5 Reasons Why Your Nails Might Be Breaking

Glitter nail polish on model

It's at this time of year when I find myself looking down and asking myself, Why do my nails keep breaking? After the winter months of trying (and failing) to look after my hands, I find that come spring my nails start to look a little withered with the ends splitting at the top. The main culprit? Spring-cleaning. Yes, it is a brilliant excuse to try and get out of doing household chores (no, it hasn't worked for me yet), but it really is one of the main reasons nails start breaking. And you'll find out why in a moment.

But it's not just external factors that can impact the quality of your nails, there are a few other things you might not have realized are causing that annoying peeling thing. No matter how satisfying it might be to pick at them, the truth is that the quality of your nails can give a good indication of the state of your health altogether. However, today we're talking about brittle nails and nails breaking, and the reasons behind that, including the one type of food you need to stop eating.

#1: Washing the Dishes

This is great news, no? Finally an excuse to stop doing the dishes. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, external factors can often be the cause of nails breaking. How can you tell it's not something else? Check to see if your toenails are strong, if they are then the problem is probably something outside of your body. And the usual cause here is the constant wetting and drying of nails that make them dry and brittle.

Cleaning in general can also cause more problems such as softer nails, which can be damaged by detergents and other cleaning products (again, we really must stop doing all that cleaning). To help, it's advised to coat nails with a polish that has nylon fibers, such as the Sally Hansen Hard as Nails Polish ($3). Oh, and you can also buy a dishwasher here.

#2: Exercise

Frustratingly, even when we're looking after ourselves, bashing our nails when we're working out can lead to breakages. But swimmers will often find that their nails are the ones that are the most damaged by their chosen fitness regimen. According to dermatologist and leading nail expert Dana Stern, MD, "My patients who swim a lot are often very challenging from the perspective of treating their brittle nails, but I always tell them to keep swimming as it is one of the best exercise routines around!"

Instead, she recommends that you limit water exposure to your nails and wear gloves to protect them. She also suggests taking a biotin supplement, which supports nail growth and strength. She also adds that "since fingernails grow out every four to six months, biotin should be taken for at least that length of time to see if it works."

#3: Filing the Wrong Way

Yep, if you're not filing your nails in the right direction, you could be causing more damage. We spoke to Head Nail Technician at Neville Hair & Beauty, Katerina Kramek about the most common cause of nail breakages among her clients.

"Often [breakages occur] because the nail file is too rough," says Kramek. "If that's the case, it will open the cuticle of the nail and it will make it vulnerable. Opt for a glass file or one with a very fine grit."

There's a correct way to file to nail so that the free edge is not jagged, which can cause your nail to chip or break: file your nail in one direction from the the outside corner in.

#4: Stress

Stress. No, it's not exactly a surprise to discover that this is another culprit (what problems does stress not cause?) When we spoke to clinical nutritionist Peter Cox, he revealed that stress (and its impact on how we digest our nutrients, important for nail growth and strength) is another factor as to why our nails are breaking.

Although our intake of minerals has reduced over the years, no thanks to depletion of minerals in soils and our tendency to eat foods with higher sugar content (to the detriment of other mineral-rich foods), it's also our lifestyles that are more highly-stressed that have stopped us being able to absorb minerals better. Not to mention we're always eating with one eye on Netflix. But one major mineral we're missing out on is magnesium, which can help stop nails being so brittle.

"Our requirement for magnesium has increased with stress [stress depletes our magnesium stores]. But we're not getting as much as we used to," says Cox.

"This means that we're not getting as much magnesium as we need. But we're also stopping digesting and absorbing the proper and correct minerals. We also tend to reach for more caffeine, alcohol, and sugars when stressed. And these don't contain many minerals." Even more frustratingly, the coffee and alcohol bind with much-needed minerals making it harder to absorb the nutrients we need.

Of course, changing the way in which we eat, so not eating in front of the TV and being more mindful about how and what we're munching on is a first step, as well as eating mineral-rich foods, but there are also supplemental doses of minerals that Cox recommends, although he suggests that seeing a nutritionist first is important to rule out any digestive problems.

#5: Not Enough Iron

We spoke to clinical nutritionist Filip Koidis, RD, who said that brittle nails are usually an indication of poor nutrition and/or a nutrient deficiency. "Specifically, brittle nails are common with protein deficiency, though that is not often seen especially in the western world. A more common cause, especially in the female population is iron deficiency which makes the nails thin and brittle," he told us.

And the way to rectify this problem? Ensure that your diet is packed with high lean-protein foods such as chicken, fish, pulses, legumes and nuts. "Add lemon, lime or vinegar to your meals to improve iron absorption (acidity in these improves iron absorption by up to 40%)." To up the iron, opt for red meat, (including dark-fleshed fish like tuna), soybeans, lentils, spinach, sesame seeds, kidney beans, potatoes, eggs, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and cashews. "All of the above has to be alongside a well-balanced diet, where no other nutrient deficiencies can affect the strength of your nails," he added. 

Article Sources
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  1. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. Brittle Splitting Nails.

  2. Patel DP, Swink SM, Castelo-Soccio L. A Review of the Use of Biotin for Hair Loss. Skin Appendage Disord. 2017;3(3):166-169. doi:10.1159/000462981

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