Fingernails: Breaking News

Note: The following article was reprinted, with permission, from the “Wellness Letter”, a publication of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. They can be reached via their website at

The technical term for splitting nails sounds worse than it is­onychoschizia, which comes from the Greek for, well, split nails. It’s actually another version of dry skin and will respond to some of the same treatments. Fragile nails are sometimes caused by thyroid disorders, anorexia, anemia, or severely deficient diets. But mostly they are just a nuisance (Editors Note: unless you are a classical guitarist. Then they are an aggravation), not a symptom of some underlying problem.

Diet and fingernail care

Diet has little to do with the condition of your nails. Since nails are made of protein, the idea persists that eating gelatin­also protein­will help strengthen them. Those who market gelatin often try to encourage this belief, but it isn’t so. Calcium is of no use for this purpose either, since nails don’t contain calcium.

Here are some things that can make your nails break off: exposure to water (as in dish washing); exposure to detergents; and frequent manicures that involve the application of a lot of chemicals, especially polish remover. Dry, overheated rooms may cause nails to break. Summer humidity is helpful, and nails actually grow faster in warm weather.

How to protect your fingernails

  • Wear protective gloves when washing clothes or dishes.
  • Don’t expose hands to household cleaning products, including detergents that claim to be easy on hands.
  • Wear gloves in cold weather and when gardening.
  • Apply moisturizer to hands and nails after bathing or washing your hands and at bedtime. Plain petroleum jelly is an excellent moisturizer for cuticles and nails.
  • Avoid frequent use of chemical cuticle removers and polish removers, especially those with acetone. If you get a professional manicure, avoid harsh chemicals.
  • Never apply glue-on artificial fingernails.
  • Don’t use your nails as a tool (Editor’s Note: except when playing the classical guitar). There is always a better way.
  • Be gentile with manicure tools, especially metal ones. Use a soft orange stick for gently pushing back cuticles. Use a fine file or emery board to shape nails. Keep nails short (Editor’s Note: unless you are a classical guitarist).
  • If you’re undertaking a program to revive brittle nails, or waiting for a bruised nail to grow out, remember that it takes about six months for a new nail to grow from cuticle to tip.
  • The American Academy of Dermatology now recommends products containing alpha hydroxy acid derivatives to reduce breakage and perhaps help harden nails. These include “Derma Nails” and “Neoceuticals Nail Solution.”
  • Many companies will try to sell you nutritional supplements for nails. The only vitamin that might possibly have a strengthening effect on nails is a B vitamin, biotin. It’s in most multivitamins. But no one knows if it really works, or how much you would need.

Footnote: a comment on the above from el Presidente, Grant Ruiz
Interesting remark re:
-Never apply glue-on artificial fingernails.
Doesn’t say why. Kelly at Abbintito’s told me that the big problem is taking off polish or glue. People do it too quickly, without applying solvent long enough, and the chemicals rip off some of the nail plate. She also said that nails that have gotten really wet, e.g., with water or solvent, should be allowed to dry for an hour before using them. I would love to put a plug in for Kelly. She has several musicians as clients, listens to your concerns, and is careful to inform.

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