It’s the opposite of fair, but if you’re undergoing chemotherapy treatment, you’ll probably start noticing some changes to your nails—because you clearly aren’t going through enough right now, you know? Brittleness, ridges, and dryness around the nail bed are all common side effects of chemo, and although these changes are mostly temporary, if you want to pamper your nails with some color—or just keep them protected from further damage—there’s a lot you can do safely during and after chemo. Of course, if the idea of getting your nails done seems like a hassle and not a treat, you should feel exactly zero obligation to make your nails look good right now (or ever). Getting your nails done while on chemo should be a form of self-care, and if it’s not for you, then give yourself the gift of not dealing with it.
How Does Chemo Affect Nails?
Chemo can affect both your nails’ appearance and their texture. “Chemotherapy can slow nail growth resulting in thickened nails, as well as causing ‘onycholysis,’ or the separation of the nail from the nail bed,” says John Montgomery Yost, M.D., director of the Nail Disorders Clinic at Stanford University and a dermatologist at Crossover Health. This separation can cause bleeding and discoloration under the nail, according to Dr. Yost.
Chemo can also affect the skin around your nails, drying out cuticles. “Certain targeted chemotherapy treatments, like epidermal growth factor receptor inhibitors, can also cause inflammation of the skin around the nail, or even ingrown nails,” cautions Dr. Yost.
How To Prevent Nail Damage During Chemo
“The key is trauma avoidance. Many of the side effects of chemo related to nails are triggered by external injury,” says Dr. Yost. This means you should definitely avoid heavy-duty tasks, and also take care while doing general household tasks, like washing dishes or even the dog. Dr. Yost tells all of his patients to wear cotton-lined vinyl gloves while doing any cleaning that involves water and cleaning agents—his favorites are these True Blues ones. “Repeated wet-dry cycles are very hard on the nail, and a key factor in many of the cases of chemo-related nail disease I see,” Dr. Yost adds.
Can You Use Nail Polish During Chemo?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, nail polish is not only fine to use while undergoing chemotherapy, but can protect nails “by acting as a sealant,” Dr. Yost says. In fact, research has found that patients undergoing chemotherapy who used polish showed improvement in their nail condition.
Though most nail polishes are safe, you’ll want to avoid UV-cured polishes, as some chemotherapies can make you more sensitive to ultraviolet light. You’ll also want to avoid press-on nails. “The space between the nail and the acrylic nail is often prone to bacterial and fungal colonization, which can spread to other sites on the body,” Dr. Yost says.
Dr. Yost also recommends using acetone-based nail polish remover. “Though it’s more damaging to the nail plate, it can be used so much more sparingly than the non-acetone based product. Patients can get away with only using one cotton ball of the acetone to remove all of the nail polish from their fingers, whereas with the non-acetone based products, you end up using half the bottle.”
Can You Get Your Nails Done While On Chemo?
Unfortunately, a day of pampering at the salon also carries a high risk of infection. If you do choose to get your nails done professionally, there are some important measures you can take to protect yourself.
First, only use your own personal manicure set. Second, ask your manicurist to refrain from cleaning under your nail, because any manipulation of the space under the nail can actually push bacteria and fungi further in, according to Dr. Yost. You should also avoid cutting cuticles or filing down calluses.
As tempting as it is, say no to the whirlpool bath if you’re getting a pedi. “Even if liners are used, there’s no way to clean the tubing that’s recirculating the water,” Dr. Yost explains. Instead, he recommends asking for a freestanding basin lined with a disposable plastic liner.
How To Strengthen Nails After Chemo
Fortunately, most nail changes from chemo are temporary. Wearing gloves and using a nourishing oil or moisturizer on your hands to prevent dryness is the best way to protect your nails during and after chemo. One thing Dr. Yost cautions against is using oral supplements to strengthen your nails. “They’re generally not effective, and biotin, which is a common ingredient in nail supplements, at higher doses can actually cause false lab readings.”
One final word of advice from Dr. Yost: always talk to your dermatologist about any nail issues you might be experiencing.