Did you know your nails can help you understand what's happening inside your body? "Similar to skin and hair, nails can be an indicator of systemic diseases, such as organ failure, nutritional deficiencies, or autoimmune diseases," explains North Carolina-based board-certified dermatologist and nail specialist, Chris G. Adigun. While many of us worry about nails for aesthetic reasons, it's important to pay attention to them when thinking about your overall health. Diet plays a role in their appearance, as do certain medications. "Brittle nails can be indicators of certain medical problems such as iron deficiency and thyroid disease," says New York City-based dermatologist Michelle Henry.
Before you self-diagnose, Henry reminds us that only very rarely are these symptoms connected to more serious issues. "Repeated wetting and drying of the fingernails, harsh products, and lack of humidity (like in the winter) makes nails dry and brittle," she adds. Here, our experts explain the most common causes for cracked and chipped nails, how to correct the problem, and when it's time to speak to a doctor.
Press Pause on Weekly Manicures
Getting gel or acrylic manicures too often can negatively affect your nails. "Let your real nails breathe," explains Debra Jaliman, a board-certified New York City dermatologist. "The glue used and the process of removing the artificial nails/wraps can weaken your own nails." According to Adigun, gels have been proven to thin the nail after just one application. "We are not sure if the removal process alone (acetone soak) is responsible, or if the gel formulation is responsible," she adds. "Acrylics have many components that can irritate the nail unit and compromise its ability to maintain moisture." When removing polish, look for low or acetone-alternatives says Jaliman. And she cautions against using rough emery boards to buff your nails. "This will make your nails weak," she says.
Treat Your Hands to Some TLC
When nails are breaking easily, this is most often due to moisture loss—daily behaviors (such as polishing every other day) and exposures to water and chemicals play the biggest role in dryness. "Solvents and chemicals in cleaning solutions and nail cosmetics can strip the nails of lipids that make them flexible and strong," explains Adigun. Using gloves or moving to bi-weekly manicures can help your nails rebound. In between salon services, make sure to keep your natural nails (and cuticles) hydrated with occlusive emollients that contain petroleum jelly, lanoline, or dimethicone. "These include 'greasy' moisturizers such as Doctor Rogers Restore Healing Balm, Aquaphor or Vaniply," adds Adigun.
Be Leary of Supplements and Vitamins
Despite the plethora of nail vitamins on the market, there is limited evidence that supplements can actually impact nail health. "Biotin taken by mouth is beneficial in some people," says Henry. "It has better evidence than other ingredients such as collagen." Instead of supplements, your dermatologist may suggest prescription lacquers that are specifically developed to restructure nails affected by dystrophy or brittleness. "These include Nuvail and Genadur," says Adigun.
Make Sure It's Not Something More Serious
Onychoschizia is a nail condition that includes peeling edges and cracking. Most times "brittleness will actually start with onychoschizia (peeling) or onychorrhexis (increased ridging), and it is not an indicator of more advanced disease," assures Adigun. If your nails are so dry the edges are peeling, then you'll want to book an appointment with your dermatologist as soon as possible to find the proper treatment program. Another possibility is an allergy. An allergic reaction to a nail product will present with peeling, cracking nails—this is most often due to a chemical in nail lacquers. The chemical, tosylamide/formaldehyde resin, "is notorious for inducing allergic contact dermatitis in those exposed to it," says Adigun. "Formaldehyde is another culprit and is permitted in concentrations of one-two percent in nail products."