Not up to scratch

Liz Hodgkinson tried vitamins, creams and minerals on her problem nails. She finally found a remedy at the beauty salon

Complaining about the state of one's nails is more likely to get one labelled a bimbo rather than elicit sympathy. When it comes to crucial health issues, poor nails cannot compete with, say, cancer or Creutzfeldt- Jakob Disease.

Yet having ugly nails has made my life at best difficult, at worst a nightmare. My nails were always breaking so far down that it was painful to carry out simple daily tasks. Working at the computer keyboard became almost impossible, and without nails I even found it difficult to pick things up.

Born with paper-thin, flaking nails, I must have tried every single nail-hardening product on the market. I must have also taken every vitamin and mineral supplement marketed for my problem.

I have done what the experts recommend and eaten a healthy diet. I have made sure I wore rubber gloves to do housework in, and have applied hand cream, nail cream and cuticle cream after every household chore.

Yet nothing even began to work. Nail polish flaked off in seconds, however carefully it was applied, and at the slightest touch, my nails would break to the quick. And as the skin around the nails kept on breaking, allowing dirt to enter, they would not only look jagged but grubby.

But if you saw my nails today, you would never know that secretly I have possibly the nastiest nails ever to disgrace a woman's hand. They are long and elegant but natural looking and could comfortably adorn the highest- paid Hollywood star. What's more, they are so strong that they now never break, whatever I am doing.

How have I achieved it? By jettisoning my growing battery of nail- improvement products and putting my faith in twice-monthly trips to a nail salon, where acrylic extensions ensure that my nails always look well groomed and a credit to their owner.

Nowadays, nail treatments are not only for rich ladies who lunch. Weak, flaky nails can be a distressing health problem, causing both discomfort and loss of confidence. Nails are also susceptible to permanent damage from injury and infection.

Nails are dead material, hardened by a fibrous protein known as keratin that grows out of the living cells below the cuticle. Whether or not this keratin is strong or weak is the luck of the draw and depends on your genetic inheritance. Although serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies or exposure to strong chemicals can cause nails to break and flake, the majority of those with problem nails are people who, like me, cannot find any cause. They just grow like that, in the same way that some people have thin hair.

Men tend to have stronger nails than women, and it is thought that the female hormone oestrogen is responsible for this. Certainly, many women find that their nails become stronger after the menopause, when less oestrogen is produced.

The growing market of nail products - some of them prohibitively expensive - make not the slightest bit of difference to people with genuine problem nails, as is confirmed by the latest women's health book from America, the fat and densely researched Harvard Guide to Women's Health. It states that although American women spend upwards of $3bn a year on nail products, there is nothing that can be purchased to make nails grow faster or stronger. All the Harvard Guide can recommend is to keep the nails very short and eat a vitamin-rich diet.

Dr Miriam Stoppard, a long-time convert to nail extensions and a qualified dermatologist, says that most problem nails are genetically determined, and that nothing will induce them to grow any differently. "I don't believe that vitamin and mineral supplements make any difference to most people's nails. If you eat a healthy diet and your nails are still weak, the only possible solution is to have nail extensions professionally applied."

The problem is that nail "wraps" and extensions have always been regarded as frivolous and self-indulgent, when they should be viewed as similar to cosmetic dentistry. Nail extensions are not the same as false nails. They are made with an acrylic solution that, when painted on the nail, hardens instantly to blend in with the real nail and is then filed down. Acrylic "tips" can also be added. Nail extensions look natural, need no polish and are therefore suitable for men with weak or injured nails. They are semi-permanent and, as the real nails grow, need "topping up" occasionally.

When I first went to a nail salon five years ago, it took an hour and a half just to get my nails clean. The first treatment cost more than pounds 50, and maintenance costs around pounds 30 a visit. I have never had any problems with my extensions. Nail polish stays on for three weeks and I give my nails no home care whatever. It's expensive and time-consuming, but the price I have to pay for pain-free nails. Underneath, they are probably as grotty as ever - but who cares?

Having attractive nails is more than a physical advantage, according to Midge Killen, who runs the Amazing Nails salon in London and who has been a nail technician for more than 20 years. "People's personalities seem to change once they have nice nails. Their self-esteem improves."

`The Harvard Guide to Women's Health' is published on 16 May by Harvard University Press, pounds 15.95 paperback. The Amazing Nails Helpline is 0171- 355 3634.

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