Having dry, brittle nails that break or tear isn't just annoying—it can be downright painful. If you find yourself suffering from nail breakage, there are a handful of lifestyle changes that can help your nails get back to healthy, smooth, and strong.
We reached out to a dietitian, a dermatologist, and, of course, a licensed nail artist to fill us in on how to prevent your nails from breaking, once and for all. From exactly how to bolster your diet to which environmental factors may be wreaking havoc on your digits, these experts tackle nail health from every angle. They weigh in on the bad habits to break, the biotin myths to beware of, and your best bets for achieving the nails you've always wanted.
Meet the Expert
- Melissa Bailey, MS, RD, LDD, is a clinical dietitian in Philadelphia and founder of The Nourished Fork where she shares simple recipes, advice for eating well while traveling, and nutrition tips.
- Dr. Peter Hashim is a New York City-based dermatologist who specializes in complex medical dermatology.
- Dr. Adam Cirlincione is a New York City-based podiatrist and co-founder of Dr.'s Remedy Enriched Nail Care.
- Sarah Thompson is a Phoenix-based licensed nail artist and technician as well as the editor and creator of Chalkboard Nails.
Head below for all the expert-approved tips to learn how to keep your nails from breaking.
Remember You Are What You Eat
Like so much of our outward appearance—from how clear our skin is to how shiny our hair is—our nail health begins with the nutrients we put in our body. "Eating a well-balanced diet as well as increasing your biotin intake is your best bet for helping to strengthen your nails," explains registered dietitian Melissa Bailey, MS, RD, LDD of The Nourished Fork. "Biotin is a B vitamin found in a variety of foods."
Bailey notes the highest amounts of biotin are found in animal proteins, like eggs, chicken, and salmon. However, you can also consume biotin in plant-based foods including nuts, seeds, spinach, and sweet potatoes. "For comparison, an egg yolk contains approximately 10 micrograms of biotin while a serving of spinach has seven micrograms," says Bailey. "I always recommend getting any vitamin and mineral naturally from your diet, as your body absorbs them better from diet than in a supplement form."
When Necessary, Take a Multivitamin
While biotin supplements are a buzzy product in the beauty space, they're no longer seen by experts as the best option. "Although dermatologists used to recommend biotin as an over-the-counter treatment to help strengthen nails, a 2017 FDA warning highlighted that biotin can interfere with lab tests—so we no longer encourage routine biotin supplementation," explains board-certified dermatologist Peter Hashim, M.D. M.H.S., who recommends focusing more on a balanced diet.
However if you have a biotin deficiency, New York board-certified podiatrist Dr. Adam Cirlincione says taking biotin can help strengthen and nourish nails. "Deficiencies in biotin can have an effect on hair, nails, and skin, which may be why many people increase their biotin intake to support healthy nails," he says. "Symptoms of biotin deficiency can include hair loss, dry scaly skin, rash around the mouth, eyes, and nose, and brittle fingernails. Biotin has been proven to help strengthen brittle nails which in turn can help them grow."
Bailey recommends prioritizing real, vitamin-rich foods to get your nutrients. "Your best bet is a healthy diet, and if you still feel like you need an extra boost, a daily multivitamin should be all you need to get the right amount of biotin for strong nails," she says. "Because biotin is water-soluble, meaning your body excretes what you don't need, higher levels are typically okay to consume," she assures. "However, that does not mean you should go out and take massive doses of biotin as your body can't use it all."
Use a Strengthening Base Coat
It may seem counterintuitive, but nail polish can actually be beneficial to weak nails and even help prevent them from breaking—as long as it's the right formula. "Using a base coat with your polish can add an extra layer of protection, but unless you're using a strengthening base coat, it's more for the adherence of the polish versus improving nail health," notes nail artist and technician Sarah Thompson of Chalkboard Nails. One great option is côte Nail Strengthener Base and Top Coat ($21) to strengthen weak, thin, or splitting nails.
Another great option for a strengthening base coat is the Tenoverten The Foundation Base Coat from Violet Grey ($18). It is a more natural way to strengthen your nails as it is an “8-Free” formula, which means out the top eight chemicals, including dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene and formaldehyde, that are in many nail polish formulas. For a budget-friendly option to strengthen your nails, check out Sally Hansen Mega Strength Hardener ($3).
Resist the Urge to Pick or Peel
Just as you're not supposed to pick at your face when you have a breakout, it's best if you leave your fingers alone when your nails are breaking or your polish is peeling. "Try to keep a keratin-based strengthener or serum handy and apply it whenever you notice damage," suggests Thompson. "Replace the picking habit with self-care!"
If you have gel or dip nails, avoid picking, peeling of pulling the artificial nail off. This is not only potentially painful, but can damage your nails. To safely remove them, you must soak them in an acetone solution. The acetone solution can dry out your nails, but it won’t damage your nails as much as pulling off the gel or dip nails. The American Academy of Dermatology Association says that soak-off gel nails will actually cause less peeling and brittleness to your natural nails than acrylic nails, however. You can also consider getting artificial nails only for special occasions to let your nails recover in between.
Use Acetone-Free Nail Polish Remover
There was a time when acetone was pretty much the only option to remove polish—and it's certainly effective. However, it does come with drawbacks certainly not limited to that pungent smell we've become so acquainted with. Acetone may dry out nails. Luckily, acetone-free nail polish removers are popping up everywhere, some even with added benefits like nourishing and strengthening properties. One great option is Ella + Mila Soy Nail Polish Remover ($12) to safely remove polish and nourish the nails. The Londontown kur Strengthening Lacquer Remover ($12) is another acetone-free option that promises to both strengthen and rehydrate nails.
If you have gel nails or dip nails, however, be aware that acetone-free nail polish won’t remove them. Only pure acetone is strong enough to dissolve the artificial layer. If you have artificial nails and soak them off using pure acetone, make sure you use an oil or other hydrating lotion afterwards to prevent them from getting brittle and breaking.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), the process of getting acrylic nails can be seriously damaging to your natural nails. The combination of filing the nail's surface until it's rough, harsh chemicals in the products, exposure to a curing light, and soaking in acetone for removal can lead to damaged nails. If fake nails are your jam, try a gentler alternative like a non-damaging press-on nail. We recommend Static Nails Ballerina Round pop-on nails ($16) as an alternative to acrylics because the glue is non-damaging and they do not require acetone to remove.
You can also look for long-wearing nail polish formulas. Olive & June ($8) is a long-lasting nail polish that is “7-free,” which means it doesn’t contain many of the harsh chemicals that some nail polishes contain. Pair it with a top coat for a glossy sheen that also helps prevent chips for an even longer amount of time.
Use a Nail Strengthener
"Nail strengtheners can be a great option for those with thin and brittle nails," explains Thompson. "There are different formulas available to target specific problems you may be experiencing." Still, it's best to approach nail health holistically and not rely solely on products to correct the damage. "Keep in mind it's always good to use them in conjunction with better moisturizing habits to create healthy nail growth," says Thompson.
Cirlincione suggests hydrating and strengthening nails with the Dr.'s Remedy hydration treatment "which is infused with Pentavitin and biotin to help moisturize and strengthen nails." Biotin, as we've established, is essential to healthy nails, while Pentavitin is actually a plant-derived bioactive skincare ingredient meant to boost hydration.
Looking for an all-natural nail strengthener? Try rubbing coconut oil on your cuticles and nails. Coconut oil can help treat cracked and brittle nails and it is also a natural anti-inflammatory —which is great if your cuticles are irritated or inflamed.
Keep Your Nails Moisturized
"The number one thing you can do to avoid breakage is to keep your hands and nails well moisturized!" insists Thompson. "Well-moisturized nail beds grow healthier nails and well-moisturized nails bend and flex instead of breaking." Thompson also notes not only do moisturized hands promote healthy nail growth, but they make hands and nails feel and look better too. "Regular lotion application can help prevent signs of aging in hands as well," Thompson adds.
To keep hands and nails moisturized, Thompson says cuticle oil, cuticle cream, and hand lotion are all great options. "Cuticle oil is one of the best things you can use on your nails," assures Thompson. "Not only does it promote flexibility, but if you are wearing polish or gel, it can prolong your manicure." She advises applying it as often as you want, aiming for at least once a day.
Avoid Harsh Chemicals
"Environmental exposures are also important to consider, as frequent contact with cleaning detergents or even overly aggressive manicures can damage nails," warns Hashim. Nails exposed to household cleansers may become damaged, especially if you're using chemicals like acetone or bleach. The same goes for harsh antibacterial kitchen soap that you might be using to clean your dishes. Cirlincione adds that even prolonged water exposure should be avoided in order to maintain healthy nails.
You may also want to steer clear of some potentially harsh ingredients in nail polishes. Look for polishes that are “five-free,” which means they do not contain formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde resin, and camphor. Some nail polishes have removed other ingredients as well, and will market their products as “9-free,” for example. Harvard Health reports that chemicals in nail polish can be absorbed into the body, however more studies need to be done to determine if they result in negative health effects. Regardless, it is always a good idea to take a more natural approach and steer clear of the more harsh ingredients when you can.
Make sure to protect your hands and nails by wearing gloves when using harsh chemical cleaners.
Remove Your Gel Polish the Right Way
As touched on previously, resist the urge to pull or pick at your gel or dip nails. It can not only be painful and potentially damage your nail bed, but it results in brittle and cracked nails. "Don't peel your gels off!" warns Thompson. "Remember the gel is always going to be stronger than the top layer of your nails, so when you peel your gel it will take some of your nail off with it." Thompson explains when properly applied and removed, gel polish shouldn't damage your nails. "If you feel like your nails are weakened, there's nothing wrong with taking a few weeks off to rehab and moisturize your nails.”
Even though acetone is what is often used to quickly remove gel nails, it is harsh and can dry out nails. Try this non-damaging, gel eraser kit from Glosslab ($30) to safely remove gel nail polish. After you have removed the gel, moisturize your cuticles and nails with a soothing lotion.
Keep it Short (And Rounded)
Keeping your nails shorter can keep them from snagging and ultimately tearing, but even the shape of your nails can reduce your chances of damage. "If you've ever had square nails, you've probably experienced a broken corner or a tear on the side of your nail," says Thompson. "Round nails experience these problems much less frequently."
Don’t cut them so short that they are painful. Keep a little length so you can shape them into an oval or rounded shape. Also, when filing your nails make sure you file from one direction only. Don’t file back and forth, like in a sawing motion, as this can cause your nails to break. File in a slow and controlled motion as you shape your nails in the desired shape.
Short nails don’t have to be boring, either! Have fun with adventurous colors or designs. You can also try nail stickers if you are feeling really festive.
If Problems Persist, Get an In-Person Medical Evaluation
If you've adhered to the advice above and are still suffering from weak and brittle nails, it may be time to get a medical evaluation. "Nails can be affected by a variety of dermatologic conditions, including psoriasis and nail fungus," warns Hashim. When it comes to caring for your nail health, he advises "the best approach is a balanced diet, gentle nail care, and seeking an in-person evaluation if you are concerned about any nail diseases."
The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD) says that dry, brittle nails are rarely caused by vitamin deficiencies or other serious medical conditions. One way to help determine if nail issues are a systemic problem or from other reasons, such as using harsh nail polishes, is to compare your toenails and fingernails. If your toenails are strong and healthy and your fingernails are breaking, then it could be from using harsh nail products or another external reason.
If both toenails and fingernails are brittle and breaking, it could be an internal issue. If it is a vitamin deficiency, low iron is often the cause and your doctor can test you for this and provide the right supplements. Other medical conditions that can cause brittle nails include Raynaud’s syndrome or hypothyroidism.
What vitamin are you lacking if you have brittle nails?
Brittle nails are usually the result of external factors, such as using drying nail products, however they can sometimes be caused by low iron. This can cause brittle or spoon-shaped nails. Your doctor can test you and prescribe supplements, as well as recommend diet changes such as increasing iron-rich foods like spinach, meats and beans.
Can an injury cause a nail to split or break?
If you have had a trauma to your nail, such as closing it into a door (ouch!), it can damage the nail bed. If this happens, it can result in nails that pull away from the nail bed, split or become thickened and discolored.
Should you have your cuticles trimmed when you get a manicure?
The AAD says you should skip the cuticle trimming. Cuticles actually help protect your nails from infection, and that protection is gone when they are cut. Instead, try gently pushing back your cuticles with a wooden stick.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Artificial nails: dermatologists' tips for reducing nail damage.
Harvard Health. A Look at the Effects of Nail Polish on Nail Health and Safety. November, 2019.
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Brittle Splitting Nails. (n.d.)
Penn Medicine. What Your Nail Health Can Tell You: Don’t Ignore These 5 Signs. January, 2019.
Harvard Health. Nail Trauma. December, 2018.