Approximately 20% of American women suffer from a condition known as brittle nail syndrome. This disorder is characterized by such changes in the nail plate as splitting, peeling, and surface layering. In addition, the nail plate loses its flexibility, becomes fragile, breaks easily, and is often frayed at the edges. When the nail plate is in this condition, it cannot perform it important daily functions such as picking up small objects and doing intricate work with the fingers. One of my patients who repairs expensive clocks cannot wok properly when his nails are brittle and broken because he is unable to fix the delicate mechanisms in the timepieces.

Brittle nail syndrome may be precipitated by many causes. The end result, however, is a dehydrated nail plate. The average amount of moisture in a normal nail plate is approximately 18%. When the moisture dips below this level, the nail becomes brittle. Having dry nails is like having dry skin. In fact, many patients who suffer from brittle nail syndrome have problems with dry skin as well; thus, some refer to the disorder as the equivalent of “dry skin of the nails.”

A number of local causes may play a role in the development of this troublesome problem. Probably the most common precipitating factor is trauma or injury to the nail plate. The nails are not tools – they should not be used as screwdrivers or scrapers. When the nails are subjected to these chores, they become damaged and often tear. These abuses cause the nail plate to become fragile.

Another cause of brittle nails is frequent hand-washing, which causes the nail cells to swell and contract repeatedly. It’s as if a piece of wood is bent back and forth many times; it will eventually break. The same thing happens to the nail.

Nail enamel is beneficial to brittle nails because he polish act as a physical barrier and reduces water loss. However, if polish is removed and reapplied more than once a week, the drying effect of the nail polish remover can worsen the condition of the nails. I advise my patient to use formaldehyde-free nail products and an acetone-free remover, which can be less drying.

Another contributor to brittle nails is cold, dry weather. Glove should always be worn during the winter to protect the nail and prevent brittleness. During the summer and when the humidity is high, brittle nails are less of a problem.

Brittle nail syndrome may occur at an age; it is seen in children with eczema, those who also have a dry skin problem, and in the elderly. Both the skin and nails become drier with age, and so nail fragility is seen more often in senior citizens. Also with older people, there is actually as much as a 30%-40% reduction in the nail growth rate. This means that the nail material at the free edge is older and therefore drier. Also complicating the situation in the elderly is reduced or poor circulation to the fingers, which further accentuates the drying effect.

Finally, certain medications such as diuretics can lead to nail plate dehydration. Many people take these medicines for high blood pressure.

In addition to these local factors, some internal influences may cause brittle nails. Low iron levels (anemia), hypothyroidism, and low zinc levels all contribute to splitting, peeling nails. Vitamin deficiencies and improper diets – when severe enough – can be factors. Interestingly enough, calcium intake is not a factor since the nail plate only contains small traces of that element. Gelatin intake also seems not to influence nail hardness or fragility. The sudden onset of brittle nails in an individual who has never had them before merits a medical evaluation to rule out the possibility of an internal disease being the cause.

The first step in treating brittle nails is to eliminate the causes. Oral biotin supplements – a minor B vitamin – has been known to benefit some (see “Biotin Supplements Strengthen Weak Nails” March 1996).  For clients with brittle nails who don’t wear extensions, warm-water soaks at bedtime for about 10 minutes and then the application of an effective moisturizer helps to keep the water in the nail plate.

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