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How Do I Treat My Peeling Nails?

Model with Jin Soon manicure at NYFW

Anna Webber / Getty Images for JINsoon

Back in the day, nails were more than just fashion accessories: Early humans used them for digging, defense, and grooming. As the conveniences of modern life precluded those needs, nails became something we take care of, rather than the other way around. One thing hasn't changed, however: Your nails can indicate the general state of your health—so before you treat your peeling nails with the following remedies, check your toenails, too. If they're also peeling, see a doctor to rule out health-related causes such as iron and other nutritional deficiencies. Brittle nails can reflect concerning inflammatory conditions.

Fixing Peeling Nails from the Inside

First, let's focus on what you can do to improve the overall health of your nails.

Eat the good stuff. Boost your intake of iron- and biotin-rich foods such as:

  • Avocado
  • Whole grains
  • Cooked eggs
  • Cauliflower
  • Baked potato with skin
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Lean meats
  • Lentils
  • Spinach
  • White beans

Take a multivitamin. Other nutrients found in vitamins can help build your nails' strength, too. They work together with each other and with the foods you eat to keep all your body systems humming.

Attack Peeling Nails from the Outside

Now, let's think about how to moisturize your nails. Here are a few tried-and-true remedies.

Soak your nails in olive or coconut oil. Just pour some oil into two small bowls (melt the coconut oil for just a few seconds in the microwave), moisten your nails a bit, stick them in the bowls, and relax for a while.

Use gentle polish remover. Use acetone-free nail polish remover for sensitive skin. It might take a bit longer to get the nail polish off your nails, but it's far kinder to them.

Try nail-hardening polish and topical treatments. Here are a few to check out.

Nutra Nail 5 to 7 Day Growth Calcium Formula
Nutra Nail 5 to 7 Day Growth Calcium Formula $8

You can apply this nail hardener up to twice a day to clean nails, depending on how weak your nails are. Just don't forget to brush it on your cuticles and under the tips of your nails as well. Massage the nail treatment in for a few seconds to help the keratin amino acids, collagen, and aloe leaf juice penetrate your nails.

OPI Nail Envy
OPI Nail Envy Nail Strengthener for Sensitive & Peeling Nails $18

Yes, this is the most expensive option on the list, but if you want a formaldehyde-free formula that protects your nails from peeling, then you should consider this option. It's formaldehyde-free and contains aloe vera, which is perfect for rebalancing sensitive skin and nails. Calcium will help strengthen your nails while kukui nut oil and vitamin E will prevent your nails from peeling.

Hydration Therapy, Moisturizing Strenthener 2, For Soft, Peeling Nails
Nail Tek Hydration Therapy Moisturizing Strengthener 2 $9

You can wear polish over this nail strengthener from Nail Tek. Just be sure to apply this option as a base for your polish. It also works as a daily top coat after your manicure dries down. Just be sure to take off your nail polish and the Nail Tek top coat once a week before you give yourself another manicure. 

Consider forgoing polish altogether for a while. Going au naturel reduces the drying effects of harsh chemicals found in most nail polishes. Plus, you'll allow sunlight to reach your nails and cuticles, which is vital to cell repair and regeneration.

Buff. If you don't have one already, pick up a 4-in-1 nail buffer to smooth rough edges, so they don't catch so easily.

Tropical Shine 4-Way Mini Nail Buffer Block
Tropical Shine 4-Way Mini Nail Buffer Block $5

This affordable four-way nail buffer block has four levels of grit, ranging from coarse to extra fine, and has a cuticle protection edge. And if you're all about cleanliness, then you'll be thrilled to know that the file is washable and can be sanitized. 

Wear gloves. How often your hands are in water? How often are you using chemicals and cleaning products? What exactly is getting used on your hands and how often? Sometimes we don't think about how the things we do and the products we use affect our nails. If you're frequently submerging your hands in water for whatever reason (washing dishes, work-related responsibilities, etc.), gloves can go a long way toward nail health. No, they're not pretty and they can be cumbersome, but they're the best way to keep your hands and nails healthy. 

A Few Don'ts

You can take a few preventative steps to improve your nail health, too.

Don't resort to the fakes. Acrylic, press-on, and gel nails can make things worse, turning your already damaged nails into something that only time will help.

Don't expose your hands to water without moisturizing afterward. It sounds counterintuitive, but water—specifically, the evaporation of water—dries skin out. Lotion is your nails' friend.

Don't use your nails as tools. Don't use them to pick apart things, open soda cans, or to do any of the hundred other things that an actual tool or a better method can accomplish without damaging your nails.

Don't bite your nails. When a nail is peeling, it's very tempting to bite it off. That's a bad idea because you'll weaken your nail. If a strip of the nail is beginning to peel, clip it and buff or file the edge.

Don't buff in multiple directions. Buffing should be done in one direction. Moving the buffer back and forth can weaken your nail beds and make peeling more likely. Instead, use gentle, steady movements in one direction only.

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