Cracked Nails

What Are Cracked Nails?

Healthy nails are smooth, with no spots or discoloration. They don’t have pits or grooves, although they may have vertical ridges. Nails that are cracked, split, or brittle can sometimes be a sign of a health problem.

Learn what causes cracked nails, and find out what steps to take to get the problem under control.

Cracked Nail Causes and Treatments

Aging

The most common reason for cracked nails is something that happens to everyone: getting older. As you age, your nails become thinner and more likely to crack. This is most common in women over 60 but can affect men, too.

If your cracked nails are related to aging, you might also see peeling and ridges.

Although you can't turn back the clock, you can take better care of your nails. Before bed, put urea cream or mineral oil on your nails and cuticles, and then put on cotton gloves. During the day, put on lotion after you wash your hands or shower. If that isn’t enough, your dermatologist may be able to prescribe a stronger treatment.

Harsh nail products

Nail polish and nail polish remover can have strong chemicals. If you use them a lot, they might weaken and dry out your nails. That makes them more likely to crack. The glues and dyes in acrylic nails could also cause a reaction.

If nail products are the reason your nails are cracked, you may also have:

  • Color changes, such as yellowing
  • Dull nails

Avoid nail products that contain toluene and formaldehyde, two especially harsh chemicals. Biotin, a B vitamin supplement, could help heal your nails. But you shouldn't take it if you're pregnant. If your nails are still cracking after 6 months, see your doctor.

Wet hands

If you spend a lot of time with your hands in and out of water, like washing dishes, your fingernails can start to split.

If this is the cause of your cracked nails, you may also have:

  • Very soft fingernails
  • Cracking that's worse in winter months
  • Normal-looking toenails that aren't cracked

A lotion with lanolin or alpha-hydroxy acid may soothe your nail area. Some people use a layer of clear nail polish to protect cracked nails. To prevent more splits, wear cotton-lined rubber gloves when your hands are in water. Gently file down any nail snags or uneven edges so they don't lead to more cracks.

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Psoriasis

Your body usually takes weeks to create skin cells. If it makes them in just a few days, you have a skin condition called psoriasis. It can affect your fingernails and toenails, too.

Psoriasis can also cause:

  • Tiny pits in your nail bed
  • White, yellow, or brown nails
  • Loose nails
  • Crumbling nails
  • Red nail beds

You could have psoriasis only on your nails, or you could have scaly redness in other places on your body. Either way, see a dermatologist, who can suggest a medicine that helps.

Anemia

Your body needs iron to make healthy red blood cells that can move oxygen to all your tissue. If you don't have enough iron, you have a condition called anemia. Cracked nails can be one of the symptoms.

Pregnancy can raise your chances of getting anemia. So can certain conditions like ulcers and cancer.

Other symptoms of low iron are:

If you think you have anemia, talk to your doctor to figure out what's causing it. You may need to take iron supplements every day. If your case is severe, you could have a blood transfusion or IV treatment.

Thyroid disease

Your thyroid is a gland in your neck. It makes hormones that control many of the things your body does, like breathing and heart rate. If your thyroid doesn't make enough hormones, you have hypothyroidism.

If low thyroid hormone is the reason you have cracked nails, you could also notice:

  • Brittle nails that break off
  • Swelling in your lower legs
  • Swelling around your eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Thinning hair or bald patches
  • Yellow-orange skin on your palms or the soles of your feet
  • A doughy or swollen face

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. A simple blood test can check how well your thyroid is working. You may need to take a pill every day to give your body the hormone your thyroid can no longer make.

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Fungal infection

A yeast or mold can enter your nail and cause an infection, making your nails more likely to crack or break. It’s more common in your toenails than in your fingernails. You may hear your doctor call it onychomycosis.

Fungal infections can also cause:

  • Nails that are yellow, brown, or white
  • Thick nails
  • Nails that separate from the bed

A fungal infection can be hard to treat. Your doctor will probably give you prescription antifungal pills. In severe cases, they might need to take off the nail.

Biotin deficiency

It’s rare, but you could have cracked nails because you aren’t getting enough biotin in your diet.

Other signs of biotin deficiency include:

  • Hair thinning or loss
  • A red rash around your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • Pinkeye (conjunctivitis)
  • Depression
  • Less energy

Biotin supplements may help. You can also try eating more meat, eggs, fish, seeds, nuts, and vegetables like sweet potatoes.

Cracked Nails Prevention

Some lifestyle changes may help strengthen your nails:

  • Keep them as clean and dry as possible.
  • Cut your nails straight across with sharp scissors or clippers. Round the tips slightly.
  • Use a nail oil or hand lotion regularly.
  • Try a paraffin wax bath, at the nail salon or at home, to moisturize your hands.
  • Avoid manicures, which usually include nail polishes and polish removers.
  • Don’t use your nails as tools to do things like opening soda cans.
  • Wear gloves when washing dishes and doing other housework.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on August 04, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: "What is psoriasis?" "What is nail psoriasis and how can I treat it?" "Thyroid disease: A checklist of skin, hair and nail changes," "What can make my hands look younger?"

Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis Alliance: "Nail Psoriasis."

Cleveland Clinic: "Nails and Your Health -- From Age-Related Changes to Serious Cancers."

National Institutes of Health/Office of Dietary Supplements: "Biotin."

American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Brittle Splitting Nails."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Iron-Deficiency Anemia."

Aurora Healthcare: "12 Disease Signs -- Found On Our Fingernails."

Harvard Health Publishing: "The lowdown on thyroid slowdown."

Your Hormones.info/The Society for Endocrinology: "Thyroid Gland."

Journal of Women's Health Care: "Management of the Aging Nail."

Mayo Clinic: "Anemia."

American Family Physician: "Nail Abnormalities: Clue to Systemic Disease."

Mayo Clinic: “Fingernails: Do’s and don’ts for healthy nails.”

CDC: “Fungal Nail Infections.”

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Department of Dermatology: “What Causes Brittle Nails? How You Can Treat Weak Fingernails.”

American Academy of Dermatology: “Tips for healthy nails.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Onycholysis.”

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