[on-e-ko-’reck-ses] or [on-e-ko-’skiz-e-ya]  nails on the hands and feet that break and peel easily. Alternate medical names include onychorrhexis and onychoschizia.

[on-e-ko-’reck-ses] or [on-e-ko-’skiz-e-ya] nails on the hands and feet that break and peel easily. Alternate medical names include onychorrhexis and onychoschizia.

It’s not difficult to identify brittle nails: they split, peel, and break easily. It is nearly impossible to grow nails out when they are brittle, because once the nails have any amount of free edge, they split and break.

Brittle nails can be caused by medical conditions such as a thyroid problem or a hormone imbalance, but more often than not, brittle nails are caused by an interaction with the environment. “Here is a simple way to look at brittle nails,” says Dr. C. Ralph Daniel, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss, and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “If nails are hard and brittle, they have too little moisture. If they are soft and brittle, they have too much moisture,” he says. Brittle nails don’t usually cause clients physical pain. However, brittle nails are often the result of nails that lack moisture. If the nails lack moisture, it’s likely the skin will lack moisture also. The skin surrounding the nails may crack, split, and bleed. This may be painful for the client, but the pain wouldn’t be directly caused from brittle nails.

Dr. Daniel says clients will often ask him if their bodies lack a particular vitamin, or if brittle nails are an indication of a larger, internal problem. Daniel says one question he asks patients to determine if brittle nails are a symptom of a more serious problem is this: Are your toenails brittle? Most clients respond no. “If fingernails are splitting because the body lacks a vitamin, the toenails would split too, because both are formed from the same material in the body,” says Dr. Daniel. When fingernails are brittle, but toenails are not, there’s a good chance that the nails are brittle because they are being exposed to something in the environment.

Detergents, soaps, or other allergens could cause the nails to split, but a common culprit of splitting nails is plain, everyday water. People who are in and out of water all day long are more likely to develop brittle nails. This could include nurses and bartenders, or someone who is particularly conscientious about clean hands. Just as the skin in the hands gets dry and needs to be rehydrated, so, too, do the fingernails. Clients who live in an area of low humidity or who heat their homes with forced hot air also are more apt to develop brittle nails because of the lack of moisture in the air, says Dr. Daniel.

Applying and removing polish frequently can also dehydrate nails, causing them to become brittle. Clients who remove their polish more than once a week may complain that their nails have begun to split. Techs can remind clients to moisturize hands as one step in their at-home polish change.

An unavoidable factor that contributes to brittle nails is age. “As we age, our bodies lose the ability to hold moisture,” says Dr. Daniel. Don’t think retired clients, either. The body’s ability to retain moisture begins to change at around age 35. Techs should be aware of this natural change and be prepared to recommend moisturizers, vitamins, and cuticle oils to clients whose nails show signs of aging.[PAGEBREAK]

Having brittle toenails as well as fingernails can indicate a systemic problem rather than an environmental cause.

Having brittle toenails as well as fingernails can indicate a systemic problem rather than an environmental cause.

Just as the causes of brittle nails are often easy to determine, they are also easy to treat. When clients come in complaining that their nails always split and won’t grow, techs can offer a number of helpful suggestions. If the client is in a lot of water, suggest she wear gloves to protect her hands and nails. If that’s not possible, say in the case of a bartender, suggest the client hydrate her nails regularly. Dr. Daniel suggests a moisturizer that contains urea. Other treatments could include Biotin, a B complex vitamin. “Between 25%-30% of patients respond to this treatment when they take 2.5-3 milligrams a day for four to six months,” says Dr. Daniel. Silica or orthosilic acid may also help clients who suffer from brittle nails. Despite the circulating tale, gelatin has not been proven to help. Another recommendation from Dr. Daniel is a familiar one: soak hands in water for a few minutes before bedtime and then add a generous amount of moisturizer, such as aquaphor or hydrophor, to the hands. Place cotton gloves over the hands and wear overnight.


“Nail technicians have an entirely different arsenal to work with than doctors,” says Dr. C. Ralph Daniels. Nail techs can treat brittle nails in a number of ways. The first is to work with the client, educating her in ways to keep hands moisturized. Techs can also offer clients in-salon moisturizing treatments, such as paraffin, and they can sell clients hydrating products, such as their favorite cuticle oil, that clients can use at home. These maintenance suggestions are good for clients who cannot wear enhancements on the job. Techs can create an extra-hydrating nail service and market it to clients with brittle nails. Be sure to use a natural nail strengthener under the polish, and apply cuticle oil to clients’ nails before they leave.

The second recommendation a tech can offer is beautiful nail enhancements. Nail enhancements do not pose any risk to clients with brittle nails. If clients have brittle nails because of exposure to detergents or soaps, it may be beneficial to apply one nail on the pinkie to make sure the enhancement product doesn’t aggravate the client’s dry skin. It is still important, even with enhancements, for clients to keep their cuticles and hands hydrated in order to minimize a reaction to the nail product. 

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