A lot of things can go wrong with nails. They can be brittle, pitted, discolored, flaky and ridged, among other common (and unpleasant) abnormalities. But brittle nails can be a natural part of the aging process, and they're often represented by dry, cracking or splitting nails. They may also grow slowly or simply seem weak and easily breakable.
Nail abnormalities may be caused by a relatively minor condition like brittle nail syndrome, which is what it sounds like: excessively brittle nails, often caused by a lack of moisture. They also could stem from a lack of iron or zinc [source: University of Maryland Medical Center]. But nail problems may also be representative of something more severe, such as hepatitis, jaundice, lupus or heart disease. When in doubt, look for basic causes first, such as a fungal infection, a reaction to nail polish or bruising from an impact.
There's ongoing debate about whether brittle nails are caused predominantly by a lack of protein or moisture in the nails. Consequently, most treatments for brittle nails are concerned with one of these two factors. In this article, we'll look at five ways of boosting nail health and learn why a candle may be just what your troublesome fingernails need.
Vitamins are a key factor in making bodily processes run effectively and healthily, and nails are no exception. A lack of iron and zinc can harm nail health, and a basic multivitamin is often the solution. Try something with staples like niacin, iron, calcium and vitamins A and C.
A vitamin B complex containing biotin is often cited as important for nail health. Besides being present in certain vitamin supplements, biotin can be found in oatmeal, bananas, mushrooms, peanuts, soy and, if you can stomach it, some animal organs. It's not really clear how effective biotin is in strengthening nails or by what mechanism it operates, though the vitamin has been successful in strengthening horse hooves. In one test, women who took 2.5 milligrams of biotin a day for six months or more ended up with 25 percent thicker nails [source: Healthnotes].
Biotin is found in many foods, so most people normally ingest enough, except in certain cases, such as people with alcoholism, people who eat excessive quantities of raw egg whites or those who use antibiotics for an extended period. Many pregnant women have a biotin deficiency, which can lead to birth defects, making prenatal vitamins essential [source: Healthnotes]. Some healthy women who aren't pregnant take prenatal vitamins for their reputed benefits for hair and nail health.
Much information about supplement-nail relationships is anecdotal rather than scientifically established. There is some evidence to suggest that glucosamine, often used for the treatment of osteoarthritis, is beneficial. Gelatin and an herb known as horsetail are often used for treating brittle nails, though there's little or conflicting evidence that they actually help [source: Healthnotes]. (Gelatin is derived from animal hooves and connective tissue and is a favorite of many nail salons.)
Often with brittle nails, the main culprit is simply a lack of moisture, just as dry skin can leave your epidermis cracked or flaky [source: Wadyka].
Regular moisturizers available at the drugstore, such as Vaseline, can help to keep nails healthy, while some people trust home remedies, like a mix of egg yolks and milk. There are also creams that seal in moisturizers, such as Aquaphor and Trind Nail Balsam.
Over the last decade, a class of creams called super moisturizers has become firmly entrenched in the nail care market. Applied to nails and the area surrounding them, super moisturizers are creams beefed up with vitamin E, avocado oil and shea butter.
Nail polishes don't have to be simply cosmetic enhancers. Fortified nail polishes are packed with extra vitamins and minerals and promises to boost nail health. Some of them have rather ambitious names -- e.g., Sally Hansen Miracle Cure -- and equally lofty claims. (Consider again the Sally Hansen product, which cites laboratory data claiming 50 percent stronger nails in three days [source: Sally Hansen].)
But it's not just about what type of polish you put on. You should also pay attention to what you use to take off nail polish. Nail products, particularly nail polish removers, can contain some harmful ingredients. Avoid any products containing formaldehyde, acetone or toluene, all of which can harm nail health. Formaldehyde, the same ingredient used in embalming, and acetone can dry out nails. Camphor and phthalates may also cause allergic reactions.
Avoid nail products that could cause an allergic reaction, like those with ingredients listed on the previous page. And don't trust nail hardeners: Brittle nails actually are already too hard, and nail hardeners produce allergic reactions in some people. You're better off moisturizing your nails.
Keep your cuticles: They're actually important for nail health, and trimming them excessively can leave you more prone to an infection. Cutting them may also lead to nail deformities. If a hangnail or excessive cuticle is bothering you, use scissors to cut cleanly and moderately.
Lay off the nail polish occasionally. It gives your nails a break, letting them breath and allowing you to look at the physical appearance of your nails and make sure there aren't any issues lurking underneath the polish. Moisturizing creams will be better able to do their work on an unvarnished nail.
You should also minimize the amount of nail polish remover you use, applying only as much as is necessary to remove the polish. As we said before, avoid removers containing harmful ingredients like formaldehyde, which dries out nails.
Finally, it's good to let your nails get some air, but keep an eye on how they're affected by the environment. Cold, dry air can lead to cracking.
Protect your nails by protecting your hands. Wear gloves, particularly in cold weather or when washing dishes. Excessive hand washing allows water to seep into nails, swelling them and leading to brittleness.
Keep nails short. They're more likely to be damaged when they become long, and they could get in the way of day-to-day tasks. Office work, in particular, can be hard on your hands, as it involves a lot of manual activity. Stay alert, such as by carefully closing drawers so as not to catch your fingers in them.
Poor circulation may also be a contributing factor to brittle nails, so if you think you suffer from this condition, talk with your doctor. Other health problems, such as an underactive thyroid, may harm nail growth and should be discussed with a physician.
Keep an eye out for signs of fungal infections, which are particularly common in senior citizens. Although these infections can be treated, because of ineffective creams or potential side effects from oral medications, some doctors recommend leaving a fungal infection alone and monitoring it [source: Brody].
For more information about brittle nails and other nail-related topics, glance over the list of links on the next page.
Today it's second nature to paint your fingernails and toenails. But it's been a long road to here. HowStuffWorks breaks down the colorful history.
Related HowStuffworks Articles
- Begoun, Paula. "Nail Care Dos and Don'ts." Discovery. http://health.discovery.com/centers/healthbeauty/tipstricks/naildosdonts.html
- Brody, Jane E. "Sometimes, Your Nails Can Bite You Back." New York Times. Nov. 1, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/01/health/01brody.html?pagewanted=all
- Rauh, Sherry. "Healthy Fingernails: Clues About Your Health." WebMD. Feb. 24, 2008. http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/features/healthy-fingernails-clues-about-health
- Wadyka, Sally. "New Ways to Moisturize Those Brittle Nails." New York Times . April 6, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/06/fashion/thursdaystyles/06skin2.html
- "Brittle nails." University of Maryland Medical Cener. March 30, 2007. http://www.umm.edu/imagepages/9136.htm
- "Brittle nails." Healthnotes. 2004. http://www.physiologics.com/vf/healthnotes/HN_live/Concern/Brittle_Nails.htm
- "Glucosamine." Healthnotes. 2004. http://www.physiologics.com/vf/healthnotes/HN_live/Supp/Glucosamine.htm
- "Miracle Cure for Severe Problem Nails." Sally Hansen. http://www.sallyhansen.com/product.cfm?product=109
- "Nail abnormalities - Overview." University of Maryland Medical Center. April 12, 2007. http://www.umm.edu/ency/article/003247.htm