How to Moisturize Your Nails

Woman applying cream in their hands
Moisturizing your nails will keep your hands looking soft, young and healthy.
© Pedrosa

Most people don't give a lot of thought to their nails beyond applying a little polish or trying not to gnaw them during a stressful commute. But your nails are actually very important. They protect the tips of your fingers and toes, and they aid you in many of life's small tasks. And like it or not, gnarly nails can tell a lot about an individual's attention -- or lack thereof -- to detail.

Most people can agree that a jagged or broken nail has a big impact on seemingly mundane tasks, such as pulling on a pair of socks or pantyhose. Despite their practical importance, however, nails get very little regard or appreciation -- few of us know how to keep our nails healthy and in good shape. Almost one quarter of the people in the United States have what's known as brittle nail syndrome [source: Wadyka]. Brittle nails break and chip easily, and they may also peel off in layers. They are much more likely to have jagged, rough edges instead of a smooth surface.


Although some health conditions may lead to brittle nails, dry nails also are caused by activities such as washing dishes and using harsh cleaning products [source: American Osteopathic College of Dermatology]. The very things that make your nails look shiny and beautiful can also cause them to be brittle and breakable. Ingredients in nail polish, such as formaldehyde, can dry out nails. And nail polish remover is doubly damaging. The acetone in many removers is extremely drying to nails.

For the majority of people with brittle, dry nails, the best treatment is the most simple: moisturize. If you want to learn more about healthy nails, discover ways to avoid brittle nails and get some tips to help you moisturize your nails effectively, then read on.


Moisturizing Brittle Nails

Before you start applying moisturizer to your cuticles, it may help to understand a little bit about the nail and what makes it healthy or not. Nails consist of layers of keratin, the structural protein that you'll also find in your skin and hair. There are essentially five main parts to your fingernails and the area around them:

  • Nail plate -- This is part of your nail that's on the surface, which you can see, touch and tap.
  • Nail folds -- These are the areas of skin that surround your nail plates.
  • Nail bed -- The skin underneath your fingernail is what's called the nail bed, which is partially responsible for holding on to the nail plate.
  • Cuticles -- Your cuticles are the protective layers of tissue that overlap the nail plate at the edge of the nail folds.
  • Lunula -- The lunula is the whitish strip that appears at the base of your nail plate.

So why do nails get brittle in the first place? Your nails grow from the cuticle at a rate of about 0.004 inches (0.1 mm) a day. As soon as the nail is exposed to everyday wear and tear, it may begin to suffer damage. In between layers of keratin, there are small spaces. When nails are exposed to air and water, the spaces can swell. This makes the layers easier to separate, resulting in increased breakage [sources: Mayo Clinic, Wadyka].


Applying moisturizer to your nails can keep them from becoming brittle. Moisturizer protects the nail plate from the air and water that can cause damage. There are two common methods of moisturizing nails. One way is to apply a cream or ointment, such as petroleum jelly, to hands, cuticles and nail plates. Another is to soak nails in oil, such as bath oil or olive oil. In extreme cases, you may want to combine these methods. First, soak nails in oil, wipe any excess oil off hands, and then apply a moisturizing cream.

Keep reading for some practical tips to keep your nails moisturized and healthy.


Tips for Moisturizing Your Nails

Now that you know the common culprits of brittle nails and the basics of moisturizing, there are some extra steps you can take to care for cracked, dry nails or to keep brittle nails at bay:

  • Don't use a nail polish that contains formaldehyde. You should also stay away from any nail polish removers that contain acetone. If you struggle with brittle nails but still want to add some shine to your nails, limit application of polish to twice a month.
  • Wear gloves when cleaning or doing the dishes, since the use of soap and the action of scrubbing can dry out your hands and nails.
  • Health experts recommend that we wash our hands frequently in order to avoid harmful viruses and bacteria, but all of this washing is hard on skin and nails. Use a mild soap when possible and, after washing, apply a moisturizer.
  • Avoid long, hot baths or showers, as hot water is especially drying to skin. And, as when washing hands, be sure to moisturize your skin and nails as soon as possible after bathing. By doing so, you can lock in any remaining moisture from the shower.
  • For intensive moisturizing, apply liberal amounts of hand cream or petroleum jelly before bed, then pull on gloves or socks. Special cotton gloves for this purpose are available at many stores.
  • Choose a moisturizer that contains alpha hydroxy acids.
  • Use a humidifier in winter, when the air is often very dry, which can be hard on skin and nails [sources: Mayo Clinic, West].

For lots more information about moisturizing brittle nails, see the links on the following page.


Moisturize Nails FAQ

What is a natural remedy for dry nails?
The best natural remedy for brittle nails is to soak them in or massage in a natural oil like olive, coconut, or jojoba oil. Do this once a day for 20 minutes at a time until your nails show signs of improvement. Alternatively, you can break open a vitamin E capsule to extract the oil and rub that onto your nail plates and cuticles.
How do you moisturize your nails?
There are two common methods. One way is to apply a cream or ointment to hands, cuticles, and nail plates. Another way is to soak nails in warm olive oil for about 20 minutes.
Why do my nails have ridges?
Most of the time, ridges in fingernails are harmless. They can be caused by dry skin or a deficiency in protein, calcium, zinc, or vitamin A. However, deep horizontal ridges (Beau's lines) are often indicative of a serious condition such as mumps, thyroid disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or syphilis. Ridged fingernails or toenails can also be cause by chemotherapy.
Can you moisturize nails with polish on?
While you can moisturize the skin around your nails, you cannot moisture the nail plates with polish on. The polish acts as a barrier, so you'll need to remove it before rehydrating your nails.
Can acetone ruin your nails?
Acetone — commonly used to remove nail polish — can dehydrate the nail plate, cuticles, and surrounding skin, causing them to become brittle. After all, acetone is essentially a paint stripper.
Why are my nails dry?
Most of the time, brittle nails are caused by dry air, frequent washing, regularly wearing polish, or harsh chemical use (such as those that are used when applying and removing false nails). Sometimes, brittle nails are a sign of a more serious condition like hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism. If your nails are consistently dry for no obvious reason, speak with your doctor.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. "Brittle Splitting Nails." 2009. (Sept. 24, 2009)
  • CareFair. "How to Strengthen Brittle Nails." (Sept. 24, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Nails: How to Keep Your Fingernails Healthy and Strong." (Sept. 9, 2009)
  • Medline Plus. "Nail Abnormalities." (Sept. 9, 2009)
  • Wadyka, Sally. "New Ways to Moisturize Those Brittle Nails." New York Times. May 6, 2006. (Sept. 9, 2009)
  • West, Lynn, MD. "Onychoschisis -- Brittle Nails." Medicine Online. (Sept. 9, 2009)