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Brittle Fingernails

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Written by
Carina Ryder, MS, BSN.
Certified Nurse Midwife, Takoma Park Gynecology
Last updated September 22, 2020

Brittle fingernails questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your brittle fingernails.

Understand brittle fingernails symptoms, including 7 causes & common questions.

Brittle fingernails questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your brittle fingernails.

Brittle fingernails symptom checker

Symptoms associated with brittle fingernails

Like most people, you probably take your nails for granted. Toe nails. Finger nails. You might be good at trimming, painting or otherwise decorating them. It seems to be the aesthetics that concern you from day-to-day. How often to you give your nails credit for protecting the tips of your fingers? Or helping you pick up small objects? Until your nails become brittle. You can't scratch your head without breaking them. Your dexterity is limited. You think they will heal, but in the meantime, you consider it to be a cosmetic concern. Or is it something more than that?

Common accompanying symptoms of brittle fingernails

In addition to being brittle, your nails might also be:

  • Rough
  • Pitted
  • Weak
  • Dry
  • Frayed and torn
  • Discolored
  • Slow growing

Nails, skin, hair, and sweat and oil glands are all part of your integumentary system. Your integumentary system holds you together. It prevents an excess loss of fluid from your body and helps your body regulate temperature. It protects all that is inside from all that is outside. But when your nails are brittle, it might not be just about your nails.

7 causes of brittle fingernails

Inflammatory conditions and autoimmune disorders

Brittle nails can be a symptom of an underlying inflammatory condition, such as lichen planus or psoriasis. Alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder, can also cause nails to be brittle. Inflammatory and autoimmune conditions can also involve your hair, skin and mucous membranes (like the inside of your nose or your lips).

Environmental causes

Frequent, prolonged exposure to water can cause brittle fingernails. In fact, water exposure is the most common cause of brittle nails. Whereas skin is waterproof, nails are absorbent and become brittle with repeated wetting and drying. Swimmers are susceptible to brittle nails, as are dish washers.

Nail care products

Frequent use of nail care products (especially nail polish remover, acetone or otherwise) can be harmful to your nails. Many of these products are dehydrating, and can make your finernails brittle. Household or industrial cleaning products can be absorbed by your nails, causing injury including brittleness.

Brittle fingernails questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your brittle fingernails.

Brittle fingernails symptom checker

Nutritional causes

Improper nutrition can result in brittle fingernails.

  • Poor nutrition: Such as from disordered eating (such as anorexia or bulimia), malnutrition, or protein, iron or calcium deficiency takes its toll on your health, and shows on your skin, hair and nails.
  • Too much selenium: Interestingly enough, an excess of dietary selenium — found naturally in seafood, muscle meat, organ meat, grains and cereals — can lead to brittle nails. Taking too high a dose of selenium supplements can have the same effect.

Other causes

Brittle fingernails are not always caused by medical conditions, environmental exposures or nutritional deficiencies or excesses. Sometimes, it is just about your nails. Sometimes, it's genetic. Sometimes, it is simply due to the normal aging process. Brittle nails are common in children — especially boys. In childhood, nails can be brittle for no apparent reason. While unsightly, childhood brittle nails are usually not associated with any underlying condition, and resolves on its own after several years.

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Low calcium level

Hypocalcemia is a condition where there is not enough calcium in the blood. Calcium is a mineral contained in the blood, which helps the heart and other muscles function properly, and is needed to maintain strong teeth and bones.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, shortness of breath, irritability, general numbness, tingling foot

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Iron deficiency anemia

Iron deficiency anemia is a condition in which the body does not have enough iron to form hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body.

The condition can be caused by acute blood loss through injury, surgery, or childbirth;chronic b..

Eczema (atopic dermatitis)

Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a non-contagious chronic skin condition that produces an itchy rash. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin's ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens. The most susceptible are those with a family hi..

Allergic contact dermatitis of the hand

Allergic contact dermatitis is a condition in which the skin becomes irritated and inflamed following physical contact with an allergen. Common products known to cause allergic dermatitis include plants, metals, soap, fragrance, and cosmetics.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: hand itch, hand redness, scabbed area of the hand

Symptoms that always occur with allergic contact dermatitis of the hand: hand redness

Urgency: Self-treatment


Psoriasis causes an overgrowth of surface skin cells, creating a red, scaly, itchy, and painful rash.

It is believed to be an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack its own healthy skin cells. It may be genetic in origin but triggered by anything that further strains the immune system, such as infections, skin injury, alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking, and stress.

Symptoms may come and go in cycles lasting weeks or months. They include red patches of thickened skin, sometimes with gray-white scales; dry, cracked, bleeding skin; stiff and swollen joints; and thickened, misshapen nails.

It is important to see a medical provider for care, because psoriasis can interfere with quality of life. It is associated with higher risk of arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.

Treatment involves different combinations of topical medications, oral medications, and phototherapy with natural or artificial light. Lifestyle changes such as improved diet, quitting smoking, and managing stress are very helpful in many cases.

Rarity: Uncommon

Top Symptoms: itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, rash with well-defined border, painful rash, scaly rash

Symptoms that never occur with psoriasis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes

Urgency: Primary care doctor


Anorexia nervosa is a type of eating disorder. Anorexia usually affects adolescents or adults. While weight loss is the primary feature of anorexia, this condition can affect many organ systems throughout the body


Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory behavior, such as self-induced vomiting, fasting, excessive exercise, or abuse of laxatives or diuretics.

Despite typically having a normal weight, people with bulimia are often persistently concerned with th..

Brittle fingernails questionnaire

Use our free symptom checker to find out what's causing your brittle fingernails.

Brittle fingernails symptom checker

Brittle fingernails treatments and relief

When to see a doctor for brittle fingernails

Seek medical care if you have brittle fingernails and:

  • You are losing your hair
  • Your fingernails start to fall off
  • You are experiencing mood swings or confusion
  • You have nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • The brittleness came on suddenly

At-home treatments for brittle fingernails

Unless you have an underlying medical condition, keeping your fingernails healthy is mostly a matter of good nutrition and hygiene. Approaches to a healthy diet and proper nail hygiene are listed below.

  • Nutrition: Eat a balanced diet, based on lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Avoid "junk food." Iron and calcium deficiencies are easily addressed by taking supplements. Biotin, as a supplement, can help to strengthen brittle nails.
  • Hygiene: Keep your nails trimmed and avoid biting your nails and picking at your cuticles. Resist the urge to change your nail color every few days; it is best to wait at least a week between manicures and pedicures. You should also avoid picking off your nail polish as this takes a layer of cells off of your nails.

Questions your doctor may ask about brittle fingernails

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
  • Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Do you currently smoke?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

Hear what 1 other is saying
Alopecia and dry skin and brittle nailsPosted April 27, 2021 by C.
I have had alopecia areata for over 40 years. Recently I noticed my skin was very dry and nails all flaked and broken. After reading this article, it appears that they are all related, which was of great comfort to me as I was wondering if it might be something more. I am also on additional HRT treatment, so this may also factor in the equation. The weight gain is upsetting for me as I have always been a thinner person, but in the grand scheme of things, compared to a lot of people, I am let off very lightly.
Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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