Similar to how your skin can reveal a lot about your internal wellbeing, your fingernails can be another window into your health. What causes brittle nails? Sometimes brittle nails are simply a result of aging or a lack of moisture, while other times they can be indicative of thyroid diseases like hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism because these conditions can cause nail problems. (1)
Your hands often show your age, and so can your nails. If you look at the nails of babies and kids, you can seen how the coloring and texture are most likely really healthy. As we age, the health of our nails can vary, but we can definitely improve the health of our nails at any point in life.
So how do you strengthen your nails? I’m happy to say there are a lot of natural and effective ways to improve the health and appearance of dry brittle nails with or without ridges.
What Are Brittle Nails?
Your fingernails and toenails are made up of layers of protein called keratin. Healthy nails are smooth and strong with even coloring and no spots or discoloration. Sometimes healthy nails can become brittle.
Brittle fingernails tend to be noticed much sooner than brittle toenails, but both the nails on your fingers and the nails on your toes can become brittle for various reasons. It’s estimated that brittle nails, also called onychorrhexis, are quite common. In fact, it’s estimated that it affects around 20 percent of the population. (2) Women tend to struggle with brittle nails more than men. When you have brittle nails they are in a weakened state and tend to break, split or peel easily.
Signs & Symptoms of Brittle Nails
If you’ve ever wondered “why do my nails break so easily?” it could be due to the fact that they are brittle. When nails are brittle (either brittle fingernails or brittle toenails) there are several signs and symptoms to look for: (3)
- Nails that tend to split at the ends
- Peeling at the nail tips
- Easy breaking, cracking or chipping
- Longitudinal ridging
- Difficulty growing nails longer
Causes & Risk Factors
What is the cause of brittle nails? Brittle nails can simply be the result of aging, repetitive or lengthy exposure to water and chemicals (like cleaning materials), use of nail polish remover, and/or from wearing nail polish for long periods of time. In many cases, all of these causes can easily happen at the same time.
Brittle or crumbly nails can also be caused by: (4)
- A fungal nail infection
- A skin condition that can affect the nails called lichen planus
- Nail psoriasis
- Reactive arthritis (a less common cause)
When someone has thyroid disease, they can experience both brittle nails and hair loss. Thyroid problems are more common in women and hypothyroidism is particularly known for causing brittle nails. Hypothyroidism means the thyroid isn’t producing enough of the hormones that it should and this can lead to a sluggish metabolism. According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, when the metabolism slows down, then the body sweats less. Since sweat is a natural moisturizer for the body, less sweat can lead to skin becoming dry and nails becoming brittle. (5)
When it comes to nail health, a common search on the internet is “brittle nails vitamin deficiency.” So could your brittle nails be caused by a vitamin deficiency? According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, internal disease or vitamin deficiencies are really behind brittle nails. However, if a vitamin deficiency is behind brittle nails, it’s most likely to be a deficiency in iron. So this means that people with an iron deficiency or iron-deficiency anemia can be more likely to have brittle nails. Another interesting tip from the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology is that if your fingernails seem weak, but your toe nails seem perfectly healthy and strong, then an external cause of brittle nails is more likely. (6)
In addition to iron-deficiency, other risk factors for brittle nails include: (7)
- Frequent hand-washing
- Prolonged exposure to cold, dry weather
- Exposure to chemicals, such as nail polish remover
- Repeated injury or trauma to the nail
Did you notice a theme with these brittle nail risk factors? Aside from injury, these are all circumstances that can easily lead to a moisture deficit.
Sometimes nails can be brittle and also have ridges. What causes brittle nails and ridges? Like brittleness, vertical ridges tend to be more common with age. They can also result from trauma. Other times, ridges can also indicate other health issues going on inside the body. (8)
There is definitely similarity and overlap between conventional treatment and natural treatment for brittle nails. As long as there is no underlying medical reason (such as a thyroid issue), the most common conventional prevention and treatment for brittle nails is reducing exposure to water and irritants and moisturizing the nails and hands on a regular basis. Also, wearing protective gloves when the nails must be exposed to water for lengthy periods of time can help protect nails. A perfect example of when wearing gloves can really help? When you’re washing dishes. (9)
9 Natural Treatments for Brittle Nails
1. Reduce Water Exposure
Cleaning and doing dishes on a regular basis is pretty unavoidable, but it’s very trying on your hands and nails. The good news is that you can always invest in a good pair of protective gloves that can help prevent and heal brittle nails. Wearing gloves while you do household chores, especially ones involving drying hot water and soap, can really go a long way to save your nails from becoming dry and brittle.
2. Stay Hydrated
While you may want to avoid too much water on the outside when it comes to brittle nails, you definitely don’t want to slack on your internal water intake. Staying hydrated with water as well as water-rich healthy foods like watermelon and cucumbers is a great way to moisturize your nails, skin and hair from the inside.
3. Use a Natural Hand Cream
If you’re struggling with brittle nails, then it’s an excellent idea to moisturize your hands and nails after washing and drying your hands each time. To make it easy to remember, try keeping a great natural hand moisturizer near your sink so you can quickly and easily apply it every time. You can even make your own hand moisturizer with my recipe for Handmade Lotion with Frankincense, Lavender & Peppermint Oils.
4. Try a DIY Cuticle Cream
One thing you can count on if you’re wondering how to fix brittle nails naturally or conventionally is that treatment always includes topical moisturizers. When nails are dry and brittle, my DIY Cuticle Cream makes a perfect brittle nails treatment. The contents of this cuticle cream are extremely healing to both the cuticles at the base of your nails as well as the nails themselves. With natural and moisture replenishing ingredients like beeswax, raw shea butter, coconut oil and vitamin E, you’ll definitely want to apply this cuticle cream a few times per day.
5. Avoid Harsh Nail Polish Remover
Most nail polish removers are loaded with chemicals and tend to dry out the finger nails and toe nails. Nail polish removers often contain highly toxic chemicals including acetone, formaldehyde, toluene and phthalates. Not only can nail polish removers negatively affect the health of your nails, research has shown they may cause reproductive harm and organ toxicity. They can also irritate the skin, eyes and lungs. (10)
Instead of using a conventional nail polish remover, try my DIY Nail Polish Remover with Grapefruit, Orange & Lemon Oils.
6. Broccoli Seed Oil
To give your nails and cuticles a really healthy, natural boost try using broccoli seed oil. This oil made from young broccoli sprouts is loaded with essential fatty acids that are wonderful for skin, hair and nail health. Simply dot less than a drop of broccoli seed oil directly onto each nail and rub it into the nail bed and cuticle. This is a great habit to get into at night before bed so you can wake up with more moisturized nails and cuticles by morning. Coconut oil and argan oil are other topically therapeutic oil choices that can be used in a similar fashion to broccoli seed oil for brittle nails.
According to research, supplementing with biotin (B7) may help treat weak brittle nails. Biotin’s ability to strengthen weak nails was identified after oral doses of biotin were given to horses to improve the condition of their hooves. (11) However, studies have been conducted with very high amounts of biotin and it isn’t hard to get biotin in your diet. Some foods that contain significant amounts of biotin include almonds, eggs, sweet potato, onion, tomato and oats. (12, 13)
8. Vitamin E
Vitamin E capsules are inexpensive and can be an effective way to help the condition of your nails. The thick liquid that comes out of a vitamin E capsule is a perfect treatment for brittle nails. You simply need to puncture one of the capsules and put a little bit of the oil right onto each nail. It’s an easy yet highly potent and rejuvenating treatment for brittle nails.
9. Avoid Artificial Nails
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “Do not wear artificial nails to cover up nail problems as they may make them worse. Artificial nails are not recommended for people who are prone to fungal infections or have brittle nails.” (14) So if your nails are brittle, you’ll definitely want to pass on the fake nails.
Some changes to your nails are nothing serious, but other times certain changes can warrant medical attention. According to Mayo Clinic, you should consult your dermatologist or doctor if you see any of the following: (15)
- Changes in nail color, such as discoloration of the entire nail or a dark streak under the nail.
- Changes in nail shape, such as curled nails.
- Thinning or thickening of the nails.
- Swelling or pain around the nails.
- Separation of the nail from the surrounding skin.
- Bleeding around the nails.
Most of the time, brittle nails are just unpleasant to look at and aren’t anything serious. However, they can also be a sign of something else going on with your health. Brittle nails can accompany iron-deficiency and thyroid issues, so it’s important to note if you have any other health symptoms and see your doctor if needed.
If your brittle nails are simply the result of old habits, such as using chemical nail polish removers and not wearing gloves when doing household chores, then you now know exactly how you can improve the state of your nails starting today. As we get older, our nails can be yet another indicator of how many candles were on our last birthday cake, but with some attention (mainly in the form of moisture) our nails really can age gracefully and be healthy throughout our entire lives.