Why are my nails so brittle?

Why are my nails so brittle?

Posted by Matthew Smith on

Have you ever looked at your nails and wondered why your nails are brittle? Maybe you’ve tried product after product, but still find that your nails can’t shake their weak and fragile state. Or maybe you’re noticing that they’ve become brittle suddenly, and you aren’t sure what to do next.

There are a few causes that may be able to explain this condition of your nails. Let’s discuss what causes brittle fingernails, and what you can do to achieve the strong, healthy nails you’ve always wanted.

What causes brittle nails?

Brittle nails are nails that are ridged, tend to split, break, peel and grow poorly. You can categorize their causes in two ways. The first type are intrinsic causes and include natural factors that are difficult to treat like aging, genetics, certain diseases and medications.

The second kind are extrinsic causes, the external areas where you can step in and strengthen your nails through your nail care habits, product and tool choices, and your daily environmental exposures.

We’ll start with some intrinsic causes first as they are important to understand.

Aging: How it can Affect Nail Health

Aging is an inevitable reality that we all face and can affect us from the way our skin and bodies change, to the way our nails grow. As we age, our nails’ growth slows down significantly and as a result, our nails are exposed to negative environmental influences for longer periods of time. Aging can also compromise blood flow resulting in less efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients  to our fingernails and toenails. These factors all contribute to nail fragility.

Genetics and Medication:

Aside from aging, we can also take a look at the large role genetics play. All of us are born with our nail matrix, the area where the fingernail grows, but not all are alike. The shape and size of your matrix can determine your nail quality. For example, those who have a small nail matrix will tend to have thinner, more easily breakable nails.

What about the cases where you notice that your brittle nails have developed suddenly without a clear cause? It’s best to speak to your doctor to rule out any potential internal disease like hypothyroidism or anemia.

Certain medications can also make nails more prone to breakage.  If you think your medication may be affecting your nail health, ask your prescribing doctor.

Now, onto the factors that we have a bit more control over to help significantly improve our nail appearance, starting with nail products.

Nail Care Products

There are an abundance of nail treatments on the market. Before clicking ‘add to cart,’ look at the product ingredients first. Harsh chemicals may make brittle nails worse. Here’s what to avoid:

Nail Hardener with formaldehyde or formalin

These ingredients can be very damaging to the nail and surrounding skin. Formaldehyde starts off by hardening the nail, but over time it will increase the likelihood of your nail separating from the nail bed.  Additionally, formaldehyde can cause severe allergic reactions to the surrounding skin, causing irritation, swelling, and pain.


This is another ingredient that can impact the health of your nails by causing them to become dry and dehydrated. It’s often used in nail polish removers as a quick and easy solution for removing your nail polish, gel, and acrylics. If you’re a frequent user of nail polish remover, look for alternatives that have hydrating ingredients and are acetone-free.

Manicure tools

When it comes to manicure tools, it’s best to be smart about tool choice. Take a look at some of the nail tools you have on deck. Do you usually use a paper emery board file?

If so, replace it with a glass file instead. Emery files can cause tears in the nails, leading to ridged and split fingernails. A glass file will allow you to get the smooth, desired shape that you want, minus the damage. An added bonus—your polish will be less likely to chip!

Water and chemical exposure

While too little moisture can cause problems, excessive water and chemical exposures can also cause brittle nails. In fact, the nail is 1000x more absorptive of water than the skin! As the nail absorbs water, the nail cells expand and contract, putting a lot of stain on the nail thus leading to breakage.

Remember those yellow rubber gloves your mother or grandmother used to wear when they washed dishes? Those are about to become your nails’ savior. When doing wet work like cleaning or washing dishes, wear cotton under the rubber to prevent moist gloves from worsening already weak nails.

On the other hand, there are some situations where this may be harder to do. If you have an occupation where you need to wash your hands frequently, (i.e. health care, restaurants, transportation, etc.) you are likely to be more prone to brittle nails as hand washing is essential. In these instances, prioritizing a treatment to prevent brittle nails will come in handy. Stick with treatments that are rich in phospholipids like sunflower oil, a quality ingredient that has been shown to increase nail flexibility and decrease brittleness.

There’s no question that brittle nails can be discouraging to deal with. The next time you ask, “Why are my nails so brittle?” Think about the causes above to help determine what action you need to take to get on track to lustrous, beautiful nails.

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