Brittle nails are better known in the science world as ‘onychoschizia’ and ‘onychorrhexis’ which translate directly to nail (onycho) split (schizia), and nail (onycho) rupture (rrhexis). Brittle nails affect around 20% of the population, securing a place in the three most common nail disorders. But what’s the science behind this pesky problem?

‘Onychoschizia’ is characterised by thin layers peeling off from the nail plate, leaving the fingernail itself weakened, while ‘onychorrhexis’ presents as ridging and vertical splitting of the nail. Onychoschizia and onychorrhexis go hand in hand, so the broad term ‘brittle nails’ can be used to describe someone who has either or both of these symptoms. If left untreated, brittle nails can become very painful. We’ve all had the devastating moment of splitting a nail way too close to the nail bed. Not to fear! The Geeks are here to hit any nail related myths on the head.

The Cause of Brittle Nails
Brittle nails are caused by breaking the intercellular adhesion (that just means the links between cells) between the separate layers of the nail plate. Nails are made up of many sheets of keratin which gives them their strength. Normally the bonds between these sheets are very strong, but any interruptions can cause these to break down. This wekaens the nail and can result in splitting and peeling. Onychorrhexis (the vertical splitting and ridging) can begin right down in the nail matrix, which is the layer at the base of the nail where cells rapidly multiple in order to grow the nail. Problems can arise stem from abnormalities in the growth of the cells, as well as their keratinisation (the process where lots of keratin is deposited in each cell).

Excessive nail treatments
As much as we hate to admit it, you can always have too much of a good thing. Overusing nail polish can cause the nails to dry out, whilst nail polish remover can interfere with the keratin sheets causing fracturing of the bonds that hold the nail sheets together. Mechanical damage is another problem. Acrylic gels, nail sculpting and cuticle removers can cause horizontal cracks between the layers in the nail plate. It may seem sensible to use nail hardeners to make your nails stronger but in some cases it can just make the problem worse. A lot of nail hardeners rely on formaldehyde to create crosslinks with the keratin and hence make the nail stronger. However, depending on the concentration of the formaldehyde (3% or over must have a warning label) too many cross links can be made, drying the nail out further and in some cases, it can lift off entirely. Time to go a bit au naturale on your nails!

Nail-breaking Occupations
The workplace can be a bit of a disaster zone for hand care. For those in the healthcare profession, hairdressers and research labs (just like The Geeks!), frequent hand washing is unavoidable. It is no wonder nails dry out after constant wetting and drying of the hands, let alone being trapped inside latex gloves all day! Just like the rest of our body, nails need constant hydration to enable flexibility and strength. It is a common misconception that soft nails have a higher water content. In actual fact, they are proven to have less water bound than healthy nails and hence easier to break.

The Influence of Age on our Talons
Brittle nails are much more common as we get older. Looking back to hydration, as we get older our cells find it more difficult to retain water. Thankfully our nails avoid wrinkles, but instead can show their thirst by peeling and splitting. Moisture can be restored to the nails by using hand and nail moisturisers throughout the day. Whilst over-doing the manicuring can be bad for the nails, a once-per-week use of base coat nail polish or restorer can actually help to reduce water loss (from around 1.6 mg/cm²/hour to 0.4 mg/cm²/hour, if you like to see the figures!). This coat can help protect the nail against detergents as well, but we must warn you not to overdo it! It has also been proposed that because nail growth decreases with age, the nails are exposed to potentially damaging environments for a longer period of time and are therefore more likely to become damaged themselves.

A little evidence about diet…
Reduced uptake of biotin (less commonly known as vitamin H) has been suggested to have a link with brittle nails, but there is not yet sufficient evidence to be certain. As we get older our small intestine does have decreased biotin uptake and 67% of patients who were given biotin supplements over 6 months saw an improvement in brittle nails. It is clear biotin does improve nail quality but is not exactly a quick fix and we would like to see more studies on the uptake of biotin in elderly patients before we are totally convinced by the whole theory.

Underlying conditions that can cause brittle nails
Dermatological diseases can transfer to the nails, especially if the nail bed is affected. For example, psoriasis patients can suffer from brittle nails if they have a flare up which can cause flaking or removal of the nail all together.

Onychorrhexis, vertical splitting of the nail, can appear in people with anaemia or arteriosclerosis because of the irregular oxygenation and generation of blood vessels in the patients

Although completely different in some ways, both pregnancy and menopause can cause brittle nails. Both are massive transformations for a woman’s body so it’s not surprising that nails don’t escape change.

Treatments for Brittle Nails
As already mentioned, moisturisers are exceptionally important to reduce cracks and improve the strength and condition of nails. A popular product to look out for is Dr Lewinns Renunail’s Noroushing Oil for Brittle Nails, which found its way onto Reds top 10 treatments for brittle nails. It is jam packed with emollients and oils to help keep your skin hydrated, but any moisturiser of your choice should suffice and there is a wealth of nail-health products out there.

We advise you be weary of some products which claim to be treatments and stay away from ‘nail strengtheners’, which we mentioned before. Quite a few nail treatment products on the market contain copper, manganese, vitamin A and zinc which are all found in the nail plate but there is little to no evidence supporting the use as treatment for brittle nails by topical application. It is much more helpful to ensure that you are getting these vitamins and minerals through a balanced diet, in safe amounts. For more advice consult your doctor. Biotin, on the other hand (well actually both hands) has demonstrated a 25% increase in nail thickness if taken orally over 6 months as mentioned before. So if you’re really keen on nailing those nails, that’s something you could try (make sure you’re sticking to recommended amounts though!).

We know it can be difficult, but try not to be tempted by nail treatments too often. Flaky fingernails will never be the next season look. Maintaining a balanced diet and drinking plenty of water is as important as ever, and if you haven’t already, throw a little moisturiser in your bag to keep those fingers youthful.

Loved this article? We think you’ll like these ones too!

Know your Body – Hair and Nails
The Science behind Keratin
Gardener’s Hand Healer from Ulta – The Science behind the Bottle

Brittle Nails – NHS Choices
Common nail changes in and disorders in older people – Can Fam Physician
Perception of brittle nails in dermatological patients: a cross sectional study – Anais Brasileiros de Dermatologia
Brittle Nails – Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology
Nutrition and Nail Disease – Clinics in Dermatology
Common Nail Disorders – Nails and the Clinician
Management of Simple Brittle Nails – Dermatologic Therapy
Hormonal changes during menopause and impact on fluid regulation – Reproductive Sciences
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