How Can I Fix My Soft, Breakable Nails?



Submitted via the Facebook page:

My nails are super soft and they either bend and tear or peel in layers. It is even hard to file them! What can I do to make my nails stronger?

Dear Ashley,
Some people are palm readers, but I’m a nail reader.  But unlike palm reading, nail clues are firmly rooted in science.
If you are experiencing soft, breakable nails, there are most likely one of 4 probable causes:

1.  Iron Deficiency Anemia


iron deficiency anemia

In addition to brittle nails, are you experiencing any of the following?

  • Irritability or a low feeling
  • Constipation
  • Sleepiness
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Palpitations or angina (chest pain)
  • Hair loss
  • Fainting or feeling faint
  • Depression
  • Breathlessness on exertion
  • Twitching muscles
  • Pale yellow skin
  • Tingling, numbness, or burning sensations

If yes, you may be suffering from iron deficiency anemia.  Iron deficiency is often responsible for brittle nails, because iron is necessary for your body to produce red blood cells.  In turn, red blood cells carry oxygen through your bloodstream.  So without enough iron, you are essentially depriving every part of your body of oxygen – including your nails.

Ask your doctor to run a test for iron deficiency if the above symptoms sound familiar.  While supplements are possible, they have been associated with a higher risk of bacterial infection (Archives of Disease in Childhood).  A better option?  Iron-rich foods, like beef (in moderation), beans, pumpkin seeds, and dark, leafy greens, like spinach or kale.

2.)  Biotin Deficiency

GNC Hair, Skin, and Nails Formula
GNC Hair, Skin, and Nails Formula contains biotin. Yesss!

According to dermatologist Dr. David E. Bank, M.D., the director of the Center for Dermatology, “The one way to help strengthen nails and stimulate hair growth, in addition to following an overall healthy diet, is to take biotin supplements in the amount of 2.5 milligrams per day.”  (Beautiful Skin, 2000).

While some claim that amino acids, glycerin, and MSM are also helpful for the nails, there is only anecdotal evidence to support these claims at this time.  On the other hand, numerous studies have concluded 2500 mg of biotin per day is helpful in aiding nail growth and strength, including a 1993 study in Cutis, in which 44 patients were given daily doses of biotin for six months.  The result?  63% noticed significant improvement in nail growth and strength.  That means 37% didn’t, but this is still a dramatic change, in line with other studies about biotin’s effects on nails.

It’s difficult to determine if you are biotin-deficient; there is currently not a good laboratory test to determine biotin deficiency. Therefore, if you are not eating many foods containing biotin, including spinach, salad, brewer’s yeast, corn, barley, soybeans, walnuts, peanuts, molasses, cauliflower, milk, egg yolks, and fortified cereals, you may want to consider taking a biotin supplement.  I’ve always liked the GNC Hair, Skin, and Nails Supplement ($16.00,

3.)  Protect Your Nails From Water.

Lubriderm Advanced Therapy SPF 30
Lubriderm Advanced Therapy SPF 30 – A hand cream with SPF. Ahh, this is what heaven looks like for me. Except, heaven would also have calorie-free ice cream.  Served by a young Robert Redford. Yesss…

Most of my friends who complain about their nails work in the health care or restaurant industries.  And it’s no wonder:  Hand washing makes the nails break.  Every time you wash your hands, the nail will swell as they absorb water, and then dry to return to their original size.  This constant “growth-shrink” cycle wears your nails down over time.

Luckily, you can apply creams to your nails immediately after washing to seal some of that moisture into your nails.  I like Lubriderm Advanced Therapy Lotion SPF 30 – it’s lightweight and hydrating, and has that sun protection to keep your hands looking youthful.  One caveat:  It contains rosemary, which is not recommended for pregnant or nursing women and small children.

4.)  Wear nail-strengthening nail colour.

DermElect Cosmeceuticals
I own the beige one and the red one. They do make your nails a little harder, but the main benefit is the glorious shine.  I like to combine mine with a regimen including biotin and another nail hardener.

I’ll admit it:  I can be a little like a bull in a china shop.  I’m petite, but somehow I am extremely rough on my things (my laptop has six battle scars; my shoes are scuffed; my favorite books are tattered and dog-eared).

I’ve gotten so fed up with my own breaking nails that I’ve turned to Sally Hansen Diamond Nail Strengthener ($3.99,, Dermelect Cosmeceuticals peptide-infused nail lacquers ($14.00,, or (gasp!) acrylics.

I was recently sent a sample by Dermelect Cosmeceuticals.  The source of peptides is ProSina, a protein peptide extracted from New Zealand sheep’s wool.  The nail polish did seem to make my nails a little stronger, but again, it’s hard to say because there aren’t any scientific tests on nail strengtheners.  (I should probably get on that!)   I was more impressed with their shiny coat and durability upon drying.  It is also an acceptable option for those who want to avoid DBP, toluene, and formaldehyde in their nail strengtheners.

Bottom Line

If you want to get stronger nails, do the following:

  • Check to see if you have an iron deficiency.  If yes and you do not have any bacterial infections, get treated.  If yes and you do have a bacterial infection, treat the bacterial infection first, then the iron deficiency.
  • Take a biotin supplement.  Get 2500 mg daily.
  • Apply hand cream diligently every time you wash your hands.
  • Apply nail strengtheners daily.

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