How to tell if your nails are brittle—and what to do about it
A dermatologist weighs in on the common problem.
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When you start to think about your daily routine, you’ll likely realize how much you put your hands through. At the bare minimum, you wash them regularly and handle items all throughout the day. These actions not only affect your skin—hand cream is a must-have—but also your nail health. If you notice that your fingernails look or feel brittle, you can try a few things to strengthen them, but first, you need to figure out the cause. To understand the reasons behind frail nails and how to treat them, we spoke with Dr. Sandhya Deverapall, a dermatologist and the director of chemotherapy and transplant dermatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
What are signs of brittle nails?
You might think of brittle nails as ones that break easily, which is true. But that might not be the whole story. There are three major signs of brittle nails, Deverapalli says. First, your nails may have longitudinal lines or grooves in them that run from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. Or you could also have lines that run horizontally across the nail instead. Lastly, you may see granules or flakes on top of your nails that look as though you recently removed nail polish. In addition, you may also notice that your nails chip, break, or peel easily.
What brittle nails are not: discolored. If you see a yellowing of the nail or the skin underneath it, that’s most likely a fungus, which can occur at the same time as brittle nails, but is not indicative of brittleness. If you see green, blue, or purple discoloration, that may be a sign of bruising caused by activity or a health condition. Any discoloration that doesn't clear up relatively quickly is a sign you should see a doctor.
What causes brittle nails?
The health of your fingernails depends on external factors, like what you expose them to, and your internal health. The most likely culprit for brittle nails is dehydration, because of your habits or how you groom them. “It’s a lot of handwashing, exposure to a lot of chemicals from detergents [and] soaps, and doing a lot of housework without gloves,” Deverapalli explains. “All of that can cause injury.” Frequent wetting and drying of your hands can pull moisture from your nails (and skin) as the moisture evaporates into the air. Biting your nails or putting your fingers in your mouth are also culprits because that is its own wet-dry cycle. Your nails may also become brittle because of how you groom them—salon and at-home tools are by definition abrasive and the wrong technique can cause damage to the nail. Changing your nail polish frequently can also cause brittle nails because the solvents in removers are very drying as well.
Your fingernails could alternatively indicate a medical issue. “[People] may have some underlying conditions that they need to be aware of,” Deverapalli says. “[The nails] may be a window into their body and into their system.” Psoriasis or lichen planus are two inflammatory skin conditions that can affect the nails and lead to brittleness. Thyroid disease is another cause of brittleness and can be accompanied by yellow discoloration in the nails, too.
How do you prevent brittle nails?
The easiest way to see an improvement in brittle nails is to protect your hands. If you have household chores or an occupation that require a lot of dry or wet work with your hands, you’ll want to wear the appropriate gloves for each task. For dry work, choose a pair of heavy cotton gloves, like Reviewed’s favorite work gloves from Carhartt that are flexible and have pads to protect the fingertips, palms, wrists, and knuckles. For wet work, you’ll want a pair of nitrile gloves, like the Vencom Steel ones we named the best overall of disposable gloves for their durability and sizing options.
You want also to be mindful about how often and gently you groom your nails. Clean your tools with water and an antibacterial soap before cutting or filing your nails and before storing the tools away. When you’re cutting and shaping your nails, follow the natural shape of your fingertips (think: rounded square), as the edges of the nail pressing into the skin can cause irritation and a nail fold infection. File tips in only one direction, as grinding back and forth can damage the nail, Deverapalli says. If you get manicures at a salon, wait two or three weeks in between each appointment, as going too often (and the frequent polish changes) can also irritate the nails.
Another way to prevent nail brittleness is by regularly moisturizing the nails and cuticles. Deverapalli recommends looking for ointments or creams that contain glycerin to moisturize the nails and petrolatum to act as a barrier that locks in the moisture. One that fills the bill is Aquaphor, which contains both glycerin and petrolatum. You can also opt for plain Vaseline, which only contains petrolatum. Deverapalli also recommends an ingredient called urea, which softens and hydrates the skin and nails to prevent or treat brittleness. You can find this in moisturizers, like the Eucerin Roughness Relief Cream, or in a designated nail gel, like the Urea 40 Nail Gel. All of these options are better than using paint-on nail hardeners or strengtheners, as these usually only temporarily solve the problem or can even cause more damage and loss of flexibility.
How can you treat brittle nails?
Beyond beginning prevention methods ASAP, you may also speak to your physician or dermatologist about treatment if you don't see improvement. Many people reach for a vitamin supplement called biotin, one of the B vitamins with a reputation for helping improve their hair, skin, and nail health. But Deverapalli warns that you’ll want to speak with a physician before adding it into your routine, as excessive biotin can alter the results of lab tests needed for some medical diagnoses. As with all supplements, you’ll want a doctor's recommendation and monitoring to avoid unwanted side effects.
You’ll also want to speak to a physician to test for any underlying condition that may be causing the brittleness. You can try routine changes first, like wearing gloves and moisturizing the fingernails, but it’s never too early to consult a doctor, especially if you’re noticing other bodily changes that give you pause.
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