ADVICE: My fingernails need help

Weak, brittle nails often occurs because of poor diet, vitamin deficiency, lack of self-care or exposure to harsh chemicals.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read October 15, 2021
cartoon man biting nails

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I have never had strong, healthy looking, fingernails. They bend and break easily — it makes wearing nail polish pointless. Am I doing something wrong?

Signed, Brittle Tips


Dear Brittle Tips,

Weak, brittle nails or what is also known as onychoschizia is common in women. Characterized by splitting, soft or thin nails, onychoschizia most often occurs as a result of poor diet, vitamin deficiency, lack of self-care or exposure to harsh chemicals.

According to Dr. Benjamin Barankin, dermatologist and medical director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre, nails can break for a variety of reasons, “from obvious trauma, to medications that make them more brittle, to the effects of aging, especially for women over 60, nutritional deficiency in calcium, iron or biotin, as well as the effects of over-washing, alcohol or generally lots of wet work and under-moisturizing.”

In healthy adults, fingernails grow about 3.5 millimetres every month while toenails grow at a slower monthly rate, at about 1.5 millimetres. If your fingernails are weak and brittle, but your toenails are in good shape, your daily habits and external factors may be to blame.

Barankin says that using too much nail polish and polish remover, along with the glues and dyes in acrylic nails can impact nail health, weakening nails and drying them out. Climate may also play a role, especially if you live in a place with long and dry winter, while an underlying skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis, a fungal infection, or a medical condition like hypothyroidism, may make nails more fragile.

While appropriate treatment can help relieve the symptoms of an existing medical condition, proper nutrition and self-care can improve the appearance of brittle nails.

Experts suggest adding more protein into your diet can help boost keratin production — keratin makes up the tissue in nails and the more of it the body makes, the stronger the nails will be.

Eggs, fish and animal meat are excellent sources of protein, and if you follow a plant-based diet, try adding more lentils, tofu, beans and chickpeas. Dietary guidelines suggest that adults should typically consume between 46 to 56 grams of protein a day, depending on age, activity level and physique — to calculate your optimal amount, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36.

Multiple studies have linked biotin deficiency to weak and brittle nails — biotin, which helps the body convert food into energy, can be found in foods such as beef liver, eggs, salmon and pork. Supplements are also available and may be used under the guidance of a healthcare provider. Pregnant people, children, those on epilepsy medication and people with certain medical conditions should be especially careful as supplement safety has not been tested on these groups.

Brittle nails also require consistent TLC. Trim and file your nails into a slight curve at the ends, keep them short and coat them with clear polish or a nail strengthening solution once a week to help prevent chipping and splitting.

Minimize exposure to chemicals that may be present in nail glue, which is typically used in the application of artificial nails as well as in acetone-based nail polish removers. Wear gloves when doing dishes to help protect your hands and nails from moisture and harsh detergents. Soaking your hands in water for five minutes and applying a rich lotion may help your nails recover.

Barankin also suggests that veralac lacquer can help reduce the appearance of brittle nails, and that a B100 vitamin complex may also be beneficial. He advises anyone concerned with nail health to “moisturize the nails just like you do your skin, ideally with something thicker in the wintertime, wear gloves during wet work and try a paraffin wax bath.”

If that doesn’t work, a dermatologist can provide additional suggestions while a family doctor can rule out or treat an existing medical condition.

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