Frequent hand-washing can protect you from the flu or other viruses and help keep you healthy. But it does a number on your nails, which lose water faster than skin does. The constant washing and sanitizing can cause nails to dry out and become brittle.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Certainly, cleanliness (and your health) matter more than pretty nails, but are there steps you can take to minimize the damage? Dermatologist Rosemary Keskinen, MD, offers her top five tips for healthier nails.
Does everyone experience brittle nails?
“Brittle nails tend to impact people more as they age,” Dr. Keskinen says. “Our nails grow a little slower as we get older. Since it takes longer to grow out, the nail has more exposure to dry air, water and sanitizers.”
Dr. Keskinen says women tend to experience split, cracked and broken nails more often than men, probably for two reasons: Women use more nail cosmetics, and men typically keep their nails too short to experience breakage
‘Don’t bite your nails’ + other sage advice
Dr. Keskinen has several recommendations for keeping your nails from splitting or cracking, but this pearl of wisdom can also keep you healthy: “Keep your fingers away from your mouth. If you tend to bite your nails, then keep them short so you aren’t tempted to chew on dirty nails all day long.”
Her other advice includes:
Be sensible with nail polish
Gel manicures provide a durable coating. Unfortunately, the removal process is damaging to the nail. It’s smarter to skip the gel or, at a minimum, avoid gel manicures in the winter when nails are driest.
Even removing regular nail polish can damage the nail, so Dr. Keskinen suggests choosing a clear polish if you can’t go without a coating: “Find a formaldehyde-free clear polish that you can apply and leave on for a week. If you choose a color and it chips, you’ll have to replace the polish, which dries out the nail.”
Coat and condition ‘em
At bedtime, apply heavy hand cream. During the day, moisturize in between exposure to water or hand sanitizer.
You can also apply a nail conditioner with lanolin a few times a day. Avoid nail conditioners that contain alcohol, because that will further dry out the nail.
“Taking a daily biotin supplement (one with about 5,000 units) can improve nail health,” says Dr. Keskinen. “To see a difference, you’ll have to wait about six to eight weeks for the entire nail bed to grow out.”
Protein also helps keep nails healthy. Make sure you take in a minimum of 45 grams each day.
The cuticle protects the new nail as it grows out. While manicurists routinely push back or trim the cuticles, it’s better to leave them alone. Moisturizing your hands will keep the cuticles from becoming ragged.
“If your nails are breaking, clip or file them, so they are temporarily shorter,” Dr. Keskinen says. “By taking protective steps, including moisturizing, you’ll give your nails a chance to grow out less rigid.”
Beware of myths
“Drinking water is essential to good health, but you can’t drink your way to more supple nails,” says Dr. Keskinen.
Consuming gelatin doesn’t improve nail health, she adds: “I drank a lot of gelatin as a teenager. I can personally say that it doesn’t work.”
Signs you might need to see a doctor
Usually, brittle nails don’t require a doctor visit, but these conditions warrant a call:
- Grooving or separation of the nail plate.
- Redness, swelling or soreness of the skin folds around the nail.