Cracked, Dry, Brittle and Splitting Fingernails: Dermatologist’s Tips

Cynthia Bailey, MD|June 18, 2010

Your nails don't always stand up to the use you put them to, and when they don't, they crack!

Just yesterday, an 80 year old patient asked me why his fingernails were dry, brittle and splitting on the ends.  He'd always had strong nails.  He wanted to know if I thought Knox Gelatin Capsules would work for him; it's what his mother used when she had nail problems. They didn't work for her, but he didn't know what else to do.

Almost every day I’m asked by someone for advice to fix their brittle, splitting fingernails because the problem is so common. It can happen at any age, but it's definitely one of those “as we age” stories. If your nails are splitting, there are things you can do to improve them, but there are also common ‘remedies’ that actually make the problem worse.

The Problem with Splitting Fingernails:

Your nails dry out as you age, losing their natural oils which act as a glue to hold the nail layers together. If you have thin fingernails and dry skin to begin with you can expect this to happen to you ‘sooner rather than later’. 

Exposing your hands to harsh soaps, cleaning products, solvents and rough work makes things worse. At first your nails begin to ‘fray’ on the edges, becoming brittle. Eventually the layers split.  Nail hardeners make this worse because the alcohols, formaldehyde and other chemicals in the nail hardeners really dry out your natural oils.

(Crazy fact: Nail hardeners actually contain more of these chemicals than nail polishes!  It's these chemicals that make the nails feel harder at first, but - whammo - after a few weeks the splitting is worse than ever.)

How to Fix Dry and Splitting Fingernails:

Dermatologist's 3 Simple Tricks To Treat Cracked And Splitting Fingernails:

1. Hydrate and add oilsUse creams, oils and ointments on your nails everyday after they've been wet.

My favorite is good old Bag Balm with it’s wool alcohol (aka lanolin). Some of my other favorite hydrating ingredients for nails are Shea Butter, Jojoba oil, avocado oil, or other rich natural oils.  The thicker the cream the better, and oils or ointments are best. The trick is to use something that stays put for awhile and doesn’t just rub off right away. 

Plus, you always moisturize skin and nails immediately after water exposure; applying moisturizers to dry nails is a waste of time.  Put your moisturizer on within minutes after your bath or shower, or after washing your hands.  Do it as often as possible.  

You can use a hand cream on both your nails and dry hands during the day.  The best one that's not greasy is my Dry Skin Hand Cream. I love this hand cream; I wash my hands so many times during my work day that they would be chapped and cracked if it weren't for my Dry Skin Hand Cream. 

Use a thicker product like Bag Balm at bed time. If your nails are really bad, apply Bag Balm to them numerous times a day after washing your hands.

2. Clip and file your nails when they're wet. Clipping and filing dry nails makes the splits worse so always do it after water exposure.  Towel off the water and then use sharp nail clippers to trim your nails, followed by gently filing the edges.  You can also very gently buff the nail edges to keep the splitting layers from catching on things and progressing down the nail.

3. Wear gloves when you do rough work or get your hands into harsh chemicals. Obviously you want to protect your brittle and splitting nails from the things that make them worse.

Try my Dry Hand Skin Kit for complete hand care!

dry skin and cracked fingernail repair kit

Gelatin capsules don’t work but vitamin supplements formulated specifically for nail growth may help. I’ve had patients who feel that their nails grew a lot faster and stronger once they started taking supplements. Nail supplement formulations appear to vary, though most contain biotin.  I tell patients to go to their favorite high quality natural food store and ask the vitamin specialist for their best nail formula. 

It's important to know that many of the ingredients in these supplements are lavishly present in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, natural oils, beans and fish.  Eating a richly nutritious diet is key to supporting healthy nails and vitamin supplements should be used in addition to, not in place of a healthy diet.

Your fingernails grow slowly, about 1mm per month.  As you age, the growth slows down even more.  This means it will take several months for the dry and split portion of your nails to grow out.  Depending on the condition of the rest of your existing nails, it could take as long as a year for proper nail care, good diet and your vitamin supplements to stop the nail splitting, so hang in there and don't give up.

Lastly, there are internal diseases that can affect splitting fingernails, the most common being thyroid problems and anemia.  Some skin diseases affect the nails as well and cause splitting.  If your nails don't improve, see your doctor.

I’d love to hear any tricks or products you’ve found to improve your brittle and splitting fingernails, please leave your comments below.

If you found this information helpful you may also want to read:

Photo Copyright © Dr. Bailey Skin Care LLC

Over ten years ago I jammed my left thumb nail into the fridge door. I recall just how painful this was. Over time,the thumb nail vertically splits down 1/3 of nail. I try to keep nail clean and trimmed to deter snagging but no matter what it still snags. I do occasionally have an acrylic nail put on which is the only solution to stop snagging. I realize the acrylic nail creates damage to my natural nail also!! Are there any modern day treatments out there performed by the dermatologist that can help heal the nail bed in hopes to stop “chronic splitting”. Thank you for your advise.

By Andrea Lowry on 2016 09 30

Hello Andrea,
I don’t know of any beyond surgery. It may be a scar on the nail bed. It may be a fungal infection too that took advantage of the compromised anatomy. Treatment starts with diagnosis so I would recommend an exam by a good derm. Also, with age, this too can happen as longitudinal lines that tear are common in aging nails. Filing/buffing/bag balm are my ways to treat that. Best wishes!

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2016 10 06

the nail of my first and second finger on my right hand (I am right handed)  seems to curve under once it passes the nail bed…. it is only on these two fingers at present… what could be causing this and how can I fix it.  My nails aren’t really long, just to the tip of my fingers but these two curve down and look terrible.

By Sharon on 2016 10 23

Hello Sharon,
It is possible that it is how the nail grows. My index fingernails do the same thing and have my entire life. It is also possible it is mechanical, meaning made worse by some repetitive action. There are also dermatologic nail diseases to consider and if you are concerned then consulting a dermatologist may be a good idea.  In my experience, moisturizing nails always helps them to look better.

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2016 10 25

Hello doctor,

I have brittle and fine hair. Plus having bald spots as well. i’m 25 years old, and had been diagnosed with blood/iron deficiency in the past for which i opted for feroglobin capsules. Would you suggest any better supplements for hair. please need help

By Faiza on 2016 11 04

Hi-one of my index fingers has a nail that cracks down the middle.  Is there any way to fix this?  I’ve been trying different things for years.  Unfortunately, wearing nail polish seems to worsen it, but I would like to be able to paint my nails if possible.  Thanks

By Pat on 2016 11 17

Hello Pat,
As mentioned above my favorite treatment is Bag Balm. I have patients use that daily along with filing and buffing the nail to prevent any rough edges from catching and making the split worse.

By Cynthia Bailey, MD on 2016 11 22

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