With nail art frenzy in full force, chances are you are paying more attention to your fingertips than ever before and how they measure up against the latest DIY manicures your friends are Instagramming. Which means you’re probably very in tune with the imperfections that make your canvas not so ideal for your newest paint job. Splitting, breaking, peeling—there’s a lot of things that can go wrong. But why?
A quick science lesson: Nails are composed of very small cells called onychocytes, which are mainly made up of keratin, says Dana Stern, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist who specializes in nails and nail disorders. “If you were to look at the nail under a microscope, it actually looks almost like layered roof shingles. So these cells are very delicate and the nail is actually extremely absorptive,” she says. “It’s about 10 times more absorbent than skin.” Which is why when you take a long bath, your nails get super soft and bendy.
It’s important to note that if your nails become extremely brittle out of nowhere, it could be a sign of a health issue, such as anemia, or a thyroid condition, says Stern. If that’s the case, you should see your doctor. In addition, those who suffer from an eating disorder or are undergoing chemotherapy may have chronic brittleness due to severe protein deficiency. If you don’t have any of these health woes but have had weak nails for as long as you can remember, it could be genetic. “If your mother has brittle nails there’s a good chance you’re going to have them, too,” Stern notes.
Nails’ absorbent nature also makes them susceptible to many external factors, all of which can cause them to break and split. Here are the three biggest culprits that Stern notes could be messing with your nails:
When you wash your hands or take a bath—or even get a manicure—water is absorbed into your nails. Then eventually, that water diffuses back out. This constant change in water content causes the cells to expand and contract, straining them as they continually change size to accommodate more or less water.
Seasonal Weather Changes
In the winter, your days are spent going from a 70-degree indoor environment to a cold, below-freezing outdoor environment. And with the changing temperature comes varying levels of humidity. Just like your body temperature adjusts to these dramatic temperature fluxes, so do your nails. “The water content of the ambient environment is in flux, and so is the water content of our nails,” Stern says, which causes the same type of strain and weakening that water exposure does.
From this point forward, consider nail polish remover the enemy. “Polish remover is really a solvent—it’s strong, almost like a paint thinner—and it really dries out the nail,” Stern says. The most offensive chemical is acetone, but that doesn’t mean non-acetone removers are a whole lot better. “The non-acetone version requires more of the liquid and more exposure time,” she points out. So although it’s not as harsh, drenching your nails in more product and rubbing more aggressively to remove stubborn polish is still damaging. No formal study has been done on which is actually better, but Stern suggests that forgoing acetone might be the better route.
As for polish itself, Stern says that it can actually help hold the delicate nail cells together, preventing the tips from peeling. The problem is that eventually you have to take it off. And you should never ever pick it off. “The problem with picking off polish is you’re not only taking off the polish but you’re also taking off the top layer of nail cells,” says Stern. Which can be an issue with gel manicures if you’re not going into a salon to get them removed properly.
Regain Your Strength
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to protect nails against these damaging factors. Try Stern's simple suggestions that can help create a healthy environment for your nails to grow long and strong:
Plus, check out our recommendations for products that can help strengthen and repair weak and brittle nails.
Made with grapeseed oil, kukui nut oil, sesame oil and vitamin E oil, this cuticle oil restores essential oils in nails to keep them soft and healthy.
Danielle Candido, a lead educator at Gelish, believes that using cuticle oil twice a day is the best way to get stronger nails. "Use a cuticle oil made with essential oils like Grape Seed Oil, Sesame Seed or Sunflower Oil," she notes, since these are carrier oils. "The smaller molecular structure of these oils penetrates the skin easily and will “carry” the other ingredients deeply into the tissue to help hydrate and heal most efficiently."
Muscat rose tree oil, iron, zinco, vitamin E and seaweed extract make up this hyrdrating, nourishing cocktail. Apply under your base coat or alone to repair dehydrated and splitting nails and give nails a smooth, healthy finish.
This nail polish and strengthening gel coat hybrid is the first two-in-one base coat and polish. Rich in keratin, it instantly seals and protects nails so that they can grow without splitting or flaking.
Morgan Taylor Go Ahead and Grow Fortifying Nail Treatment Base Coat, $13 (available for purchase in salons and spas)
A treatment base coat like this one from Morgan Taylor is a good way to give weak and damaged nails healthy base support pre-mani. Keratin and vitamin E help strengthen nails and allow them to grow longer.
A glass file makes it so you don't need to apply as much pressure when filing, since the heavy material does it for you. It also helps seal the nail, preventing splitting and chipping. (Plus, you can wash it, so it'll last!)
Rococo's founders, Ange and Vernice Walker, note that glass files are great to smooth and bevel the edge of the nail. "It’s best to use a file that is 240 grit or higher—it should be smooth," they add. And filing the correct way is key, otherwise you can split and peel the nail. "It’s best not to file back and forth with a file that could be too coarse or gritty. You should also avoid filing on top of the nail plate as this could cause thinning of the layers and damage to the nail bed," the Walkers advise.
A weekly dose of this treatment gently exfoliates and gradually softens cuticles so they're easy to push back and you won't be tempted to cut or pick at them.
Julep's patented formulation forms a film on nails to make them water-resistant, protecting nail cells from water damage and making them less prone to splitting.
Applied alone or under base coat, this strengthener combine amino acids, iron and Kevlar (what bulletproof vests are made of) to leave nails shielded from those external factors that weaken them.
Not into cuticle oil? Use hand cream instead. "It's just all about what you're going to end up using," says Dana Stern, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist who specializes in nails and nail disorders. Natural minerals and vitamins B5 and F provide serious moisturization and macademia nut oil works to replenish dry skin and cuticles.
Find out if your hair is aging you and learn how to turn back the strands of time.
Highlight your eye color. Flaunt your body shape. Harness your confidence. Take our quizzes to better know yourself and get science-based, individualized advice to embrace your true beauty.
Find out if your hair is aging you and learn how to turn back the strands of time.Take Quiz
See how your BMI and waist-to-hip ratio is affecting your beauty and health.Take Quiz
Great sex does more than blow your mind—it's good for your heart, your head and your beauty.Take Quiz
Define your curves and discover the best ways to eat, exercise and dress for your figure.Take Quiz