Weak, Split, Torn, Brittle, Frustrating Fingernails

Ever have a beautiful woman walk up to you, thrust her fingernails in your face and say, “Why do my nails keep splitting like this??” I have.

One of the rare hazards of being a dermatologist is being accosted with skin, hair, or nail questions at social settings. Broken, split, weak, or brittle nails are common, so I get this question a lot.

Nails are an appendage of skin and are made up of protein. Nails need moisture to stay healthy and pliable. They dehydrate much like your skin dehydrates. Dry nails are brittle: instead of flexing, they fracture and split from the tips backward. Once a nail is split, it is difficult to stop the split from spreading. Nail splitting occurs more frequently in winter when your skin and nails are  dry.

Nail polish can help protect your nails; however, nail polish remover worsens dryness. Therefore, the more frequently you paint and remove polish, the more your nails dry out. If you paint your nails, then touch up chips rather than remove the polish frequently. Keep the polish on for as long as you can before removing.

What else can you do to strengthen weak nails?

Apply to your nails a moisturizer with urea, like Eucerin Hand Creme. This puts moisture back in the nails and keeps them pliable.

Avoid excess washing. Soap and water dry your skin as well as your nails. (I can write you a doctor’s note that says you are not allowed to wash the dishes. If you must, then wear gloves).

Remember that once a nail is split, it cannot be repaired. The key is to keep the base of the nail healthy so when it grows out to the tip, it stays strong and intact. Fingernails grow 3 mm each month, so a 2-3 mm split will take a month to grow out.

There are lots of products that promise to strengthen or harden nails. Most of them are a waste of money, for example,  gelatin tabs. Gelatin tablets are animal collagen derived from bone. The collagen is broken down into protein by your digestive system. As such, taking gelatin tabs is no better than eating a piece of chicken or any other protein. Eat plenty of protein as part of a complete diet, but don’t bother with supplements.

Don’t waste money on calcium or other “mega-nail” vitamins. There is no calcium in nails and loading up on vitamins will not make nails grow faster or stronger.

There is some evidence that taking biotin, a B-complex vitamin, at 2.5 mg each day can help weak nails by improving protein synthesis. Remember though, if you start taking biotin today, it will be June before you see improvement because you can only improve nail that hasn’t yet grown.

Just like trimming dead ends can help your hair, trimming split ends can help your nails. Try to clip off the split part, but avoid being too aggressive because you can spread the split farther. With a little effort and a lot of patience your nails will be hard as nails.

Oh, and next time, a least buy me a drink.

Photo: KW Sanders (flickr)