As many as 4 million people a year buy home healthcare products for brittle nails, a condition known in the medical literature as onychoschizia. About 1 in 5 people has brittle nails, one survey finding the problem in 27 percent of women and 13 percent of men. Brittle nails typically peel from the nail’s free end, breaking off in horizontal layers. Less often, the nail splits vertically. Brittle nails are more common in women than in men.
What causes nails to split and peel?
Brittleness is usually caused by trauma to the nail: repeated exposure to detergents and water, failure to wear gloves when using solvents or excessive use of nail polish remover, or simply excessive washing and drying. Brittle nails can also be caused by an underlying medical problem, such as malnutrition, hypothyroidism, chronic lung infections, psoriasis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, or Sjogren’s syndrome. They may be a side effect of medication with carbamazepine or phenytoin for bipolar disorder or seizures.
Brittle nails may be a temporary complication of antibiotic therapy. They are a common problem among dialysis patients, and they can also be caused by overdosing selenium supplements. Since brittle nails can be a symptom of a serious health condition, self-treatment is only appropriate when brittle nails are the only symptom.
∆ Biotin: 300–600 micrograms daily.
∆ Avoid high doses of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5).
A small-scale but carefully controlled clinical study confirms the usefulness of biotin supplements in treating brittle nails. Researchers used an electron microscope to examine nail clippings taken from 8 women who were given 2.5 mg of biotin daily for 6–9 months. They also examined nail clippings from 10 women who were not given biotin. Microscopic examination of the nails confirmed that nails were thicker and stronger in the women who took biotin. A later, larger but uncontrolled study got similar results.
It may be necessary to take biotin for up to 6 months to get results. There are no adverse interactions between biotin and prescription drugs reported in the medical literature. Be sure to take biotin if you take antibiotics, since antibiotics kill the intestinal bacteria that make this vitamin. High doses of pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) compete with biotin for transport sites in the lining of the large intestine. Avoid high-dose vitamin B5 therapy when taking biotin.
Gelatin is frequently recommended as a treatment for brittle nails, as are ceratin, collagen, cysteine, methionine, millet, vitamin A, brewer’s yeast, zinc, and the herb horsetail. So far, there is no systematic evidence that any of these remedies help most cases of brittle nails, although they will not harm brittle nails. Zinc supplements are useful in a rare condition called acquired acrodermatitis enteropathica, in which brittle nails are only one symptom, along with perioral and perianal dermatitis, diarrhea, mouth sores, and hair loss. Usually brittle nails are a later symptom of the condition. In acrodermatitis enteropathica, zinc sulphate supplements work best.
Also helpful to keep in mind are:
ο Brittle nails are more of a problem in low humidity and high heat, such as in desert climates or in overheated houses in winter. In low humidity or high heat conditions, apply lotions containing alpha hydroxy acids or lanolin to the nails anytime you get your hands wet.
ο Buff the nails in the direction the nail grows, not in a back and forth motion.
ο Do not use metal instruments to push back the cuticle.
ο If the fingernails are weak but the toenails are strong, the problem is external pressure, not a nutritional deficiency.
ο Nail polishes with nylon fibers strengthen brittle nails.
ο Shape and file the nails with a very fine file. Round tips in a gentle curve. Filing snags and irregularities every day helps prevent further damage.
ο Try to wear gloves when performing chores that involve getting the hands wet. Heavy-duty vinyl gloves worn with a thin cotton liner are best.
ο There are some reports that the supplement methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) can help build both harder nails and shinier hair. A typical dosage would be 3,000 mg per day.