Brittle Nails: Top Causes & Natural Remedies That Work

Dr. Group
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
Published on
A woman soaking her nails in a homemade cuticle oil to strengthen nails. This is a natural remedy for brittle nails.

Having brittle nails that easily break, chip, and split is a common irritation for many people. Although brittle nails are painful and can affect day-to-day activities, fragile nails are usually just a cosmetic concern caused by normal, everyday wear and tear. Sometimes, however, they indicate a vitamin or mineral deficiency, or another health condition. Regardless of the cause, there are a number of simple actions and natural remedies to help your nails grow stronger.

The nails, which protect the fingers and toes, are composed of a hard protein called keratin that comes from a "matrix" of cells inside the fingers and toes. Healthy nails normally grow at one-tenth of an inch per month. At that rate, it takes between three and six months to replace a single nail. Thin, brittle nails, which are fragile and prone to breakage, rarely, if ever, appear healthy and normal.

Top Signs of Brittle Nails

If you have weak, brittle nails, you're not alone. About 20 percent of the population has this condition, which is medically known as onychoschizia. Women are twice as likely to have brittle nails as men.[1] People who work jobs that expose their hands to water, cleaning chemicals, or irritating substances are also at a higher risk of having brittle nails.[2]

The top signs of brittle nails are:

  • Peeling at the tips
  • Nails that easily split, fracture, chip, or crack near the ends
  • Slow-growing nails or nails that will not grow long
  • Vertical ridges on the nails
  • Pain around the nails during normal daily activities
  • Hangnails or ripped skin near the cuticles

White spots on the nail bed are not associated with brittle nails, and actually are "nail bruises" caused by an abnormality in the nail matrix where the nail grows and are not a cause for concern.

What Causes Brittle Nails?

There are a number of variables that can cause brittle nails. External factors such as personal hygiene and exposure to chemical or physical irritants are among the most common contributors to brittle nails. Likewise, internal issues such as vitamin deficiencies, genetics, and health conditions are common causes. By and large, however, external factors are to blame for most cases of brittle nails. For example, weather conditions like low humidity and dry heat can worsen nail health. An easy way to tell that something external is causing your brittle nails is if you have fragile fingernails but strong, healthy toenails.

If your toenails are strong and healthy, but your fingernails are fragile, then you know something external is causing your brittle nails.

Here are more causes of brittle nails:

Frequent Hand Washing

Wetting your nails causes them to absorb water and expand. As they dry, they lose this moisture and contract. People who do this frequently and repeatedly, such as swimmers or people who wash dishes without wearing gloves, are among the most likely to have brittle nails.[1]

Frequent Manicures

Painting your nails or getting manicures can dehydrate your nails and fracture the keratin.[1] Nail polish, primers, and removers typically contain harsh chemical solvents like acetone or alcohol, which can dry and weaken nails.[3] Some research suggests that the more frequently you get manicures, the higher your risk of having brittle nails.[4]

Iron Deficiency

Sometimes brittle nails indicate a vitamin or mineral deficiency. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, iron deficiency is the most common nutrient-related cause of brittle nails.[5] Iron is an important nutrient you need just the right amount of — not too much, and not too little. Whether it's through food or supplements, be mindful of how much iron you're consuming. If you need a boost, foods such as beans, lentils, spinach, Swiss chard, brown rice, pumpkin seeds, and cashews are good sources of iron.

Anemia

Anemia occurs when your body doesn't have enough hemoglobin — the iron-rich protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Hemoglobin also brings oxygen to the nail matrix at the root of the nail. Lack of oxygen due to anemia may impair nail development and formation.[1]

Biotin Deficiency

Biotin (vitamin B-7) deficiency is another cause of brittle nails. Biotin deficiency is more common in people who smoke, drink heavily, follow a diet that's high in processed foods, have a liver condition, have Crohn's disease, or are pregnant. Some studies have found that regularly supplementing with biotin increases nail thickness and durability.[6]

Thyroid Disease

Studies have linked both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism to brittle nails — specifically, nails that split from the nail bed.[7] People with hypothyroidism — an under-functioning thyroid gland — typically have under active sweat and sebaceous glands and, thus, less oil available to lubricate their nails.[8]

Aging

Natural age-related changes in the body can also cause brittle nails and dry skin. These changes may also make nails hard and thick or yellow, particularly toenails. With age, both fingernails and toenails may grow more slowly. This commonly occurs with women who have been through menopause or other hormone-related changes.

Natural Remedies for Brittle Nails

If you have brittle nails, you're probably wondering how to make them stronger. Fortunately, several natural remedies and lifestyle adjustments can help improve your nail health.

Avoid or Reduce Manicures

One of the most effective ways to strengthen your nails is to avoid manicures. Nail polish, nail polish remover, and nail polish primer all contain drying ingredients that worsen brittle nails. Acrylic or artificial nails can also weaken nails. Gel manicures are harmful because they require nail polish remover that contains acetone in order to be removed. If you do get a gel manicure, do not pick at the polish to remove it.[9] If you must get manicures, try removing polish from your nails and leaving them unpainted for two weeks in between. This will reduce the nails' exposure to these products and give them time to heal.[9]

Choose Healthier Nail Polish

No nail polish is completely chemical-free, but, at a minimum, look for one that's free of toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate (DBP), camphor, and triphenyl phosphate (TPHP or TPP). TPP is an endocrine-disrupting chemical that studies have found is absorbed into the body through the nails.[10] Look for water-based polish and base coats that contain protein or vitamins to help strengthen your nails. These polishes take longer to dry, but it's better for your nails.

Water-based nail polish takes longer to dry but is much better for your nails in the long run.

Moisturize Your Hands Regularly

Apply moisturizing lotion to your hands every time you wash them. This will help keep your nails hydrated and prevent chipping and breaking. Use an organic product to avoid the harsh chemicals that dry out your nails. Thick lotions and hand creams are more effective than thin, watery lotions at moisturizing nails.[2]

Avoid Excessive Hand Washing

Wash your hands only when necessary. Use mild, natural soap that doesn't contain harsh, drying chemicals. Fully dry your hands after washing and follow with moisturizing lotion. Avoid waterless hand sanitizers that are high in alcohol as it can dry your skin and nails.[2]

Wear Gloves

When washing the dishes or doing other chores that expose your hands to water and harsh chemicals, wear natural latex gloves for protection. It may not seem like a big deal, but the effects of even a few minutes of exposure to hot water can accumulate and damage your nails. Use a moisturizing hand lotion after you finish — even if you wear gloves, the heat of the water can dry out your skin and nails.

Limit the Length of Showers

Although a long, hot bath or shower is relaxing, spending too much time in water over-saturates nails and makes them prone to bending and tearing. For strong, healthy nails, try to limit your showers to 15 minutes or less.

Apply Liquid Vitamin E to Your Hands

Vitamin E oil helps to nourish and strengthen nails and cuticles. Choose 100 percent organic liquid vitamin E oil to avoid toxic filler ingredients. Simply take the dropper from the bottle and apply a little oil to your nails and massage it into the nail bed and around the cuticle to soften and moisturize it.

Try All-Natural Cuticle Oils

While some types of cuticle oil contain chemicals, you can find varieties that contain all-natural ingredients, like beeswax, jojoba oil, flaxseed oil, sweet almond oil, and vitamin E oil. These oils are commonly used as carrier oils for aromatherapy or massages, so you may already have them lying around the house. As a bonus, making cuticle oil from all-natural oils is a great way to save money!

Try a Biotin Supplement

Biotin is a water-soluble B vitamin — vitamin B-7 to be exact – that helps the body convert fat, protein, and carbohydrates to energy. Since biotin deficiency is linked to brittle nails and hair loss, this B vitamin is often taken as a supplement to help support nail, skin, and hair health. Some research suggests that taking a biotin supplement may make nails firmer and harder and reduce splitting.[11, 12] If you need extra biotin, try our certified-organic, vegan Global Healing Center Biotin supplement.

Follow a Plant-Based Diet

Getting adequate protein helps support nail health.[2] A plant-based diet includes a variety of protein sources, such as beans, lentils, legumes, seeds, nuts, and quinoa. Not only can a plant-based diet provide enough protein, but it can provide the total spectrum of nutrients you need — including biotin. Natural plant sources of biotin include grains, bananas, and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, spinach, and broccoli.[6]

Be Gentle During Nail Care

Vigorously sawing away at your nails with a nail file, using metal tools, and cutting or picking at cuticles can damage them. Instead, use a fine-grit nail file and move it from the side to the center in one direction. Regularly filing off any jagged areas may prevent further splitting and breaking.[5] In fact, some experts recommend keeping your nails short if your nails are brittle.[13] It's OK to use a wooden cuticle stick but avoid cutting your cuticles. If you buff your nails, do so in an X-shaped pattern rather than back and forth, as this can lead to nail splitting.[5]

When to Seek Medical Attention

Most of the time, brittle nails are a cosmetic issue, and simple lifestyle changes can remedy them. Sometimes, however, brittle nails are a sign of a medical condition such as thyroid disease, anemia, or Raynaud's syndrome — a disorder associated with poor circulation in the fingers and toes that causes the hands and feet (and nails) to turn pale blue, usually after exposure to cold, and then flush with red when blood rushes back.

If your nails turn mostly white with darker lines at the edge near the tip, this may be a sign of jaundice. Jaundice is caused by excess bilirubin in the blood from obstruction of the bile duct in the liver. If your nails are yellow, it may be a sign of thyroid disease, lung disease, or diabetes. Or, if it's present with brittleness and cracking, it may, and probably does, indicate a fungal infection.

Rippled or ridged nails that co-occur with discoloration under the nails may be a sign of psoriasis, a skin condition, or inflammatory arthritis. Rippled nails may also indicate Raynaud's syndrome.

If you experience other symptoms alongside brittle nails or if your toenails are also brittle, consult your healthcare provider.

Points to Remember

Brittle nails that peel, chip, fracture, or grow slowly are usually due to frequent washing, drying, or manicures — particularly gel manicures. Simple changes such as wearing gloves when washing the dishes, moisturizing your hands with an organic lotion, applying liquid vitamin E, and avoiding manicures can strengthen brittle nails.

In less common instances, brittle nails indicate an underlying health condition such as anemia or thyroid disease. If you experience other symptoms or if several months (remember, healthy nails take time to grow) of maintained lifestyle changes do not seem to help, seek the advice of your healthcare provider.

Do you have experience dealing with brittle nails? Have you tried any of the remedies described in this article? We would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.

References (13)
  1. Van de Kerkhof PC, et al. Brittle nail syndrome: a pathogenesis-based approach with a proposed grading system. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Oct;53(4):644-51.
  2. Pinning down the cause of nail problems is the first step to prevention, finding solution. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Updated 5 Aug. 2010. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.
  3. Rieder EA, Tosti A. Cosmetically induced disorders of the nail with update on contemporary nail manicures. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2016 Apr;9(4):39-44.
  4. Stern DK, et al. Water content and other aspects of brittle versus normal fingernails. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007 Jul;57(1):31-6.
  5. Brittle Splitting Nails. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.
  6. Biotin: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Updated 17 Sep. 2018. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
  7. Nail Abnormalities. Medline Plus. Updated 14 Apr. 2017. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
  8. Kambil SM. Clinical study of skin manifestations of hypothyroidism at a tertiary hospital in North Kerala. Int J Res Dermatol. 2018 Aug;4(3):298-300.
  9. Gel manicures: Tips for healthy nails. American Academy of Dermatology. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
  10. Mendelsohn E, et al. Nail polish as a source of exposure to triphenyl phosphate. Environ Int. 2016 Jan; 86:45–51.
  11. Colombo VE, et al. Treatment of brittle fingernails and onychoschizia with biotin: scanning electron microscopy. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1990 Dec;23(6 Pt 1):1127-32.
  12. Lipner SR, Scher RK. Biotin for the treatment of nail disease: what is the evidence? J Dermatol Treat. 2018 Jun;29(4):411-414.
  13. Piraccini B, et al. Treatment of nail disorders. Therapy. 2004;1(1):159–167.

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