Nowadays fingernails serve a cosmetic purpose, but their primitive uses included digging and defending. Nails also protect your fingertips and enhance your ability to pick up items.
Nails are made from keratin, a protein that’s also found in your hair. Nails have multiple tough layers that can peel. This can cause them to appear thin or become weakened, causing them to split. The medical term for peeling or splitting fingernails is onychoschizia.
Peeling nails can be the result of outside or external trauma to the nail. More rarely, they can indicate a systemic condition, or a sign that a pathologic process is occurring inside your body.
It takes six months for a fingernail to grow to its full length. That means it’s possible to experience nail abnormalities as a result of something that occurred months earlier.
What causes peeling nails?
Trauma or damage to the nail itself can cause peeling. Soaking your hands in hot water while doing the dishes or engaging in any other prolonged water exposure can dry out the nails. This can also cause peeling.
Other traumatic causes of peeling include:
- any activity that presses on the nail
- overusing the nails as a tool
- picking or peeling off nail polish
- applying false or acrylic nails
If you can’t attribute your peeling nails to an external or internal cause, one way to tell the difference is to compare your toenails and fingernails.
If your fingernails are peeling but your toenails aren’t (or vice versa), this signals an external cause.
If both your fingernails and toenails are peeling, this signals an internal cause.
Internal causes can vary, but sometimes dry, peeling nails can indicate a vitamin deficiency, typically an iron deficiency.
When to seek medical help
Peeling nails rarely have internal causes or are a medical emergency. However, if your nails are causing severe pain or bleeding in addition to peeling, you may want to seek urgent medical care.
Most often, at-home treatments can reduce the incidence of peeling nails.
How do I care for peeling nails at home?
If you suspect your peeling nails are the result of an iron deficiency, you may want to consider increasing your daily iron intake. Examples of foods that are high in iron include:
- baked potato with skin
- fortified breakfast cereals
- lean meats
- white beans
You can also take a daily iron supplement. If you take a multivitamin, read the label carefully. Not all manufacturers include iron as a part of the standard multivitamin.
According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, taking more than 25 milligrams of elemental iron reduces the body’s ability to absorb zinc. To prevent this adverse effect, avoid taking excessive iron supplements.
In addition to incorporating iron in your diet, the Mayo Clinic recommends asking your doctor about the possibility of taking biotin to help strengthen nails.
You should also take steps to keep your nails moisturized. This includes minimizing prolonged exposure to water.
If you regularly perform household chores that involve water, wear protective, cotton-lined rubber gloves.
If you partake in water activities, such as swimming, apply lotion or cream to your hands and nails.
How can I prevent peeling nails?
If you use artificial nails, it’s important to gently remove all nail coatings without scraping or pulling. If you force off the nail coating, it will cause nail damage and peeling that will ultimately scar your nail beds. This can lead to thin, fragile nails.
Instead, care for your nails by filing them with a nail file around the tips of the nails. The nails should be filed into a curve, not into sharp points on the sides or tips. This helps prevent snagging, breaking, and splitting.
Buffing your nails can give them a healthy appearance but be sure to use a one-direction buffing motion. A back-and-forth motion can thin the nail plate, making your nails more prone to peeling.
Peeling nails can be the result of too little or too much moisture.
The former can be caused by repeatedly getting the nails wet and then drying them. With the latter, sheer soaking in water while performing things like household chores makes the nails soft and possibly causes peeling or sloughing of the nail.
You can protect your nails by applying a clear nail polish. One with nylon fibers may be especially helpful in strengthening the nail.
Another way to prevent peeling nails is to avoid using the nails as tools to pick up or open items, which can weaken them. Instead, use the pads of your fingers.