We all want strong, shiny, healthy-looking fingernails, but it's estimated that about 20% of people have soft, dry or brittle nails, and it affects women more than men. I'm going to look at why we get soft, weak or brittle nails and what we can do to fix them.
If your nails are week, dehydrated or brittle they become easily damaged and may peel and crack. The tips of the nail can become frayed and tatty-looking. Strong healthy nails are smooth, without dents or ridges. Their colour should be pink(ish), indicating good circulation.
What causes weak, dry nails?
Nails are made of the same substance as hair, keratin, which is a protein. Nail material is produced under the cuticle. As new cells are produced, the old cells are pushed out under the moon of the nail and flatten to become our fingernail or toenail.
The space where the start of nail meets your skin is called the cuticle or nail bed. The little half-moon shape you can see at the base of the nail has a very pretty name – lunula, from the Latin word luna, meaning moon.
Our hands and nails get almost as much abuse as our shoes do: weather exposure, constant use and plenty of wear and tear. I don't know about you, but my shoes wear out really quickly. Nails are not quickly replaced.
It can take up to six months to grow a nail from start to finish
Toenails are even slower. Kids’ nails grow faster and, for some reason, men’s nails grow faster than women’s.
Exposure to chemicals like nail varnish can weaken the protein structure of the nail. Frequent washing and hand sanitising can dry out the nails and make them coarse and brittle. Many of us work with our hands, whether it's cooking, cleaning, or robust outdoorsy stuff like building. All can wear away and cause damage to the nails. Cold weather can cause a reduction of blood supply to the fingers as capillaries constrict, pushing as much of the warm blood towards our central organs as possible, to keep them warm. This can reduce the amount of oxygen and nutrients getting to the nails, and they tend to grow more slowly in the winter.
Diet and nutrient deficiencies can affect the health of our nails. For example, an iron deficiency that causes anaemia will weaken nails as the body tries to conserve as many resources as possible to the body functioning. Cosmetic bits, like hair and nails, may be deprioritised. You may feel that you can't live without a fabulous head of hair and impressive talons, but your body thinks otherwise – it prioritises heart and lungs and boring stuff like that. If you have a diet that is rich in good quality, lean protein and you eat five portions or more of fruit and vegetables, it makes sense to conclude that the cause of your weak nails might be external. For that reason, I would look at protecting and nourishing the nails from the outside. Try it for a month, see if it helps.
My Self-care Tip: Fix weak, dry nails quickly
Do you have soft nails? This video gives my tip for getting strong, shiny and healthy-looking fingernails.
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There are simple measures you can take to protect your nails from damage and help make them strong and healthy-looking.
Wear rubber gloves to protect the hands from exposure when washing up, or working with chemicals like household cleaners.
Condition your nails to put back in any loss of moisture. To get back to my shoe analogy. Young folk may not know this but (these days) leather in shoes and bags are treated with chemical finishes to give them a protective layer. When we were growing up, you had to polish your shoes every day to avoid them looking cracked and worn, and to stop them from getting cracked and worn. We don't want to cover ourselves with chemical preservatives even if we could. Daily use of moisturiser and balms will 'polish' your nails, replace lost moisture and help keep the nail structure supple, better able to withstand daily wear.