Brittle Nails: Vitamin Deficiency or Something More?

September 22, 2021

Brittle Nails: Vitamin Deficiency or Something More?

In this article:

  • Why is nail health so important?
  • What causes fingernails to become brittle?
  • What can you do to fix brittle nails?

Nail health is no joke!

Movies and pop culture have really underplayed the severity of broken nails. Movie tropes, like the classic "What -- afraid you'll break a nail?" line, make nail health seem like a frivolous, cosmetic flaw that you can "rub some dirt on it” and move past. In reality, nail health is no joke! Think about how pesky and painful a hangnail can get, or the throbbing pain that arises with every step, thanks to an ingrown toenail. Perhaps worst of all, cracked and split fingernails can make daily tasks painful and awkward.

The health of our skin and nails can tell a lot about one's overall health. Left untreated, or when not given the proper attention or care, cracked and split nails can cause infections (Paronychia) or even go unrecognized as a symptom of an underlying condition.

What causes fingernails to become brittle?

Our nails are made of the same substance as our hair follicles; a protein called keratin. Just as certain medical conditions and exposure to harsh chemicals or heat can cause hair loss and breakage, there are a number of things that can cause brittle, splitting nails. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD), there are two types of brittle nails, or onychoschizia: dry and brittle or soft and brittle. Dry and brittle nails are prone to cracking, splitting, and splintering. Dry nails are the result of too little moisture, while on the other hand (catch my joke?) soft and brittle nails are the result of too much moisture and are more susceptible to bending, cracking, or tearing. Of the two types, the cause of soft nails is often easier to pinpoint. Frequent hand washing, household chores, and exposing the hands and nails to the harsh ingredients in detergents, soaps, cleaners, and acetone nail polish remover can cause the nails to become flimsy and thin. One of the best ways to avoid soft nails is by wearing rubber gloves, rather than exposing the hands to the chemicals. Common causes of brittle nails include:

  • Age: As we age and collagen levels decline (collagen is a structural protein that contributes to skin and nail health) the fingernails can become dull and brittle. However, toenails often become thicker and harder with age.
  • Iron-Deficiency Anemia: Anemia is a condition where your body lacks enough iron. Nearly 70% of the body's iron is found in red blood cells called hemoglobin. This condition causes a specific nail deformity called koilonychia or "spoon nails". As you might imagine, this causes the nails to become thin with a "scooped" depression large enough to hold a drop of liquid. It can also cause white splotches/lines to form on the nails called Mees' Lines. Fatigue is the primary sign of anemia, but if paired with brittle, abnormally-shaped nails, it can be a red flag urging you to talk to your doctor.
  • Hypothyroidism: Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn't produce enough of certain hormones. These hormones are responsible for regulating a number of different bodily functions. One of the most pronounced or visible signs of this deficiency manifests in the hair, nails, and skin. Hypothyroidism can cause the cuticles to become jagged with rough edges and frequent hangnails. In addition to weakening the nail bed, it can also cause white vertical ridges to form along the nail plate, and splitting and breaking along the tips. Along with brittle and weak nails, symptoms of hypothyroidism may include hair loss, fatigue, weight gain, constipation, and depression. If you notice any nail changes accompanying these symptoms, consider speaking to a doctor for specific medical advice regarding diagnosing and treating hypothyroidism.
  • Psoriasis: Psoriasis is a common skin condition in which the body produces skin cells at a much faster rate than usual. It eventually leads to inflammation, scaling, and flaky skin as well as changes to the nails. Depending on the type, psoriasis flare-ups may lead to nail "pitting" or shallow divots forming on the nail plate as well as yellow-red discoloration, uneven nail thickness, nail crumbling, or separation from the nail bed.
  • Eczema: Atopic dermatitis, AKA eczema, is another common skin condition that makes the skin dry, red, and itchy. Similar to psoriasis, eczema can also affect the nails and cause pitting, red or brown discoloration, and deep ridging.
  • Alopecia areata: Nail pitting and brittleness is a little-known sign of alopecia areata, a medical condition that causes the hair to fall out in round patches. It is an immune disorder in which the body attacks the hair follicles.
  • Raynaud’s syndrome: Raynaud's syndrome is another autoimmune disease that affects nail health. This condition causes circulation problems in the extremities, often resulting in white fingers, especially when exposed to the cold. By cutting off blood flow to the fingers, it can cause the nails to become brittle with horizontal ridges from the nail bed to the tip.

What can you do to fix brittle nails?

Ultimately, the cause of your nail brittleness will determine the best treatment route. As discussed above, nail changes should not be ignored as they can be a symptom of an underlying condition. In any case, brittle nails can be managed with simple, at-home treatments while simultaneously seeking treatment for the underlying condition.

Here are some tips, tricks, and home remedies to help strengthen nails and prevent splitting and cracking:

  • Wear gloves: No matter what state your nails are in, wearing rubber gloves to protect them from harsh chemicals will serve you well!
  • Use a nail hardener: Nail hardening polishes contain a blend of nourishing essential oils and moisturizers to help strengthen and repair dry and brittle nails.
  • Use a moisturizing lotion: Don't let dry skin drag you down! Throughout the day apply a lightweight, nourishing lotion to moisturize and hydrate dry and cracking skin and nails. Lotions that contain lanolin, a natural emollient that soothes dry and dehydrated skin, can be used generously during the day or applied before bed. Just beware that lanolin is not a vegan product! If you're looking for a vegan lanolin alternative, lotions with alpha-hydroxy acids speed up the skin's shedding process to reveal fresh, nourished skin underneath. Pro tip: apply a thick coat of lotion before bed, then wear gloves overnight to help lock in the moisture!
  • Make sure you're getting enough calcium: Calcium deficiencies can lead to dry and cracked skin and nails. To avoid this altogether, try adding a calcium supplement to your diet! The daily recommended intake is 2,500 mg a day for adults ages 19 to 50.
  • Follow healthy nail care: Everyone has a skin care routine, but you're doing yourself a disservice if you don't have a simple nail care routine too! A good cuticle oil can help revive peeling, jagged nail beds. Using a nail file to keep the nails short and trimmed will help to avoid breaking and cracking. Avoid biting or picking at the nails to prevent further breakage or possible infection. Finally, if you're a sucker for a good manicure, make sure to tell the technician about any nail issues you're having and request they only use nail polish remover without acetone.
  • Try a biotin supplement: Biotin is one of the most popular hair, skin, and nail supplements on the market. It is a B-complex vitamin that promotes cell growth and supports amino acids to help build the proteins necessary for nail growth. Biotin is generally considered safe to use, but its effectiveness varies.
  • Take a collagen supplement: Collagen is a structural protein that can be found all throughout the body, including the hair, skin, and nails. Collagen is responsible for keeping the nails flexible yet strong, without it nail thinning and breakage can occur. Collagen supplements can be taken to help boost the body's natural collagen protection, thus keeping you looking your youngest while speeding up recovery from injury and nail breakage. Try Amandean's Marine Collagen for one of the purest and most bioavailable options on the market!
  • Talk to a doctor or dermatologist: If you've noticed that your nails are changing or growing abnormally, talk to a doctor. Getting to the root of the problem is your best bet for healthy nails for the long run.

Summary Points

  • Left untreated, cracked and split nails can cause infections (Paronychia) or even go unrecognized as a symptom of an underlying condition
  • Frequent hand washing, household chores, and exposing hands and nails to harsh ingredients in detergents, soaps, cleaners, and acetone nail polish remover can cause the nails to become flimsy and thin
  • As we age and collagen levels decline (collagen is a structural protein that contributes to skin and nail health) the fingernails can become dull and brittle
  • Collagen is responsible for keeping the nails flexible yet strong, without it nail thinning and breakage can occur




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