Manicures and the beach have a love-hate relationship. One one hand, beaches demand selfies (pics or it doesn’t count!) which means you’ll want to look flawlessly groomed from head to toe. On the other, surf, sand, and sunscreen are a tailor-made combination for chipping, peeling, and that gross, gummy plasticity that comes when spray SPF meets normal polish. And sometimes, hitting the salon just to watch your time (and money) get washed away by the tide may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. Turns out, though, shelling out for a manicure before you hit the shore might actually be more than worth it: It could be an investment in your health.
See, just like everywhere else on your body, the skin under your nails is susceptible to UV radiation, which means (say it with me, kids) you can get skin cancer under your nails. “Melanoma of the nail bed is a rare skin cancer but when it occurs can be more aggressive,” says dermatologist Annie Chiu. “If you see a very dark stripe running vertically through your nail with blurred borders, see your dermatologist. It might look like an injury, but it could also be the beginning of a melanoma formation.” Of course, even less severe outcomes of UV exposure can still be harmful to the health of your nails, since sunburned nails (yes, really) become more brittle and prone to breakage.
How does a manicure help? “Opaque nail polish offers nails some protection from the sun, just like dark clothing does for the body,” says Dr. Chiu. In fact, she adds, “Polish might be a better choice than applying sunscreen to your nails because some sunscreens can ruin your nail polish, and the slippery surface of a nail may not bind sunscreen well.” As for which colors to choose, Chiu notes that the darker the polish is, the more physical protection it will offer, so consider your year-round Chanel Vamp obsession doctor approved. In case you think a goth manicure will harsh your summer vibe, Dr. Chiu suggests doing double-duty with a UV-absorbent top coat such as Orly UV Protect Top Coat or Essie Sun-E, which is designed primarily to keep your shade from fading in the sun but can also offer sun protection to your nail beds.
The sun isn’t your nails’ only vacation-day enemy, though. When it comes to nail health, water can be just as much of a problem, thus the trend of soak-free manicures in many salons. Since opting out of a dip in the water is the exact opposite of cool beach babe-dom, a few coats of polish can help abate the worst effects of a swim. “Wearing polish can actually protect the nail plate by helping to block water absorption,” says Dasha Minina, founder of Maxus Nails. And when it comes to protection from the wet stuff, there’s no color needed; a big bonus for those who can’t stand the sight of chipped tips. “At least put on a strengthener,” says Minina, who suggests her own Maxus Nails Strengthener, “to help block excessive absorption before heading to the beach or pool.” (We also like Tenoverten’s The System, which contains a strengthening base and top coat.)
Naturally, keeping your nails protected from the sun and surf isn’t an excuse to skimp on the rest of your hands. “Shielding your cuticles is also important because damage can affect nail growth, cause photodamage and discoloration, and even make you more susceptible to fungal or bacterial infections,” explains Dr. Chiu, so don’t skimp on the SPF-infused hand lotions altogether. But the next time you’re debating skipping your pre-vacation manicure, go ahead and splurge—after all, it’s for your health.