January 30, 2023

young woman holding face in hand

Back in the day, nails were more than just fashion accessories. Early humans used them for digging, defense, and grooming. As the conveniences of modern life precluded those needs, nails became something we take care of, rather than the other way around. One thing hasn’t changed, however: Your nails can indicate the general state of your health.

If your nails are brittle—a common problem that affects nearly 20-percent of the population—you may experience breakage, peeling, splitting, etc. This can result due to a number of causes (more on those below). Fortunately, however, peeling nails are not only treatable but preventable, too. We tapped the experts to learn more.

Ahead, find out everything there is to know about peeling fingernails, from causes to treatments, and how to prevent them in the first place.

Causes

Close-up of woman washing hands
PANDO HALL / GETTY IMAGES

The first thing to ask yourself: Why are my nails peeling? “So many factors can cause nail peeling and it’s important to understand what exactly is affecting each person individually,” Totty tells us. According to Green, peeling nails (also referred to as onychoschizia) is a disruption in the nail caused by trauma, peeling of nail polish, filing the nail too much, and wearing false nails such as press on or acrylics. Totty elaborates: “Another very big issue could be improper removal of nail enhancements like acrylics, gel manicures, or even a harsh nail polish remover. If the services are performed by a professional it should be left up to them to properly remove them after a few weeks of wear.”

Additionally, too much moisture (soft and brittle nails) or too little (dry and brittle nails) may be the culprit. “Having your hands in water constantly… softeners the nails and they break off easily and start peeling once the layers of the nail plate dry out,” explains Totty. So before you treat your peeling nails with the following remedies, check your toenails, too. If they’re also peeling, see a doctor to rule out health-related causes such as iron and other nutritional deficiencies. “Nail peeling can be a sign of lack of calcium, iron, or biotin deficiency,” says Totty. “Once you identify the cause of the peeling nails there are several things you could do.”

Home Treatment Options

Bummed that your nails are peeling? No worries because peeled nails can grow back (see below treatments). But keep in mind: “It is very important to develop a systemic approach to any of these treatments because none of them will give you a result overnight. Take care of your nails and they will recover and go back to looking beautiful,” emphasizes Totty.

  • Try a nail hardener: Nail hardeners can work wonders for peeling nails. Not only do they help support the nail and protect it from peeling, but many are also made with nutrient-rich formulas that offer up other benefits like moisturizing, strengthening, and protecting,” assures Totty. “Your local drugstore will have a section full of such products from different manufacturers,” she adds. Try OPI Nail Strengthener ($17)—it’s formaldehyde-free and contains aloe vera, (which works to rebalance sensitive skin and nails), calcium (to help strengthen), kukui nut oil, and vitamin E, (which prevents nails from peeling).
  • Apply strengthening lotions: Look for nail creams with ingredients, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or lanolin since either will help to rebuild strength. Elon Lanolin-Rich Nail Conditioner ($17) is one of our faves. Apply after pre-soaking nails in water for five minutes.
  • Consider a cuticle oil: “One very effective way to improve your nails and skin health is with the magical elixir, ‘Cuticle Oil,’ which has so many benefits,” says Totty. “A good cuticle oil has to be made out of pure essential oils, tea tree, or lavender extract rich in vitamin E. My absolute favorite is the CBD-infused cuticle oil like LeChat CBD Cuticle Oil ($30). It contains all of the above as well as emu oil and CBD extract which also has pain-relieving qualities. It is a nice and thick consistency so a little goes a long way, absorbs very quickly, and if used daily will transform even the most unhealthy nails.”

Prevention

Now that you know what causes nails to peel and how to treat them, here are eight ways to keep your nails from peeling, to begin with.

  • Eat nutrient-dense foods: Boost your intake of iron- and biotin-rich foods like avocado, whole grains, eggs, cauliflower, and lean meats. Lean meats, in particular, help build strength in the nails, making them less susceptible to peeling, breaking, and bending. Plus, you’ll reap more than just nail benefits with such a diet—it can give you more energy and keep you full for longer, too.
  • Take a multivitamin: Other nutrients found in vitamins can help build your nails’ strength, as they work together with each other and with the foods you eat to keep all your body systems humming. “Vitamin A, C, E, as well as B vitamins such as B6 are excellent for nail health,” says Green. “Supplements such as keratin are great for nail growth as it strengthens the nail and increases its density.” And if you’re looking for something to revive dull nails, fish oil can help make them appear shiny. Plus, it serves as an effective anti-aging supplement, as the omega oils found in fish oil stimulate collagen production. “These vitamins are all essential to nail growth as they strengthen the nail matrix, which [ultimately] helps the nail grow,” notes Green.
  • Soak nails in essential oil: “Massaging essential oils such as coconut and olive oil into the cuticle and nails creates a protective barrier by offering hydration,” explains Green. “This also locks in moisture to prevent brittle nails and dry cuticles.” Coconut oil has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties and can slow the growth of nail fungus. Olive oil, as Green states, contains major antioxidants that help protect the nails. “It helps restore skin smoothness and protects the nails from ultraviolet light,” she explains. It’s also rich in vitamin E, omega 3 fatty, acids, and other nutrients that help to maintain and lock the moisture to prevent dryness. To create the soak, pour a few teaspoons of oil into two small bowls (melt the coconut oil for just a few seconds in the microwave), moisten your nails a bit, stick them in the bowls, and switch on your latest Netflix binge for 20 minutes.
  • Use a gentle nail polish remover: Peeling nails need all the moisture they can get, and acetone-laden nail polish removers don’t do nails any favors. “Acetone, which is found in most nail polish removers, is very drying and strips the nails of its natural moisture,” says Green. “Acetone-free removers, however, get the job done without stripping the nailbed of essential moisture.” Olive & June Polish Remover Pot ($10) gets our seal of approval.
  • Lay off the manicures: “The inability for the nail bed to breath as a result of the barrier of the nail polish puts you at risk for developing nail fungus,” warns Green. “You also put yourself at risk for developing a skin or nail infection due to the filing down of the nail bed.” Going au natural also or with breathable polish reduces the drying effects of harsh chemicals found in most nail polishes. And without a layer of polish blocking the sunlight from getting to your nails and cuticles, you’ll reap the cell regeneration benefits of going polish-free.
  • Buff rough edges: Nail buffers can help smooth out rough edges so that they don’t catch so easily. Use gentle, steady movements to remove ridges and create a soft surface on the nail bed. We love this 4-Way Buffer Block ($8) from Tropical Shine because it has four levels of grit, ranging from coarse to extra fine, and a cuticle protection edge.

Buffing should be done in one direction. Moving the buffer back and forth in the opposite direction can weaken your nail beds and make peeling more likely.

 

  • Avoid nail-biting: While nail-biting doesn’t directly lead to peeling nails, it’s a habit that can cause other nail issues to arise that could lead to peeling nails, like an infection. “Nail-biting can cause infection of the nail and can put you at risk of spreading germs to your body,” says Green. “This puts you at risk for other health issues due to the exposure of bacteria and viruses, which can be trapped on your fingers and underneath your nails.” To kick the habit to the curb, try this No More Biting ($11) treatment by Ella + Mila—it’s formulated to taste bad with the goal of deterring you from getting your nails anywhere close to your mouth.
  • Skip the gel polish: Gel polish may last longer than traditional polish, but Green advises that the process could be detrimental to your nails and lead to peeling. “Gel manicures require UV light to set the gel, and the risk of UV light can be just as damaging to the nail bed as UV light from the sun,” she explains. “In addition, gel manicures can cause nail fungus. You also put yourself at risk for developing a skin or nail infection due to the filing down of the nailbed.” Instead, go for a super-strong top coat like Seche Vite’s Dry Fast Top Coat ($10) and wear gloves anytime you’re washing dishes to maintain the life of your mani.