Brittle Nail Causes: Why Do My Nails Break?

01/24/2013 08:50 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015

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Why are my nails so brittle and break so easily? And how can I fix it?

-- Kate

Brittle nails, or onychorrhexis, is a very common condition, affecting about 20 percent of the population and disproportionately common in women. It's characterized by easy breakage -- either splits lengthwise or nails that easily "peel" across from corner to corner.

Nails get brittle with age, which is the most common cause of the condition, according to an NYU Medical Center explanation on the subject. But there can be underlying conditions that affect the structural quality of the nail. These range from relatively harmless issues like nails that are exposed for too long to water, soap or detergent -- to evidence of serious underlying conditions, like hypothyroidism, an endocrine disorder or malnutrition, NYU further reported.

The trick is to determine if a change in nail quality -- thickness or even color -- has occurred, a sign of a more serious condition.

"Nails often reflect our general state of health. Changes in the nail, such as discoloration or thickening, can signal health problems, including liver and kidney diseases, heart and lung conditions, anemia and diabetes," reads the American Academy of Dermatology's literature on the subject. "Symptoms that could signal nail problems include changes in color, shape, and/or thickness, swelling of the skin around the nails, bleeding or discharge, and pain."

Lifestyle factors -- like water exposure and prolonged, non-stop nail polish use -- are easy enough to alter. If those have been ruled out -- or if brittle nails are one of a constellation of symptoms -- it's important to see a doctor for testing. But what kind? According to the American Academy of Dermatology, dermatologists are the appropriate specialists to see with nail complaints, as about 10 percent of dermatological complaints are nail problems. Conditions we more often associate with skin, like psoriasis, can also cause brittle nails.

Some companies sell vitamins that are meant to help strengthen nails, most notably using a b-complex vitamin called biotin, but there is very little evidence to suggest that these vitamins actually improve brittle nails. That's largely because biotin deficiency is extremely rare and so very few cases of nail brittleness are caused by it.

So what to do? Practice good nail hygiene, with plenty of time in between nail polish applications and gentle soaps and detergents. See a specialist if the problem persists. For a list of warning signs that it's time to ask a doctor about the condition, have a look at the National Institutes of Health website on the subject.

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