Why do my nails peel and break?

Why do my nails peel and break?
February 26, 2015 6:52 AM

The answer to this question is not easy. In fact there are lots of reasons why your nails may be peeling and breaking and in this post we shall look at the most common ones. The post also features various treatment options for brittle nails.

If your nails are peeling and breaking then this would probably be very frustrating for you, especially if you are a female. Nails that break often are called “brittle nails”. It is a condition in which your nails might get thick, discolored, flaky and rather fragile.

Brittle nails (oronychorrhexis) is a very common and as much as 20% of the population suffers from this condition, with females make the most of the affected population. If your nails are breaking away then there might be something wrong with your health as well since nails depict your overall health.

Habits like frequent hand washing, strumming a guitar, typing, frequent contact with chemicals, use of substandard cosmetics and use of nails for some other purpose (like as a screwdriver) can adversely affect your nail health. Similarly, if you’ve this condition then it might be the result of some medical condition. Nails are not dead structures as you might think. You need to provide them with adequate minerals, vitamins and nutrients to keep them in good shape.

What Causes Peeling of Nails?

Before we can jump to the remedies, you first need to know the reasons that might be triggering this condition in the first place. Here are some things that you should know about brittle nails and should therefore avoid them.


One of the apparent reasons for brittle nails is injuries. In addition to some accidental injuries, habit of nail biting and chewing of cuticles can also leave your finger nails ragged. Chewing of cuticles also promotes dehydration in nails and results in breakage.

Additional stress on your hands

If you’re overworking your hands and nails, you’re actually subjecting them to more damage. Doing some house or yard work, weight lifting and scrubbing the floor are some of the main reasons that your nails might be brittle.

Medical conditions

This is when the condition gets worrisome. There are a number of medical conditions that might be the root cause of your problem.

  • Psoriasis: Psoriasis is when the immune system of your body back fires and starts to destroy your body tissues instead of protecting them. The most commonly affected part of body in psoriasis is skin, but it can affect nails as well. In fact, brittle nails can be the only sign of psoriasis in some instances.
  • Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is when your body doesn’t secrete enough thyroid hormone. Skin is the main target of thyroid deficiency and nails being the part of skin get affected as well.
  • Yeast Infection: Brittle nails can be the direct result of yeast infection. Such infections not only destroy your nail architecture, but also cause change in its color.
  • Brittle nails may be the result of liver and kidney problems.


Nails are actively growing structures of your body. You must have seen that nails grown back within a few days you cut them down. This shows how actively nails grow. That’s why nails need a lot of nutrients and any nutrient deficiency may first present as change in your nail architecture. Here are some vital nutrients that you should never run out of if you’re looking for fabulous nails.

Lack of protein/amino acid

Your nails are made up of structural proteins called “Keratin”. In other words, if your diet is poor in proteins, your nails will not get the nutrients they need and will start to wither away.

Lack of vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals increase the production of proteins in the body. Moreover, these nutrients add to the structural stability of nails as well. The most important vitamins and minerals in this regard include vitamin B complex and zinc.

Iron deficiency

How is iron deficiency linked to the breakdown of nails? Your question is indeed valid! There might not be a direct link between these two things so let’s dig deep and see how iron links to nail health. Iron is the main constituent of hemoglobin, which is the key protein in your blood that binds to oxygen and supplies it to body tissues. When your body reserves of iron are running low, your body structures, including nails, don’t get enough oxygen and start to die.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium is an important ingredient of our bones, nails and hair so if you have brittle nail then check your calcium intake. That’s just not it! Even if you’re getting enough calcium from your diet, you still need one more nutrient to ensure that all of your body’s calcium reaches its target. That nutrient is vitamin D. Therefore, vitamin D deficiency is another reason why your nails might be brittle.

Frequent exposure

Excess of everything is bad. Following are a few things, the excess of which, can damage your nails:

Exposure to water

When you put your hands in water, your nails swell. Later when they dry, they shrink. Frequent shrinking and swelling of nails makes them hard and dehydrated and soon they peel and break off. So, if you are a house wife or working as a restaurant dishwashing staff then frequent dishwashing may cause brittle nails. Keeping your nails in soupy water can exacerbate the condition further as soup speeds up the rate at which fluid is lost from your nails.

Exposure to chemical

Nails peeling and breakage winds up if you are dealing with chemicals. Harsh chemical like detergents and solvents, adhesives used in glue, pest controlling sprays and household cleaners damage your hands and nails as none of them is nails friendly.

Other factors


Aging takes toll on all of your body structures and nails are no exception. As you age, your body systems slow down and the rate at which new structures, like nails, are formed also decreases. Nail formation is a rapid progress that demands an active body synthesizing system. Such system becomes defective as you age.

Changing season

People living in regions with both extremes of temperature will know the struggle of crackling lips and nails breaking down. The key to shinny and healthy nails is an optimum degree of moisture. Too less or too much of moisture can both damage your nail architecture. That’s why you must try to maintain an adequate degree of miniaturization in both extremes of temperature.


Sometime medicines that you might be taking can also be the reason for your brittle nails. Some drugs directly arrest the growth of your nails. Other drugs have rather an indirect effect on your nail growth. For instance, some drugs impair your body’s capacity to absorb and utilize nutrients like calcium, iron and zinc. If you’re using any medicine and facing brittle nail issues as well then you must consult with your physician to see what you can do to improve the condition.

Nails Treatment

Brittle nails may also be the result of use of some nail care product. There may be something in your nail polish and nail remover that might be contributing to the damage of your nails. Such products are most of the times full of harmful chemicals like formaldehyde that might dehydrate your nails. There is no harm in going to a saloon and getting manicure and pedicure to look exquisite, but you must see what you’re applying on your nails before starting with any make up item.

What can you do to prevent the breakage and peeling of nails?

After knowing what might be causing damage to your nails, it’s time you know what you can do to improve the health status of your nails. Here is a complete guide of what you should do to improve your nail health.

Prevent yourself from nails wreckers

Take care of your nails from damage done by chemical exposure and frequent dish washing. It is always wise to observe caution instead of waiting for the condition to get any worse. So always wear gloves when have to get into contact with water and chemicals for longer durations. This will protect your nail layers from damage like cracking and chipping. Make a routine to moisturize and also trim and file your nails twice a week. Filed and trimmed nails show less damage if they suffer any injury.

Restore nails

While it is understandable that you like to walk into a party with your nails done, but it’s better if you give your nails some break once in a while! Manicures, use of nail polish and having acrylic nails can make your nails weak so avoid such procedures/ cosmetics to avoid further weakening of nails.

Nails strengtheners are available that help to repair nail damage and also frequent or daily use of moisturizers will also add to make this process even quicker. But you should take a little precaution before purchasing a nail strengthener to check its ingredients as some ingredients used in such products have been linked to breast cancer in women. So it would be better if you go for nail strengtheners with natural ingredients like vitamin E, Jojoba oil, and alpha-proxy acid. Moreover, if you want healthy and beautiful nails then you must avoid the habit of nail biting.

Avoid nail hardness

Formaldehyde is an ingredient found in some of the nail polishes that is not good for your nails and increase the chances of brittle nails, as it makes the nails hard and dry. You should check the ingredients of your nail polish before purchasing it. Try to buy such nail polishes that increase your nail flexibility rather than increasing their hardness. Although all major brands no longer use Formaldehyde in their nail polishes, but do read the labels to double check the ingredient list of the nail polish.


Do you want to know the solution to all your nails’ problems in one word? The one word answer to all your questions is “diet”. If your diet is healthy and all you eat is balanced food then you may never have to face the problems of brittle nails. Here are some diet tips that you should keep in mind.

  • For healthier nails, eat foods rich in protein, especially protein coming from lean sources. Sources of lean protein are fish, poultry and beans.
  • Drinking adequate amounts of water would also help to keep your skin and nails hydrated.
  • If your nails re damaged or chipped then use diet rich in vitamin B complex like green leafy vegetables. Among B complex vitamins, biotin is the most important vitamin that promotes the health of nails. It is quite rich in eggs and other poultry items.
  • Among minerals that are necessary for healthful nails, zinc is the most important. It is naturally rich in sea foods. In addition, you can increase your daily intake of zinc by eating multivitamin supplements with minerals in them.

Regular exercise

Another thing that you should try on regular basis is exercise. When we say exercise, we don’t mean that you get up and start running miles. Even mild to moderate exercise lasting 15-20 minutes a day is perfect for the health of your nails.

How exercise helps?

Here is how:

  • Regular exercise improves the supply of blood to your body organs like nails.
  • When you exercise, you’re actually making sure that all the nutrients are being evenly distributed throughout your body systems, including the nails.
  • It saves your nails from the harm inflicted by oxidative stress.
  • It also helps you shed off different chemicals and toxins that might be hampering the growth of your nails.

Exercises best suited for the need of better nails include aerobics, swimming, brisk walking, jogging, etc.

Doctor’s advice

If your nails are changing their color and breaking then without further delay, you should consult your doctor. It would be better if you take some affirmative measures before condition gets worse. Sometime it might be the initial symptoms for some serious condition that can damage your whole body. In case of infection like yeast infection and psoriasis medical attention in initial stages would lessen the chances of your condition getting worse.

Some remedies for brittle nails

There is no harm in seeking medical assistance. But, there is also no harm in using couple of home remedies before you can actually go to a doctor. These remedies prevent and repair your nails from splitting, breaking, weakening, peeling and all other possible nails problems and make them stronger and healthier. One point that you should keep in mind is that you should get realistic while opting these measures as you might have to wait for as much as six month if you want your healthy nails back. Some home remedies for brittle nails are discussed below.

Soak nails in olive oil

If you have thin nails then soak them in extra virgin olive oil for 10-15 minutes daily for a month. This treatment will heal brittle and damaged nails.

Oils and salves

Applying oils and salves onto your nails will boost up their repair process. A cream containing calendula and comfrey works for damaged nails. Use of comfrey is especially effective as it speeds up the regeneration of cells making up nails. Some essential oils also make their place in the list of ingredients helping in the regeneration of nails. Oils make the nails surface more flexible and moisturized so they become less likely to suffer any damage. Oils like holy basil, grapes seed, rose hip, pumpkin seed, rosemary, and tea tree work best for your peeling and damaged nails.

Hot oil treatment

This treatment is very effective for the nail damage done by water. This remedy is very simple and you can do it at home as well. For that, take ten cotton balls soaked in some oil like olive oil, jojoba oil or almond oil and place these ball on your nails and secure them with 4x4 square of foil and wait for ten minutes. The heat of your body will help the oil penetrate into your body system. This will help rejuvenate the nail growth.

Paraffin wax/heated mitts treatment

Dip you hand and nail in paraffin wax and heated mitts for ten to fifteen minutes daily. This process will strengthen your nails and cuticles.

Plain gelatin

Remember from the previous sections that proteins act as building blocks for nails? Gelatin, being a protein, is therefore a useful substance that can be used at home to strengthen brittle nails. All you need to do is dip your nails in gelatin gel for 10-15 minutes for a few days and see the results coming.

Use a cuticle cream

If your nails are peeling and cracking then you should go for a soothing cuticle cream with ingredients like honey, lemon, butter, vitamin E and vitamin A. Such lotions and creams will nourish your nails and cuticles. Message the cream onto your nails and hands especially before going to bed.

Eat biotin-rich foods

We’ve already mention how important diet is in having stronger nails, but the importance of biotin can’t be underestimated and deserves a second mention. Foods like cooked eggs, liver, whole grains, cauliflower and avocado are naturally rich in biotin .Otherwise, you can just go for a good multivitamin supplement with all the essential amino acids in them.

Don’t miss use your nails

If you’re in the habit of using your nails as tools, for playing guitar, opening soda cans and using your finger nails as screws then these habits need to stop right away! Giving up on these habits will make sure that your nails remain strong and beautiful.

Taking multivitamin

Multivitamins can do wonders for your health, as using multivitamins nourishes your body from head to toe. Use a multivitamin having calcium, vitamin C, vitamin A, biotin and zinc. All these ingredients are pivotal in having younger looking skin and healthier nails.

Avoid nail polish removers

If your nails are already in a bad shape then it would be wise not to exacerbate the damage. So, what you need to do is decrease the use of nail polish remover as it dehydrates your nails and speeds up their breakdown. You should be particularly cautious about nail polish removers containing acetone and formaldehyde.

Nail massage

With the help of some lotion or doctor’s recommended nail cream, massage your finger nails. It will increase the blood circulation to your nail bed. In addition to massage, you should make sure that the moisture of your skin and nails doesn’t go away after hand washing or coming into contact with water. For that, make sure to use a lotion or some moisturizer right after coming into contact with water. This will decrease the chance of your nails getting dehydrated.

Drinking water

If the water reserves of your body are running low, you might experience symptoms like dry, hanging skin and brittle nails. So, the easiest thing you can do while trying to get attractive nails is stay as much hydrated as possible. When you drink water, it results in improved shape and structure of your nails. You can also increase the intake of water by drinking fruit and vegetable juices.

Acrylic Nails

It’s preferable that you completely give up the use of acrylic nails. The reason is that when you use acrylic nails, they adhere to your nails and take away the layer of living cells when are removed. But, who doesn’t want long and shiny nails, right? The tip to remember here is that you should use a strengthener lotion on your nails while using acrylic nails. This way, the acrylic nails will get attached to the layer of strengthener instead of coming into contact with the layer of nail cells. That’s how you can minimize the damage done by acrylic nails.

With the help of all above mention remedies you can cure your damaged nails but you have to be consistent. Nails make an important part of your body and add a great deal to beauty as well. Ironically, the maximum damage done to the nails is by poor diet, lifestyle and poor habits. So, keep in mind all the points mentioned in this article and stick to the plan. Be consistent and see the results coming!

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Written by: Michal Vilímovský (EN)
Education: Medical student, 3rd Faculty of Medicine, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic
Article resources: [1] Management of simple brittle nails
[2] Nutrition and nail disease
[3] Role of vitamins and minerals in nail health
[4] Hypoparathyroidism
Image resources: Dollarphotoclub.com
Published: February 26, 2015 6:52 AM
Next scheduled update: February 26, 2017 6:52 AM
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