3 Causes of Brittle Nails

Manicure process in salon

The cold, dry air has taken its first beauty victim: our nails. But the chilly weather is just one reason yours might be splitting and peeling.

A quick science lesson: Nails are composed of very small cells called onychocytes, which are mainly made up of keratin. If you were to look at the nail under a microscope, it actually looks almost like layered roof shingles. These cells are very delicate and the nail is actually extremely absorptive. Which is why when you take a long bath, your nails get super soft and bendy.

It’s important to note that if your nails become extremely brittle out of nowhere, it could be a sign of a health issue, such as anemia, or a thyroid condition. If that’s the case, you should see your doctor.

Nails’ absorbent nature makes them susceptible to many external factors, all of which can cause them to break and split. Here are the three biggest culprits that could be messing with your nails:

Water Exposure
When you wash your hands or take a bath—or even get a manicure—water is absorbed into your nails. Then eventually, that water diffuses back out. This constant change in water content causes the cells to expand and contract, straining them as they continually change size to accommodate more or less water.

Seasonal Weather Changes
In the winter, your days are spent going from a 70-degree indoor environment to a cold, below-freezing outdoor environment. And with the changing temperature comes varying levels of humidity. Just like your body temperature adjusts to these dramatic temperature fluxes, so do your nails. This causes the same type of strain and weakening that water exposure does.

Chemical Exposure
From this point forward, consider nail polish remover the enemy. Polish remover is really a solvent—it’s strong, almost like a paint thinner—and it really dries out the nail. The most offensive chemical is acetone, but that doesn’t mean non-acetone removers are a whole lot better. The non-acetone version requires more of the liquid and more exposure time, so although it’s not as harsh, drenching your nails in more product and rubbing more aggressively to remove stubborn polish is still damaging.

So what’s the solution? Wear rubber gloves when washing dishes and cleaning, invest in paint-on nail strengtheners (easily found at the drugstore), and, as much fun as it is to switch your nail color every few days, cut down on manicures until you get back to fighting shape.

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