How to Fix Weak and Peeling Nails

The most frustrating nail issue, solved.
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Tyler McCall
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The most frustrating nail issue, solved.
Healthy nails are possible, we promise. Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images

Healthy nails are possible, we promise. Photo: Anna Webber/Getty Images

In our latest column, "Ask a Fashionista," you can solicit our strongly held opinions on everything from how to wear a midi skirt without looking like a tree stump to whether a certain retail CEO should go ahead and resign already. Have a question? Email us at ask@fashionista.com.

Q: I feel like I have the worst nails ever. They're very soft and weak, and when they grow out too long, they start peeling at the tips! Is there anything I can do to strengthen them? — Sarah, near Miami, Florida

Ugh, peeling nails are the worst, right? It makes it impossible to grow them out and your nail polish always chips faster. It turns out the condition has a name: onychoschisis, which is the splitting of the nails at the end. Dermatologist Heidi Waldorf tells Fashionista it's mostly a condition that arises as we age, when our nails stop growing uniformly. The good news is that there are steps we can take to stop it from happening.

First, she suggests laying off the acrylic tips, which require "significantly" filing down the natural nail, and avoiding gel polishes (sorry!). "The long-wear gel polishes cause nail brittleness, dryness and thinning as a combination of the chemicals in the formula that make it hold on to the nail and, even more damaging [are] the 10-15 minute high-concentration acetone soaks required to remove them," Dr. Waldorf says. Have your nail salon avoid too much buffing or filing regardless of the manicure style, as both can weaken already thin nails. 

Another cause, weirdly enough, is overhydration. If your hands are frequently in water, it can cause the nail beds to absorb water, expanding in the process, and then contract as the moisture evaporates. "Applying hand cream regularly --especially one with humectants like glycerin and occlusives like dimethicone -- is helpful," Dr. Waldorf says. A nail-strengthening polish can also help protect nails from the environment. 

Dr. Waldorf notes that vitamin deficiencies can also be a cause, but they would have to be "extreme" to cause a noticeable difference. "One example is iron deficiency anemia," she says, which would cause your nail beds to soften and become spoon-shaped. She adds, "Fungal and yeast infections will also cause the nail to lift off the nail bed and can make the nails brittle." So make sure that your salon is appropriately sanitizing all of their tools. 

As for supplements, they can't hurt but they might not also do much for you. "There are some reports of high-dose biotin helping nail strength but it depends on the reason for the problem," she says.