What Causes Brittle Nails and How to Care for Them
Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on May 23, 2020
How It Happens
Everything from aging to poor nutrition can make your nails dry, thin, and easy to break. There are also some treatments and medical conditions that can make them brittle. But you don't have to put up with the problem. The right care can make all the difference in keeping your nails healthy and strong.
Cause: Too Much Moisture
When your nails get wet, they swell. When they dry, they shrink. If your hands are in water a lot, especially if you're also using harsh soaps or detergents, this constant change can dry your nails out and make them soft and easy to peel.
As you get older, your nails may dry out and grow more slowly. Toenails usually get thicker and harder, while fingernails get thinner and easier to break. There's no specific age when this happens, and it doesn't happen to everyone, but it could be the cause of your brittle nails.
Cause: Raynaud's Syndrome
It’s a condition that affects the blood vessels and keeps your hands and feet from getting enough blood. This makes it hard for your nails to have what they need to stay healthy. Brittle nails are a common symptom of Raynaud's syndrome.
Cause: Low Thyroid Levels
Sweat is your body's natural moisturizer. Low levels of the thyroid hormone, called "hypothyroidism," lessens how much sweat your body makes. The result is drier hair, skin, and nails. Along with brittle nails, you might have other symptoms like aches and pains, fatigue, weight gain, and memory problems.
The most common cause for anemia, or a low red blood cell count, is not enough iron in the blood. It can happen when you lose too much blood. You can also get it if you don't get enough iron in your diet or have a condition that keeps you from absorbing it. Anemia can make your nails brittle or cave inward in the shape of a spoon.
Cause: Cancer Treatment
Brittle nails can be a side effect of some cancer treatments like chemotherapy. Dry skin and nails are common. They may become thin, break easily, and grow more slowly than normal.
Cause: Not Enough Nutrients
Rarely, brittle nails can mean you're not getting the vitamins and minerals your body needs. For example, low calcium levels (hypocalcemia) can cause scaly skin, dry hair, and brittle nails along with muscle cramps.
Care Tip: Wear Gloves
An easy way to protect your nails from too much moisture or harsh chemicals is to put gloves on when you wash dishes or clean the house. Choose rubber gloves that are lined with cotton, so you'll sweat less.
Care Tip: Biotin Supplements
A few small studies show that taking a daily dose of biotin can thicken and strengthen nails. High amounts might change certain lab results or affect epilepsy medications. Check with your doctor to see if it's OK for you to try it.
Care Tip: Avoid Artificial Nails
Acrylic nails, the kind a technician glues onto your natural nails, can do a lot of damage. A nail tech has to file the surface down to get them to stick, which makes them thin. Chemicals in the glue make them weak. Avoid this beauty routine if you're dealing with brittle nails.
Care Tip: Eat More Protein
When you get enough protein, it boosts the amount of keratin your body makes. Keratin is a protein that builds hair and nails and makes them stronger. To find out how many grams you need a day, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.
Care Tip: Keep Your Nails Short
Trim and file your nails regularly to avoid and repair snags. You should cut them straight across with sharp clippers or nail scissors. File them into a slight curve at the ends.
Care Tip: Coat With Clear Polish
Certain polishes with nylon fibers in them may strengthen your nails and keep them from chipping or splitting. Try a once-a-week application, but avoid acetone-based removers to get it off, which can damage your nails.
Care Tip: Put on Lotion
Lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids or lanolin can be helpful for brittle nails caused by dry conditions. Soak your nails in water for 5 minutes before you put it on.
Care Tip: Don't Use Nails as a Tool
Do you like to pop open soda cans or other containers with your nails? Give it a rest. Reach for other objects instead so you're not zapping what strength your nails have.
IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
Canadian Dermatology Association: "Brittle Nails."
Harvard Medical School: "By the way, doctor: Does having ridged and split fingernails mean I'm unhealthy?" "The lowdown on thyroid slowdown," "How much protein do you need every day?"
UPMC Health Beat: "What Causes Brittle Nails? How You Can Treat Weak Fingernails."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Iron-Deficiency Anemia."
Breastcancer.org: "Nail Changes."
Cleveland Clinic: "Are Your Skin and Nails Suffering From Cancer Treatment? 9 Tips."
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements: "Biotin."
American Academy of Dermatology: "Artificial Nails: Dermatologists' Tips For Reducing Nail Damage," "Tips for Healthy Nails."
Genetics Home Reference: "Keratins."
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: "Brittle Splitting Nails."