Paper thin nails

medical illustration of a fingertip and fingernail

Strengthening weak fingernails

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My nails are extremely thin and they tend to tear and split easily. Is there anything I can do to make them stronger?

ANSWER: Weak fingernails can often be strengthened through simple self-care techniques. However, if you don’t see any improvement within a month, consider consulting your doctor or a dermatologist.

Your nails are a part of your skin. They are composed of layers of keratin, a protein, and they grow from the area beneath your cuticle. As new cells develop, the older ones become solid and compacted, eventually being pushed towards your fingertips. Healthy nails are smooth, free of ridges, grooves, spots, or discoloration.

medical illustration of a fingertip and fingernail in cross section

Factors that weaken fingernails

Fingernails may become weak or brittle due to harsh conditions. For instance, regular use of nail polish remover containing acetone can wear down nails over time. Exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures can also negatively impact your nails. Frequent contact with chemicals, such as those found in many cleaning products, may weaken them. Additionally, keeping your nails immersed in water for extended periods can make them more prone to splitting.

Tips for stronger nails

To strengthen your nails, it’s important to handle them with care. When washing dishes or using cleaning products, wear gloves to protect your nails. If you need to use nail polish remover, choose one that is acetone-free. Apply a daily moisturizer to your nails and cuticles. Furthermore, using a nail-hardening product can help prevent tearing, splitting, and make your nails stronger.

Weak nails can sometimes be a result of an infection. To prevent bacterial growth under your fingernails, keep them clean and dry. Avoid biting your nails or picking at your cuticles as these habits can injure the nail bed, leading to possible infections. If you have a hangnail, carefully clip it off instead of pulling it. Pulling it off may cause damage and increase the risk of infection.

Maintaining neatly trimmed fingernails with gently curved tips is also beneficial. When getting a manicure, ensure you choose a salon that holds a current state license. It’s crucial to work with a licensed technician. Refrain from having your cuticles removed during a manicure as it can result in nail infections. Additionally, make sure all tools used during the manicure are properly sterilized to prevent the spread of infection.

medical illustration of fingernail psoriasis

When to seek professional advice

If your efforts to strengthen your fingernails do not yield any improvement or if nail problems are accompanied by other symptoms, it is advisable to consult your doctor or a dermatologist. They may recommend the use of a nutritional supplement like biotin, which has been shown to potentially enhance weak or brittle fingernails.

Depending on your medical history, overall health, and other factors, your doctor may conduct a more comprehensive evaluation to determine if weak nails could be linked to an underlying issue. Nail changes can sometimes indicate a skin disorder that affects the nails. Examples of such disorders include psoriasis, a common skin disease that causes rapid buildup of skin cells; lichen planus, an inflammatory condition that affects the skin; and dermatitis, another inflammatory skin disorder. All of these conditions can manifest in your nails.

Your doctor will examine your fingernails and assist you in determining if further investigation is necessary for your specific case.

— Dr. Dawn Davis, Dermatology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota

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