So, What Does a Nail Brightener Actually Do?

Nail Brightener
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Whether you’re opting for bold, intricate nail art or a single simple shade, the sad truth is getting a mani and pedi regularly can do a bit of damage to our nail beds — especially when it comes to discoloration. Does that mean you have to say goodbye to your beloved manicurist or throw out all your nail polishes? Absolutely not. But it does mean you need to be adding some protective nail products into your nail routine ASAP. That’s where nail brighteners can come in handy. 

Nail discoloration can happen for a number of reasons. Board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology Marisa Garshick, MD, lists daily wear-and-tear on the nails, staining from other color pigments, smoking, conditions such as psoriasis and genetic changes, medications, and trauma or bruising of the nails as just some of the common ways our nails get dull and sometimes yellow. When it comes to excessive nail polish wearing, nail brighteners are key to keeping that at bay. 

What is nail brightener?

According to New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, MD, a nail brightener is a nail treatment that helps reduce the appearance of discoloration and dullness. “It is generally designed for people who prefer not to wear colored nail polish but want to give their nails a finished and healthy appearance,” adds Dr. Garshick. 

How does nail brightener work?

Dr. King explains that most nail brighteners contain oxidating agents, such as citric acid, that can serve as a natural bleach. She says you can also find chemical exfoliants, such as glycolic and lactic acids, that can help with the lightening process. 

A nail brightener also does more than just brighten the nail. Dr. Garshick adds that it will usually incorporate conditioning and hydrating ingredients to improve the overall health of the nail. Dr. King adds that sometimes there will be ingredients that can offer UV protection, such as antioxidants, that will protect the nails from UV radiation which she explains contributes to nail yellowing. 

How to know if you need a nail brightener:

Dr. King says that the most common cause of discoloration and yellowing in the nails is the staining you get when you wear nail polish often. So, if you’re experiencing this type of discoloration, then a nail brightener definitely worth trying. 

She suggests taking a break from wearing polish and letting your natural nail grow out. Using a nail brightener on top will help lighten the nail area until your nail starts to look healthy again. To decrease the risk of discoloration in the future, she strongly suggests using a base coat, especially if you’re wearing dark colors as those shades tend to stain the nail more than lighter shades. She also advises opting for lighter polish colors and polish that doesn’t contain formaldehyde, which is a chemical known to cause yellow discoloration. When removing polish, she also says to look for nail polish remover without acetone to keep nails look bright. 

As for the other causes of discoloration — such as underlying health issues, fungal infections, smoking, and bruising of the nails — a nail brightener will not treat those things (it may not even do much in improving the appearance of the nail if there is a more serious issue). If you’ve noticed that your nail is not looking better after a few days of use, it’s best to go see a doctor to get to the root of the cause. 

How to use nail brightener:

Dr. Garshick says that it is best to apply a nail brightner directly onto clean, bare nails and let them dry. They can be used by itself or as a base coat before you put on nail polish. You’ll only need one coat, but you can apply more if you want a more opaque look.

Are there any downsides to using nail brightener?

It is generally safe to use nail brighteners. If you have dry or brittle nails to begin with or dealing with any nail peeling, Dr. King says that the that chemical exfoliants you’ll find in nail brighteners may make those conditions work. Dr. Garshick adds that if the discoloration isn’t improving after using a nail brightener, it could be a sign of a more serious problem (discoloration can also be a result of fungus, trauma, and can even be related to skin cancer, she says) and that you go see a doctor. “It’s important to be evaluated by a dermatologist to determine the reason for the discoloration rather than simply covering it up,” she says. 

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