What causes fingernails to split and break? Is there anything I can do about it?
Connie, via email
You would think with all the nail products available everyone would have strong, durable nails that grow long without breaking or peeling. Sadly, we know that isn't true, but we keep hoping. Much like the hair we are born with, the kind of nails we have is pretty much genetically predetermined. Some of us are born with tough, sturdy, resilient, and almost unbreakable nails, while others, like me, have paper-thin nails that easily split, peel, and break. Unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to change this predetermined trait. There is little to no research showing that vitamin or herbal supplements can improve or change the condition of your nails. In fact, the only research that exists is dated (Cutis, April 1993, pages 303-305), and it indicates only that biotin supplements may help some people; however, this was a limited study (there are no others) and the conclusion was that biotin is probably no more helpful than moisturizing or being careful about soaking your nails in water. There's no evidence that applying or eating gelatin, calcium or other minerals, other vitamins, or herbal supplements will improve or strengthen your nails.
Healthy nails that become weak or that show a dramatic change in their appearance and growth can indicate the presence of a serious medical condition. If your nails were previously doing great and suddenly undergo a noticeable negative change, you could be experiencing health problems that require medical attention. Extreme color change, severely scooped nails, pitting in the nail, and nails lifting from the nail bed are just a few of the changes that need medical attention rather than just a shopping spree at the drugstore or an appointment with a manicurist (Source: www.mayoclinic.com).
While the severe nail conditions I just listed require medical attention, peeling nails and some breakage or weakness along the upper edge of an otherwise normal-looking fingernail is nothing to worry about. Aside from genetics, the most common cause of split or peeling nails is repeated wetting and drying. Nails swell when they absorb water and shrink as they dry. As they undergo this shrinking and drying process, the nail cells and layers lose their ability to adhere to one another. The layers subsequently separate along the outer nail edge, where air dries the nail from beneath.
You can protect your fingernails in the same way you protect your hands: wear rubber gloves when doing household chores. As often as you can, especially after long immersion in water, massage a moisturizer or just plain olive oil (it's a great emollient and antioxidant) over and around the nail and cuticle, which helps protect the nail. Trim your nails gently with fingernail clippers and file them using a fine-grained file or emery board. Nail polish remover can be drying, so apply moisturizer after using it. As a rule, don't severely push back or cut the cuticles, because the cuticle protects new nail growth.