Brittle nails, or onychoschizia, can affect nearly anyone. It is a common issue that causes soft, thin, or splitting nails.
According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), brittle nails are more common in women than in men.
In many cases, people with brittle nails can take steps to strengthen them and prevent future issues.
This article looks at what causes brittle nails, some treatments and self-care tips, and when to see a doctor.
Too much or too little moisture, usually due to external factors, is the most likely cause of brittle nails. The AOCD define two broad categories of brittle nails due to moisture issues: hard and brittle, and soft and brittle.
Too little moisture
When a person’s nails are hard and brittle, the nails lack enough moisture.
Frequent wetting and drying of the nails from activities such as hand washing or doing the dishes can strip the moisture from the nails.
People are also more likely to have dry nails in hot, dry environments or during the winter months.
Too much moisture
Soft and brittle nails occur when the nails have too much moisture.
This can happen as a result of using too much moisturizer on the hands. It could also be the result of using harsh chemicals such as acetone to remove nail polish.
There are also some other factors and underlying conditions that can result in brittle nails:
- Anemia: This condition occurs when a person’s body does not produce enough hemoglobin. This is a protein that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Sometimes, an iron deficiency causes anemia. Anemia can cause extreme fatigue.
- Thyroid disorder: This condition causes a person’s body to create too many or too few hormones. When this happens, it can affect the body’s absorption of minerals. As a result, a person’s nails may split away from their beds.
- Age: Age can affect the strength of a person’s nails. Nails naturally decrease in strength over time, which can cause them to break more easily.
According to the AOCD, if only the fingernails are split or brittle and the toenails are strong, an external factor or condition may be the cause.
There are limited treatments and medications available for brittle nails. A doctor may simply recommend taking supplements to strengthen them.
However, the following home care tips may help strengthen the nails.
Applying nail hardener
For people with soft nails, applying a clear coat of nail polish or another nail product may help increase nail strength over time.
People with dry nails may wish to consider using a moisturizer on their hands and nails. They can do this during the day or at night before bed. Increasing moisture can help dry nails become less brittle.
Wearing gloves when washing the dishes or using cleaning products can help prevent further damage and strengthen the nails.
Making some of the following changes to diet may help strengthen brittle nails:
- Taking supplements: The AOCD recommend taking biotin vitamin supplements. They say that it can take up to 6 months for it to work, but that it is effective in about one-third of all cases. Other supplements to consider include colloidal minerals, gelatin, and calcium.
- Getting adequate protein in the diet: Nails are largely made up of keratin protein. Eating the right amount of protein is vital for boosting keratin production and maintaining strong nails.
- Eating iron-rich foods: If a person has an iron deficiency or anemia, they should consider eating foods rich in iron, such as red meat or spinach. They may also consider taking iron supplements, but they should consult their doctor first, as these can interact with certain medications.
As a person ages, taking good care of the nails can help prevent brittle nails and maintain healthy ones.
The following tips may help:
- gently filing away snags or other rough spots on the nails to help prevent breaks
- not using metal tools or instruments when caring for the nails
- avoiding products such as nail polish remover that contains acetone
- wearing rubber gloves while doing the dishes and other tasks that involve water
- keeping the nails trimmed
- not picking at or biting the nails
Brittle nails are not necessarily a major cause for concern. However, a person may wish to see a doctor if they notice additional accompanying symptoms.
For example, fatigue could be a symptom of iron deficiency or anemia. Weight gain or loss could indicate a thyroid issue.
A person may also want to see a doctor if home remedies to strengthen their nails are not working. They may be able to suggest additional treatments or determine the cause of the brittleness.
Nails being too moist or too dry typically causes them to become brittle. In less common cases, anemia or thyroid problems may be the cause. Also, as a person ages, they are more likely to develop brittle nails.
A person can take steps to prevent brittle nails, such as wearing gloves when cleaning, practicing proper nail care, and getting enough protein in the diet.