How to strengthen nails and brittle nails causes

Brittle nails: A skin specialist reveals the causes and symptoms – plus how to make them stronger

20th March 2024 | Author: Victoria Woollaston-Webber

Brittle nails causes range from vitamin deficiencies to a lack of iron, not using moisturiser and even brittle nails disease. Here a skin specialist reveals all you need to know about the symptoms and how to treat them

Brittle nails are the worst. Just when you think you’ve grown them to the perfect length, one breaks or tears and you’re left having to file them all back down again.

It can be tricky to know why they’re fine one minute and what causes brittle nails the next, which makes knowing how to strengthen nails a bit of a guessing game.

To take the guesswork out of it all, Patricia Boland, a skin specialist at Colorescience has revealed the top causes of brittle nails and what you can do to get them back to full health.

Brittle nails 

Brittle nails are officially known as onychorrhexis and are caused when your nails become weak and crack, split or break easily.

Some people only get brittle nails occasionally, but others can suffer for months or years at a time.

Brittle nails symptoms

Brittle nails causes and symptomsShutterstock

The symptoms to look out for are:

  • Splitting or layering: One of the hallmark signs that your nails aren’t as strong as they could be is splitting, or layering. Also known as onychoschizia, this can cause nails to split horizontally, creating layers that peel away at the tip of the nail.
  • Fragile nails: Brittle nails are more likely to crack of break, even from minor trauma that wouldn’t usually damage  healthy nails.
  • Rough texture: Brittle nails can feel rough to the touch, displaying ridges or bumps rather than feeling and looking smooth.
  • Dullness: Instead of having a natural shine, brittle nails often appear dull.
  • Slow growth: Brittle nails may seem to grow more slowly. Most of the time they’re growing fine but it looks like they’re growing slowly because they keep breaking and splitting which prevents them from keeping their length.
  • Thick Nails: While most people with brittle nails will have thin nails, others might find their nails become super thick.

In some cases, brittle nails can be accompanied by other symptoms that may suggest an underlying health issue. These brittle nails symptoms include:

  • Discolouration: Nails might change colour, exhibiting white spots, yellowing, or even a blueish tint. This could be a fungal infection, psoriasis or something else.
  • Abnormal shapes: Nails can develop an irregular shape, such as concave (spoon-shaped) nails, which can suggest you’re experiencing an iron deficiency.
  • Pain or discomfort: If the brittleness is severe, it can feel painful, especially when pressure is applied to the nail or the nail bed is exposed due to breakage.

If you’re concerned, speak to your pharmacist of GP.

Why are my nails so brittle?

Various factors, including environmental exposure, vitamin deficiencies, and underlying health conditions can all contribute to the weakness and brittleness of your nails. The main brittle nails causes include:

You can scroll through this list, or click each cause of brittle nails causes above to jump straight to the relevant section.

Brittle nails disease

Having brittle nails, and thus having onychorrhexis, can also be referred to as having brittle nails disease.

It’s not a disease in the traditional sense, it’s an alternative name given to when your nails keep breaking and splitting and is instead the manifestation of various underlying factors mentioned in our brittle nails causes section above.

Brittle nails vitamin deficiency

Vitamin D for skinGetty Images/iStockphoto

Brittle nails can often be a sign of nutritional deficiencies and there are specific vitamins and minerals that play a role in the health of your nails. As a result, a lack of these vitamins can lead to brittle nails disease.

  • Biotin (Vitamin B7): Biotin is crucial for the health of nails, skin, and hair. A deficiency in biotin can lead to weakened nail structure which can cause brittle, splitting or thinning nails.
  • Vitamin C: Vitamin C is essential for collagen production and collagen is what gives structure and strength to nails, skin, and hair. A lack of Vitamin C can lead to dry, brittle nails, as well as slow nail growth.
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency can cause nails to become brittle, thin, or change shape.
  • Vitamin E: Known for its antioxidant properties, Vitamin E helps in fighting damage caused by free radicals to nail cells. It also adds moisture, which is essential for healthy, flexible nails.

FURTHER READING: Skin food: The best foods for clear, healthy skin and nails – and why they work

Brittle nails iron deficiency

While not a vitamin, iron also plays a significant role in the health of your nails. Iron deficiency can lead to spoon-shaped nails (koilonychia) or pale, brittle nails.

Iron helps form haemoglobin, a molecule that shuttles red blood cells loaded with oxygen directly into your nail and without this, your nails will suffer from stunted growth.

Other deficiencies can have a similar impact. A deficiency in zinc, for example, can weaken the nail structure, slow nail growth, and lead to white spots on the nails.

Not getting enough protein can lead to brittle nails disease because nails are made of keratin, a type of protein. While not eating enough Omega-3 Fatty Acids or similar essential fats means your nail bed and cuticles don’t retain enough moisture to stay healthy.

It’s best to load up on foods which are rich in irons such as spinach, dark chocolate and white beans or take supplements. The Vitabiotics Perfectil Plus Hair supplements are great for boosting your hair, skin and nails if your brittle nails are due to a vitamin or iron deficiency.

FURTHER READING: The truth about beauty supplements


Signs of dehydrated skin vs dry skinmamabella | mamabella

Dehydration caused by not drinking enough water is the cause of so many beauty ills. In our How to get rid of dark circles explainer, our resident MUA explains how a lack of hydration could be ageing you prematurely.

And it’s damaging to your nails, too. Not drinking enough water is a major factor in many cases of brittle nails so it’s best to drink throughout the day to keep those hydration levels up.

FURTHER READING: Do you have dry skin or is it just dehydrated? Here’s how to tell the difference

Cheap nail polish remover

When it comes to removing nail polish, this is one area where you really do get what you pay for.

Cheap nail polish removers not only take more effort to get rid of the polish, exposing your nails to harsh chemicals for longer, but cheap removers can also strip moisture from your nails, causing them to become brittle and weak.

If you are using nail polish remover, always invest in a trustworthy brand and not to use it excessively. We recommend Cutex’s Non-Acetone nail remover, but whichever remover you choose, try to find one that doesn’t contain acetone as it tends to dehydrate your nails.

Lack of moisture

Your nails not only need moisture from the within but also from the outside. The best way to keep on top of this is to apply frequent hand cream and moisturiser throughout the day.

This is particular key during cold weather and winter months.

Keep a hand cream in your bag or desk at work and apply whenever you think about it, especially after your hands have been wet.

The Clarins Hand and Nail Treatment is expensive (£27 for 100ml) but a little goes a long way, it smells great and it provides a barrier for your skin and nails from the environmental damage. Continued use can also reduce the appearance of dark spots.

FURTHER READING: Best hand cream: Protect dry hands from getting red and sore with our top hand creamsAgeing hands? Tips, treatments and creams that make your hands look younger

Excessive water

By this, we mean the water that comes into contact with your hands, not the water you drink. Doing the washing up, for example, can take a big toll on your nails as soaps and solvents from the liquid can have a drying effect on your nails.

A simple solution to the household chore side effect is to pop on a pair of gloves which will protect your nails from the bad chemicals and keep them from drying out. The Clarins Treatment listed above can help reduce the damage by providing a barrier, and you can buy eco-friendly washing-up liquids that contain fewer harsh chemicals.

We’re also a fan of the Leighton Denny Nail Rebuilder capsules. You can buy a pack of 20 for £17.50 and a single capsule can treat all your nails, on your fingers and toes. You just twist off the cap and massage the oil into the nail bed before allowing it to absorb.

The brand recommends using the capsules daily for 14 days for targeted treatment results, although you need to keep you nails free from polish in order to see the best result.

Once your nails are strong again, you can use these capsules as a weekly treatment.

Too many manicures

If you are a nail fanatic, it can be hard to cut down on how many manicures you have each month. If you are constantly subjecting your nails to acrylics or gel, this can damage your nail beds and leave them feeling brittle and weak.

Even if you’re using gels that promise to moisturise your nails, and you have them removed professionally.

Try, whenever possible, to a break between treatments every now and then, and use a nail hardener instead to build your nails back up to their natural state.

We’re huge fans of nail wraps – you can read more about them in our roundup of the best cheap products every makeup collection needs – and while they’re still not foolproof when it comes to keeping your nails as healthy as they would be without any treatment, they’re a better alternative than repeatedly having gels and acrylics applied.

You pick your nail polish off

Brittle nails gels acylicsShutterstock

Peeling off nail polish, gel or traditional, doesn’t just remove your coat of nail polish but it also removes part of the top layer of your nails – which causes your nails to thin.

It can be easy to do, especially as your manicure starts to chip, but if you do this an excessive amount it can take months for them to grow back in a healthy condition. If you see your nails have started to chip away, take them off with remover as soon as you can so the temptation isn’t there.

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