There are many different causes of peeling or splitting nails. Doctors call the condition onychoschizia. Treatments may include increasing iron intake, keeping nails short and moisturized, and more.

Sometimes, horizontal splits may occur in the fingernails, resulting in thin layers of the nails peeling back.

Nails consist of layers of a protective fibrous protein called keratin that also occurs in skin and hair. Keratin makes the nails strong, but external trauma or an underlying health condition can cause thin layers of the nail to peel away.

When this occurs, it can leave the nails looking thin. They may also feel sensitive or uncomfortable.

Here, we look at the causes of peeling nails and how to prevent and treat them.

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Causes of peeling nails include exposure to chemicals and wearing acrylic nails.

Mild iron deficiency is often the cause of peeling nails. However, some external causes and underlying health conditions can also produce this symptom.

External causes include:

  • washing the hands excessively
  • washing dishes without gloves
  • peeling nail polish off instead of using remover
  • wearing gel or acrylic nails
  • using the nails to pick things up or open things
  • buffing the nails too much
  • exposing the nails to certain chemicals
  • spending time in hot or humid places

Nails can take a long time to grow, so the results of external trauma may not become visible until many months later.

Underlying health conditions that may cause peeling or brittle nails include:

  • iron-deficiency anemia
  • dehydration
  • underactive thyroid
  • lung disease, which may also cause yellow nails
  • kidney disease, which brown discoloration on the nails can also indicate

Changes in the way the nails grow may also happen as a person gets older.

Researchers have suggested that age-related changes in a person’s nails may occur as a result of blood circulation problems and extended exposure to UV rays.

A mild iron deficiency is more likely than a severe underlying health condition to be the cause of peeling nails.

However, it is still useful for people to be aware of other conditions that may cause peeling nails. If they have any other relevant symptoms in addition to peeling nails, they will know to mention these to a doctor.

Below, we cover the additional symptoms of conditions that may cause peeling, brittle, or discolored nails.


Without treatment, a mild iron deficiency can become more serious and may lead to anemia. Anemia occurs when the body is low in healthy red blood cells and does not have enough hemoglobin available.

Hemoglobin is a substance in red blood cells that helps them to carry oxygen around the body.

In addition to peeling nails, the symptoms of a severe iron deficiency may include:

  • chest pain or a rapid heartbeat
  • feeling very weak or tired
  • shortness of breath
  • a headache
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • having cold hands or feet
  • having a sore or inflamed tongue
  • pale skin
  • changes in appetite


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Drinking water regularly may help to prevent peeling nails.

People can become dehydrated if they do not drink enough water or non-caffeinated beverages.

Dehydration may cause a range of symptoms, as well as peeling nails. These can include:

  • dry mouth, eyes, and skin
  • increased thirst
  • infrequent urination
  • dark yellow urine
  • a headache
  • feeling dizzy
  • tiredness

Underactive thyroid

An underactive thyroid does not produce enough hormones. As well as brittle nails, an underactive thyroid may cause:

Lung disease

In some instances, nail abnormalities may be a sign of lung disease.

According to the American Lung Association, the symptoms of lung disease may include:

  • a cough lasting a month or longer
  • shortness of breath
  • mucus production lasting a month or longer
  • wheezing
  • coughing up blood
  • unexplained chest pain

Kidney disease

According to a 2015 article, brown discoloration on the upper half of the nail may indicate kidney disease.

Other symptoms may include:

  • reduced appetite
  • weight loss
  • itchy skin
  • frequent need to urinate
  • water retention
  • trouble sleeping
  • shortness of breath
  • blood in urine
  • muscle cramps
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Pumpkin seeds are rich in iron.

The best way to treat peeling nails is:

  • eating iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements
  • keeping nails trimmed short
  • filing nails to a rounded edge so that they are less likely to catch and tear
  • keeping nails moisturized

The recommended daily intake of iron is 18 milligrams (mg). Iron-rich foods include:

  • spinach
  • legumes, such as peas and beans
  • shellfish
  • organ meat, such as liver
  • red meat
  • pumpkin seeds

Research suggests that coconut oil is a safe and effective skin moisturizer. Rubbing coconut oil into nails may help to keep them moisturized.

Although it is rare, underlying health conditions can sometimes cause peeling nails. Below are the treatments for each of these conditions.


The standard treatment for iron deficiency is to eat more iron-rich foods or take iron supplements.

If a person has symptoms of anemia, they should speak to their doctor, who can recommend the best treatment.


People can treat mild dehydration by drinking more water. If they have severe dehydration, they may need to receive intravenous fluids in a hospital.

Underactive thyroid

It is possible to treat an underactive thyroid with a synthetic form of the T4 hormone that a healthy thyroid produces.

Lung disease

There are several treatments available for this condition. The best one will depend on the type of lung disease that a person has.

One type of lung disease is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Treatments for this may include:

  • stopping smoking
  • medication
  • oxygen treatment
  • non-invasive ventilation
  • surgery

The following tips can help to prevent peeling nails:

  • avoiding wearing acrylic or gel nails
  • using nail polish remover to take off nail polish
  • wearing rubber gloves when washing dishes or cleaning with chemicals
  • using the fingers rather than the nails to open things or pick them up
  • trimming nails and gently filing them to a rounded shape
  • keeping nails moisturized

Peeling nails are generally treatable at home, but if the nails are also painful or bleeding, it is best to visit a doctor. People should also seek medical advice if peeling nails accompany other symptoms of more severe conditions.