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What Causes Brittle Nails? How You Can Treat Weak Fingernails

If your nails split, peel, or are simply weak, you have brittle nails.

Brittle nails occur for a variety of reasons. They may be a normal sign of aging or the result of polishing your nails too frequently. When the weather is cold, brittle nails may result from dryness. Weak nails also can be signs of a health issue, such as hypothyroidism or anemia.

Before you assume the worst or head to the doctor, learn how to strengthen brittle nails and the reasons why you might be experiencing them.

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What Can I Do to Strengthen My Nails?

Do you frequently wash your hands or do the dishes? Nails that fluctuate between wet and dry environments can become brittle. In fact, the most common reason for brittle nails is that they simply dried out.

If you want to strengthen your nails, there are several easy and inexpensive options:

  • Moisturize. Try a dedicated nail oil or a hand lotion with alpha hydroxy acid or lanolin. If nails are soft but brittle, they may be too moist so cut back on the moisturizer.
  • Limit manicures. To strengthen brittle nails, limit the number of manicures to avoid subjecting nails to the chemicals in nail polish and polish removers. Especially avoid acetone-based nail polish removers. For soft, brittle nails, a layer of polish may actually help.
  • Avoid alcohol-based sanitizers. Hand sanitizers are a convenient way to keep the germs away when soap and water aren’t available. But alcohol can dry out your nails and skin.
  • Get a paraffin wax bath. As an indulgent nail treatment, an at-home paraffin wax bath soothes and moisturizes nails and hands. Soak your hands in the bath for 10 to 20 minutes; then give the wax time to dry before peeling it off.
  • Wear gloves. When washing dishes or doing housework, wear rubber gloves to protect your fingernails.

RELATED: What Do Your Nails Say About Your Health?

What Brittle Nails Can Mean

If these techniques don’t work to strengthen brittle nails, it’s time to see your primary care doctor or a dermatologist. Brittle nails can be signs of other health conditions, so be sure to let your doctor know of any other changes you notice.

Some health conditions that can cause brittle nails include:

  • Raynaud’s syndrome: This disease (also referred to as Raynaud’s phenomenon or disease) causes circulation problems in the extremities, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. When the smaller arteries in hands and feet narrow, those extremities might feel numb or cold. Not surprisingly, this can affect nail health.
  • Hypothyroidism: Low thyroid levels can cause more than just brittle nails. You might also notice fatigue, weight gain, dry skin, thinning hair, memory problems, depression, and constipation, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
  • Anemia: Low iron levels can cause your nails to be brittle, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. You may also experience fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, cracks in the side of your mouth, or frequent infections. If blood work shows low iron, your doctor may recommend iron supplements.
  • Cancer treatment: Brittle nails can be a side effect of cancer treatment, especially chemotherapy and other targeted therapies. If you’re undergoing cancer treatment, talk to your oncology team about how to keep your nails and skin healthy and moisturized.

Irregular nails of all kinds also can reveal other health problems. If you’re experiencing other nail problems, make an appointment with your doctor to check it out.