Why Are My Fingernails So Brittle?

by Barbie Carpenter ; Updated September 28, 2017

Your perfect, polished manicure won't last long when your fingernails split, chip and peel. How you care for your nails and what they are exposed to every day will affect your nails' strength and their likelihood of peeling, chipping and flaking.

Dry Nails


Washing your hands throughout the day is good for your health, but might not be so good for your nails. Just as water has the potential to dry out your skin, it can do the same to your nails. With every exposure to water throughout the day, your nails absorb water and then, eventually, release it, which can result in peeling.


  • Hand sanitizer has similar drying effects as water, so replacing hand washing with santizing isn't going to improve the moisture content of your nails.

Polish and Polish Remover

They're the keys to a successful manicure, but nail polish and polish removers can also strip moisture from your fingernails. Acetone, the leading ingredient in many polish removers, is a harsh chemical that quickly dries out those nails, resulting in splitting, breaking and chipping. Likewise, wearing polish for a long time can result in ingredients such as toluene robbing your nails of important moisture, which makes them more susceptible to breakage.

Shifting Humidity Levels

A humid day might mar your hairstyle, but it can help your nails retain moisture. However, when temperatures drop and humidity levels subsequently plummet, your nails may respond by peeling, splitting or breaking. If you're prone to brittle nails in winter, the weather might be to blame. Your nails' water content is lower in the winter, so your dry nails will be more likely to split and chip.

Nail Overuse

You might not notice how frequently you use your nails. From typing on the computer at work to texting on your smartphone, your nails are clicking and banging throughout the day. Even everyday tasks -- prying open a can of soda, for example -- take a toll on your nails. This frequent use can result in weakening, and weaker nails are more prone to chip, peel, split and break.

Uneven Nails

Trimming and filing your nails is important, and overlooking this important nail care step may contribute to your brittle nails. If your nails are uneven and feature jagged edges, they're more likely to get snagged on a piece of clothing and tear. Uneven nails that snag easily are weaker, so they will split, flake and peel more frequently.

Preventing Splitting and Flaking

Even with brittle nails, you don't have to live with them splitting and flaking. A few changes to your nail care routine and nail health can improve their strength:

  • Replace hand sanitizer that is alcohol-based with a moisture-rich soap. 
  • Apply hand lotion throughout the day, especially after washing your hands. Look for lotions containing alpha hydroxy acids or lanolin, which can hydrate your nails and minimize breakage. 
  • Reduce exposure to water and chemicals by slipping on a pair of rubber gloves while washing dishes or cleaning. 
  • Wear your nails short, and file any jagged edges that snag or break. 

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About the Author

Barbie Carpenter worked as a technical writer and editor in the defense industry for six years. She also served as a newspaper feature page editor and nationally syndicated columnist for the Hearst Corp. Carpenter holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in professional writing from the University of Central Florida.