidant-packed extracts, claiming to have perfected nail polish that does more. Buzzwords abound, and cynicism reigns high. But in the interest of a fair shake, do these treatment-cum-color polishes actually do anything?
The “treatment polishes” break down into two main categories, each makin’ claims. There are those with added oils, like Sally Hansen’s new Color Therapy line, Orly’s Breathable Treatment + Color line, and Nails Inc.’s Sweet Almond Nail Polish Powered By Matcha. On the opposite side of the ring (a finger pun), there are those that draw on antioxidants: Deborah Lippmann’s Iconic Treatment-Enriched Nail Polish, and Nails Inc.’s NailKale and Nail Polish Fuelled By Charcoal lines. Nails Inc. is at the top of its game with these names.
Looking at the science behind these nail polishes, experts agree that it is indeed there. Both oils and antioxidants can theoretically be good for nails: Oil applied straight to the nail moisturizes it, which makes damage less noticeable, says Doug Schoon, co-chair of the Nail Manufacturers Council and author of Face-To-Face with Doug Schoon Volume I: Science and Facts about Nails/Nail Products for the Educationally Inclined. And ye olde cuticle oil has stuck around for a reason, delivering useful nutrients into the nail-growing matrix beneath your cuticle, says Dana Stern, a board-certified dermatologist and nail specialist.
On the antioxidant front, free radical-fighting ingredients like Vitamin E and C are generally beloved. “Antioxidants are absolutely beneficial to the nail and surrounding cuticle,” says Stern, and research backs up their effectiveness — they keep radicals from oxidizing, which impairs cell function and causes skin to “age” more quickly. While antioxidants are mostly used for cell preservation on skin, Schoon says they can prevent free radicals from compounding existing damage in nails, which could lead to brittleness.
Both ingredients are good when you’re squirting them all over your hands, which does sound super pornographic, yes. But when it comes down to polish on the nail plate, things get tricky. Polish needs to include a significant amount of oil and antioxidants to deliver on their promises, and it’s unclear how much of each the formulas include (companies weirdly don’t publish their exact formulas, so rude). So “while it’s certainly possible that ingredients found in cosmetic nail polishes could penetrate to the nail root and lead to healthier nails — there isn’t much evidence that this happens, yet,” says Stephen Alain Ko, the cosmetic chemist behind the beauty and science website Kind of Stephen.
The only thing we have to go on is my personal experience, so I did it, I tried all the nail polish. Ironically, Stern notes that most any old nail polish will help when your nails are peeling by holding delicate nail cells together. The worst thing to do is use polish remover too frequently, which dries nails out and contributes to brittleness. That is exactly what I did to test all of these healing nail polishes, whoops.
Ranked From Most to Least Personally Dubious
Nails Inc. Nail Polish Fuelled By Charcoal, $15
Nails Inc. claims that “nails are constantly exposed to environmental toxins, and are often one of the first places in the body where you can directly see the effects of toxins and pollutants.” My response is a theatrically long, drawn-out “hmm.” Activated charcoal is great for skin, but Schoon says the science doesn’t exactly translate for nails — charcoal draws out dirt and pollutants when it comes into contact with them, but the only thing it’s continuously in contact with on your nails is your nails. The polish is fine, but unless you’re shoving your hands into street puddles, Schoon says the charcoal aspect likely isn’t doing much. I didn’t shove my hands into street puddles, so. I have failed you.
Nails Inc. NailKale Nail Polish, $14
The description reads like Captain Planet 2.0, this time with a nail fixation. “Infused with kale extract, known for its high levels of Vitamins A, C, and K, [it] stimulates advanced keratin production — hydrating and nourishing nails” while “boosting the production of keratin for harder, healthier nails. As nails are primarily made of keratin, kale’s powerful antioxidant ingredients work to maximize the activation of keratin, resulting in nail growth and strength.”
Hillary shimmy, may it RIP. To the vitamins claim, Stern says “there’s really no evidence that topically applied vitamins have benefit to the nail,” and Ko seconds that he hasn’t seen any studies on proven benefits. More importantly, Schoon notes that a cosmetic product can’t make your nails grow faster — if it did, it’d be a drug (à la Latisse). He says the claims likely stretch from the benefits of ingested kale, which would make sense. Eat more kale. I didn’t notice stronger superhero nails, but buy the color “Victoria” regardless, it’s beautiful like the Poshest Spice.
Nails Inc. Sweet Almond Nail Polish Powered By Matcha, $14
A claim on top of a claim: This is “a nail polish powered by superfood matcha and infused with sweet almond oil.” Matcha powder is “a powerful and potent antioxidant,” but only when ingested orally — as Stern says, the benefits of “putting [antioxidants] into a polish, and in small amounts, are unclear.” As for the oil: Schoon says there’s “only a certain amount of oil you can put in there, which is going to dramatically limit the effectiveness of it in nail polish, or any other type of nail coating.” The colors are very blogger beautiful, but I didn’t notice a moister nail.
Orly Breathable Treatment + Color, $8.99
This is a case of gimmicky marketing hiding the good stuff. Experts agree your nails don’t need to “breathe” — nails get their oxygen from the bloodstream, Stern says, and also don’t have lungs. But the permeability is great on two counts: Penetrable by air and water, it joins the genre often accepted for wear during Islamic prayer (halal nail polish needs to be permeable for wudu, the ritual of water cleansing all body parts).
On top of that, Schoon says allowing oxygen and water vapors to escape prevents the moisture build-up in nails that pushes up against polish, weakening its lasting power. Greater permeability equals greater adhesion, and true to form, the Orly held on the best of the bunch.
Sally Hansen Color Therapy, $6.99
Sally Hansen’s oil-infused polish made waves for being the first drugstore polish to really play up the treatment aspect, with a formula that the brand says “suspends argan oil in tubes within the polish. With normal hand movement, the formula flexes, breaking the tubes and releasing oil into the nail plate.” Encapsulation of oils is certainly possible, Ko says, and “a layer of lipids on the nail will likely help reduce evaporation of water from the nail.” It’s billed as a way for people with damaged nails to still stay in the color game, but according to Schoon, oil in any form isn’t going to help repair nails.
“Using an oil is a good idea, but an oil isn’t healing. It’s not reversing the damage, it’s making the damage less likely to be seen” — which it wouldn’t be anyways, under polish. Oil does keep damage from getting worse, Schoon says, but your best bet is to cut back on polish switches to two or fewer times a week. It was a fine polish, but my life is the same.
Deborah Lippmann Iconic Treatment-enriched Nail Polish, $18
It claims the least, so I was least dubious of Deborah Lippmann’s famous formula. The reality: It stayed impressively shiny (although did chip easily), and the color Naked is a great nude, the kind of color that makes it look like your nails just naturally shine.
The questionable: The formula contains biotin, green tea, and a natural resin to “strengthen and hydrate nails while deterring ridge formation.” Schoon says topical biotin hasn’t been proven to do anything, while the green tea factor goes back to antioxidants and the semi-unlikely conditions they prevent. Ridge-wise, Ko says it’s mostly genetic — some people have them and some people don’t, and it’s unlikely a topical nail polish will affect them permanently. But, he adds, a thicker nail polish can help smooth over their appearance.
The verdict? Choose a polish based on color. I won’t go so far as to say these nail polishes are all talk and full of empty promises, just taking you on a ride, but I will put the words there for you to look at with the above information and decide. If your nails are falling from your fingers, go for it — it couldn’t hurt, but it might not massively help. Colors, though! Color, what you see is what you get, that’s the definition. Don’t talk to me about hues.