What Causes Brittle Nails and How To Treat Them

This common problem has plenty of solutions, from supplements to slugging
Closdup of person moisturizes painted fingernails.

Whether you’re painting them, picking up small objects with them or plucking your guitar with them, we can all agree that strong nails are both useful and cosmetically appealing. If your claws haven’t been cutting it recently, there could be many reasons why. Luckily, there are almost as many ways to strengthen your nails as there are to break them.

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What causes brittle nails?

  • Hand washing. Frequent hand washing can protect you from illness and help you stay 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.
  • Aging. “Brittle nails tend to impact people more as they age,” dermatologist Rosemary Keskinen, MD, says. “Our nails grow slower as we get older. Since it takes longer to grow out, the nail has more exposure to dry air, water and sanitizers.”
  • Length and cosmetic use. Dr. Keskinen says you’re more likely to experience split, cracked and broken nails if you grow your nails longer and regularly use nail cosmetics than if you keep your nails short.
  • Chemotherapy. If you’re currently undergoing cancer treatment, brittle nails may be a side effect. Speak to your oncologist — they can give you advice for preserving your nails.

Tips for treating brittle nails

Most of the causes of brittle nails are beyond your control — you need to keep washing your hands and there’s no way to turn back the clock. But don’t worry, we have plenty of solutions … on hand.

Don’t bite your nails

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.”

Coat and condition them 

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 your nail.

Try nail slugging

If you’re looking to do some extreme moisturizing, nail slugging — a trendy new technique that’s gone viral on social media — might be right up your alley. Nail slugging is the quirky younger sister of face slugging, a practice that’s been popular for several years now.

Slugging, as the name suggests, is a slimy process. After applying skin care products, you cover your hands in a layer of petroleum jelly (or a similarly occlusive product, like an emollient) before going to sleep. The goop traps all that product on your skin, allowing it to more fully seep in.

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You could technically slug your nails — or your face for that matter — during the day, but most people would rather be greasy in the privacy of their own homes.

Limit use of 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.”

Some vitamins may help

“Taking a daily biotin supplement (one with about 5,000 micrograms) can improve nail health,” notes 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.

Manicure must-dos

The cuticle protects your 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. 

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“If your nails are breaking, clip or file them, so they are temporarily shorter,” Dr. Keskinen advises. “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,” states Dr. Keskinen. 

Consuming gelatin doesn’t improve nail health, either. “I drank a lot of gelatin as a teenager,” she says. “I can personally say that it doesn’t work.”

When you should see a doctor

Usually, brittle nails don’t require a doctor visit, but these conditions warrant a call:

  • Grooving or separation of your nail plate.
  • Redness, swelling or soreness of the skin folds around your nail.

While less common, brittle nails can also be a symptom of several medical conditions, including:

  • Fungal infections. If in addition to cracking, your nails are getting thicker or turning yellow, you may have a fungal infection.
  • Nutritional deficiencies. There are several different nutrients we need to keep our nails strong. Fragile nails could be a sign that you aren’t getting enough protein, iron or vitamin B.
  • Psoriasis. Psoriasis is an immune system disorder that causes dry, scaly patches to form on your skin — including under your nail beds. The condition can also change the color and texture of your nails.   
  • Thyroid disorders. According to a 2019 study, brittle nails can be an early indicator of thyroid conditions like hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism and Graves’ disease
  • Raynaud’s syndrome. In Raynaud’s syndrome, brittle nails are the result of diminished blood flow to your fingers.

If you’ve been diagnosed with any of these conditions, it’s worth visiting your doctor to learn how to manage your symptoms.  

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