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Our Blog

Brittle Nails

Posted on October 30, 2018

Brittle Nails
Written by: Bobbi G. Brady, M.D.


What causes them?
Aging, a genetic predisposition, and environmental factors. Healthy nails require adequate nutrients and blood flow. Certain diseases, including autoimmune disease, vascular diseases, anemia, and thyroid disease can inhibit healthy nail growth. Additionally, medications can contribute to brittle nails.

Did you know? Nails are absorbent tissues and they are very susceptible to external exposures.

Water exposure
Repetitive wetting and drying (hand washing, cleaning dishes, bathing, going into a pool, etc) creates expansion and contraction of the cells that make up your nail. Over time, this strains the nail and results in brittle nails.

Environmental factors
Changes in humidity and temperature throughout the day also cause weakening of the nails. This can be particularly dramatic in cold winters when going from warm indoor environments to cold outdoor environments.

Chemical exposure
Nail polish remover is very harsh on nails. They often contain acetone, which is a harsh chemical. The non-acetone removers are also damaging as they require more liquid and a longer soak time. Nail polish itself is not generally harmful but remember that picking nail polish off removes the top layer of nail cells and causes damage. Unfortunately, nail hardeners may also contain formaldehyde and formaldehyde related preservatives and releasers which actually makes your nail even more brittle over time. Read the ingredients before purchasing. Hand sanitizers have a high alcohol content and which has a significant drying effect on nails.

Mechanical damage
Buffing and filing the nail can cause tiny openings and cracks in the nail and should be avoided when possible.

What can you do?
To promote healthy growth:

1. Keep nails trimmed. Shorter nails reduce the surface area exposed to water or chemicals.

2. Wear cotton-lined rubber gloves when washing dishes, hand-washing clothes, or using chemicals.

3. Use moisturizing soaps like Dove, Cetaphil, CeraVe, or Olay. Avoid alcohol based hand sanitizers.

4. Apply a fragrance-free gentle moisturizer to the nails and nail folds twice daily and after each incidence of water exposure throughout the day.

5. Consider applying a humectant to the nails and nail folds. Humectants are moisturizers which draw water into the skin. If the ambient humidity is over 70 percent, as it frequently is in Florida, humectants can draw water vapor from the air into the skin for additional moisturization. Examples of humectants are Eucerin Urea 10% cream and products with ammonium lactate (such as Amlactin).

6. Do not cut your cuticles. Cuticles prevent water, exogenous chemicals and materials, and bacteria from getting into your nail plates and protect the matrix (which makes the nail plate).

7. Take a nail polish holiday for 3 months. Nails grow slowly so this allows them time to recover.

8. When nail filing is necessary, use glass or crystal nail files to prevent small tears.

9. Avoid over-the-counter nail hardeners with formaldehyde related chemicals. There are two FDA approved prescription nail hardeners available (Genadur and Nu-Vail) if you are interested. These should be applied once daily at bedtime. They are not covered by insurance.

10. Consider taking biotin 2500-5000 mcg daily. This is a supplement that has studies to support its benefits in nail health and nail hardening. Due to the slow growth of nails, you should take this supplement for at least 6 months.

11. Follow a well-balanced diet with plenty of protein and drink eight 8 oz. glasses of water daily. Nails need protein and nutrients to grow strong.

Nail growth is very slow. Healthy finger nails take an average of 6-9 months to grow out completely, and healthy toenails can take up to 18 months to grow out completely. When nails are not healthy, the process can be even longer. Therefore, be patient. Any changes you make can take several months to start noticing improvement.

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