Why Do My Fingernails Peel & Break?

Peeling and breaking of fingernails can be a frustrating problem, but it usually does not indicate that you have a significant medical condition. Nails that peel and break -- often called brittle nails -- are often part of the natural changes that occur with age 1. Frequent hand-washing or exposure to chemicals are other common reasons for brittle nails. Your doctor can help identify the cause and recommend the appropriate course of action.

Frequent Exposure to Water

Plunging your hands into water several times per day can actually dry out your fingernails. Fingernails swell when they are exposed to water and then later shrink as they become dry. Over time, repeated cycles of swelling and shrinking make it harder to hydrate the nails, and they begin to peel and break. If you wash dishes frequently, protect your hands with waterproof gloves. People who must frequently wash their hands on the job, such as restaurant staff or hairdressers, can apply a moisturizer at the base of the nails to improve hydration.

Exposure to Chemicals

Harsh chemicals, including detergents or solvents, can damage your fingernails and make them brittle. If you work with chemicals at home or at work, wear gloves to help protect your nails. Ironically, some nail care products, such as nail polish or nail polish remover, can damage nails and make them brittle 1. Acrylic nails and tips are particularly likely to promote breaking and peeling. Using a moisturizer and avoiding exposure to chemicals can help restore your nail health.

Nail Trauma

Any type of injury to your nails can eventually lead to brittle nails 5. Typing, strumming a guitar or using your nails instead of a screwdriver or scraper are common culprits. Biting your nails or chewing on the cuticles can also damage your nails and promote dehydration. Try to avoid activities that injure your nails whenever possible. Soaking your hands in warm water for 15 to 20 minutes before bed may be beneficial.

Medical Conditions

Peeling and breaking of the fingernails can be caused by a fungal infection of the nails. Less commonly, brittle nails are due to other nail or skin conditions, such as psoriasis. Sometimes, brittle nails are a sign of a general medical condition, such as thyroid disease or diabetes. If you consume a diet that is very low in protein or certain minerals or vitamins, you may have a deficiency of these substances, which can cause brittle fingernails. Adequate intake of the vitamin known as biotin is important for healthy nails. Ask your doctor if you think that you may have one of these medical conditions or if you are concerned that your diet may be inadequate.