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What Causes Brittle Nails, and Can You Fix Them?

A person looks at their nails.
BEAUTY STUDIO/Shutterstock.com.

Do your nails often chip and break? Do they tend to look “dull” and brittle? Maybe you even feel embarrassed by their appearance, or you’re worried that they’re brittle because of some underlying health condition. Brittle nails can be both frustrating and embarrassing, but you might be able to fix them depending on the cause.

LifeSavvy spoke with Dr. Marisa Garshik, a board-certified dermatologist, and Dr. Rebecca Marcus, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Maeimd about some useful tips for strengthening brittle nails and why these practices are so effective.

What Causes Brittle Nails?

For the most part, brittle nails start from within.

Your diet and lifestyle have a lot to do with the health and strength of your fingernails. In fact, your nails can actually be a good indicator of the state of your overall health.

Often, deficiencies in certain nutrients can contribute to poor nail health and cause brittleness and breaking. Low levels of zinc and iron can be the culprit, as can thyroid issues. A lack of essential oils, like omega-3, can cause your nails to crack.

There are some common myths often associated with weak or brittle nails, including letting your nails “breathe”, or going without nail polish, acrylics, or other treatments. Nails don’t necessarily need to breathe to become stronger. However, if you’re someone who often wears polish or gets manicured, you might benefit from a break to give your nails a chance to recover.

While your diet plays a big role in your nail health, other possible reasons you might experience cracking and brittleness include frequent handwashing, a lack of moisture, or even the natural aging process. Believe it or not, even texting could be a culprit if your nails are “clicking” against the screen. It could cause them to crack and fray at the tips.

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Can You Make Brittle Nails Stronger?

A person looks at their nails over a variety of nail care items.
Natali Sam/Shutterstock.com

Understanding the underlying cause of your brittle nails is important so you can take active steps to fix the problem at the source. But, there are also extra steps you can take to strengthen your brittle nails. We asked Garshik and Marcus for their best suggestions.

If you’re embarrassed by your brittle nails, you can put some of these tips into practice right away.

Follow a Healthy Diet

One of the best ways to improve your nail health is to give your nails what they want—a healthy diet rich in protein, calcium, iron, and other essential vitamins and minerals. Iron, for example, is essential because it carries oxygen to the nails. An iron deficiency can cause your nails to develop ridges or even to appear concave.

According to Dr. Garshik, some studies have shown that a biotin supplement can also help to improve nail firmness, hardness, and thickness. Biotin encourages healthy cell growth and helps to boost the amino acids responsible for nail growth.

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Keep Your Nails Clean and Dry

Long nails can be beautiful when they’re healthy. But, it can also be more difficult to keep them clean.

Unfortunately, nails are often an ideal “home” for fungi and bacteria. By keeping them clean and dry, you’ll reduce the risk of any unwanted fungus underneath your nails, which can weaken them. Keeping your nails trimmed will also reduce the risk of injury and decrease the chance of breaking.

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Keep your nails clean and trimmed.

Moisturize Regularly

You might moisturize as a part of your daily skincare routine, but you should also start including it to strengthen your nails.

Dr. Marcus suggests that moisturizing regularly can help to prevent the nails from becoming dry and brittle. How? Moisturizing protects your nail plate from air and water-–elements that can dry out your nails and cause them to chip and crack.

Even washing the dishes every day could dry out your nails and make them more prone to damage. Obviously, it’s a chore you can’t avoid, so consider wearing rubber gloves when your hands will be submerged for an extended period.

Moisturizing is also a great way to protect the skin surrounding your nails. It serves as a “barrier” that will strengthen both your skin and the nails themselves, making them less likely to dry out and crack. The less prone to cracking, the less likely you are to pick at them and make matters worse.

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Try a Topical Solution

If you’ve tried some of the tips above but you want to go the extra mile to take care of your nails, consider applying a topical solution designed to strengthen and protect them. Dr. Marcus recommends Nutrafol—a hair supplement that is also very effective in getting nails to grow faster and stronger.

You can even try something you might already have in your medicine cabinet, like Vaseline.

According to Dr. Garshik, Vaseline Healing Jelly Ointment works by “providing an occlusive barrier“. Essentially, that barrier seals in moisture that will help your nails stay strong while preventing drying and cracking. It can be used throughout the day to help your nails heal, to reduce external irritants, and to improve the look and feel of your nails. Vaseline will also serve as a protective barrier for your hands, so the skin around your nails won’t crack as often, either.

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You don’t have to live with brittle, cracking nails. There are steps you can take at home to strengthen them, but if you’re truly concerned, you can always reach out to your medical provider.

Stacey Koziel Stacey Koziel
Stacey Koziel is a news writer at LifeSavvy. She's worked as a freelance writer for over ten years, focusing on family and lifestyle content. She also has a background in marketing and social media, and is always eager to talk (and write!) about the latest TikTok trends. Read Full Bio »
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