You may have brittle nails if your nails crack, chip, split, bend, peel, or are simply weak.
Brittle nails occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they are a typical sign of aging or the result of polishing your nails too often. When the weather is cold, brittle nails may result from dryness.
Weak nails can also result from other health issues. But before you assume the worst or head to the doctor, read on for more. Learn how to strengthen brittle nails and why you might have them.
Your nails are the hard keratin that covers the ends of your fingers. They’re created by cells deep in the finger at the base of the nail. They grow out of the finger from a special type of skin cell.
At the base of the nail is the nail fold — the skin covering where the nail plate comes out of the finger. This living skin provides a protective barrier against infection.
The nail fold is often confused with the cuticle. The cuticles are the thin, see-through film of skin left on the nail as it grows out.
Healthy nails are shiny, smooth, and curved. They should not crack, break, or be overly rigid. The nail bed should look pink, and the nail’s free edge should look white.
When trimming your nails, cut straight across and round the edges. Avoid cutting the nail fold.
You can gently scrape the cuticle away to help nail polish stick to the fingernail. Avoid filing the nail’s surface, which can thin the nail and weaken it.
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Causes of Brittle Nails
Doctors define brittle nails as nails with ridges rising at a 90-degree angle from the nail fold. They’re also prone to splitting along these ridges, leading to cracks and dents in the nail’s free edge.
Causes of brittle nails include:
- Too much filing of the nail plate.
- Trauma to the nail-generating tissues.
- Dehydration from being in the water too long. Do you frequently wash your hands or do the dishes? Nails that fluctuate between wet and dry environments can become brittle. The most common reason for brittle nails is that they are simply too dry.
- Chemicals like cuticle or nail polish removers.
- Age and hormone changes. Nails become more brittle as we age, especially in postmenopausal women. Their growth also slows down starting at age 25. Our nails may appear paler, duller, or more opaque as we age.
Causes of Weak Nails
Weak nails are a type of brittle nail. They are more likely to bend than break like brittle nails. They may flake off into peeling layers instead of cracking toward the nail fold.
People may also call this condition “eggshell nails” or hapalonychia.
Causes of weak, soft fingernails include:
- Too much moisture, such as cleaning solutions or dishwater.
- Exposure to cold, dry air.
- Chemicals like cuticle or nail polish removers.
- A biotin deficiency. Not having enough biotin may cause weak nails. Taking a biotin supplement daily for at least six months may increase nail thickness.
- A deficiency in B vitamins, calcium, iron, or fatty acids. If you have any of these deficiencies, try adding a multivitamin to your regimen.
Health Issues That Affect Nail Health
Some health conditions can cause weak or brittle nails. They include:
- Raynaud’s syndrome. This disorder causes circulation problems in the extremities. When the smaller arteries in the hands and feet narrow, they 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.
- Anemia. Low iron levels can cause your nails to become brittle. You may also have fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, cracks in the sides of your mouth, or frequent infections. If blood work shows low iron, your doctor may suggest iron supplements.
- Cancer treatment. Brittle nails are a possible side effect of cancer treatment, especially chemotherapy and targeted therapies. If you’re getting cancer treatment, talk to your care team about keeping your nails and skin healthy and moisturized.
Irregular nails of all kinds can also reveal other health problems. If you’re having other nail problems, plan a visit with your doctor to check it out.
How to Strengthen Brittle or Weak Nails
The manufacturers of many over-the-counter products — including cuticle oils, strengthening polish, and hand cream — claim to improve nail health. According to a 2020 review, there is little evidence that these products improve nail health beyond their appearance.
Things that can improve your nail health include eating a healthy diet, drinking enough water, and protecting your hands.
Here are a few tips for improving nail health:
- Go natural. Remove all nail polish and leave them free of polish for a few months to give your nails a chance to recover.
- Avoid alcohol-based sanitizers. Hand sanitizers are a convenient way to keep germs at bay 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. Wear rubber gloves to protect your fingernails when washing dishes or working with cleaning fluids.
If you want to strengthen brittle nails, there are several easy and cheap ways to do it:
- Avoid filing your nail plate. This can thin the nail and make it more prone to split or peel.
- Moisturize. Try a dedicated nail oil or a hand lotion with alpha-hydroxy acid or lanolin.
- Limit manicures. To strengthen brittle nails, limit the number of manicures you get.
You’ll want to try different tactics if your nails are weak and bendy. To strengthen weak nails:
- Skip additional moisturizer. If nails are soft but brittle, they may have gotten too moist, so cut back on the lotions and oils.
- Try a strengthening polish. A layer of strengthening polish can help protect soft, brittle nails. Avoid peeling the polish off or changing it too often, especially with acetone-based removers. Avoid nail hardeners that include formaldehyde, which can cause allergic reactions.
Talk to your health care provider about your brittle nails. They may run tests to identify why you have weak or brittle nails. They may suggest supplements or nail care regimens and products to help strengthen your nails.
Sometimes, brittle nails are signs of other health conditions. Be sure to let your doctor know of any nail changes you notice, especially if they’re not normal for you.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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The UPMC Department of Dermatology diagnoses, treats, and manages numerous hair, skin, and nail conditions and diseases. We care for common and uncommon conditions, and our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is a comprehensive dermatologic laser facility, offering a full range of cosmetic services and procedures. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Find a dermatology provider near you.