Health & Fit: Here’s Why Your Nails Keep Peeling and Flaking—and What to Do About It

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Your nails say a lot about your health. If they’re weak and brittle, discolored, or forming ridges, your digits could be signaling that something else is going on inside your body.

Peeling nails are no different. While it’s one of those annoying beauty issues you may be tempted to ignore, there are a number of different reasons for peeling nails. Your diet, manicure techniques, or even an underlying condition could be to blame.

But once you figure out what’s going on, you can seek proper treatment.“Giving your hands and nails some TLC might do the trick but if not, visit your primary care doctor or dermatologist for guidance,” says Shirin Peters, M.D., founder of Bethany Medical Clinic in New York City.“Your dermatologist will ask questions about possible causes or exposures and any medical conditions or medications that could play a role.”

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They may also take a clipping of your nail and send it to a dermatopathologist to be examined under a microscope to get a better idea of what’s going on.

Not sure why your nails are peeling? Ahead, experts break down the most common reasons, plus what you can do to return them to their former glory.

1. Your hands are frequently wet.

“The most common cause [of peeling nails] is repetitive wetting or drying of hands,” says Blair Murphy-Rose M.D., F.A.A.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center.“So it happens often with hairdressers, house cleaners, and other jobs requiring frequent soaking of hands.”

Your nails may also peel if you spend time in hot or humid places.“Too much moisture or prolonged exposure to moisture causes the nail to swell with water and become soft,” explains Dr. Peters.“The end result is a soft and brittle nail that is susceptible to damage from minimal trauma.”

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To prevent this from happening, Dr. Peters recommends wearing gloves when doing the dishes, drying your hands and nails thoroughly after washing them, and regularly applying a hand cream that contains vitamin E to replenish any moisture that is lost.

a close up of a hand: gettyimages-1227305973 © Alena Ivochkina - Getty Images gettyimages-1227305973

2. You buffed your nails too much.

Just as moisture-laden nails can be prone to peeling and splitting, so can nails that are dried out from too much buffing, according to Dr. Peters.

“Excessive dryness causes the nail to become brittle so minor trauma easily damages the nail,” she explains. That means a small nick can turn into a big split when nails are too dry.

Be sure to use a rich moisturizer or nail oil after buffing your nails to keep them from drying out, suggests Dr. Rose.

3. The chemicals in your products are too harsh.

Certain chemicals (like those needed for adhesive for gel or acrylic nails) and ingredients found in everything from hand soap and sanitizers to laundry detergent can dry out nails and make them prone to peeling, says Dr. Peters.

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She recommends looking for products labeled“hypoallergenic” because they typically contain milder or natural chemical agents. If you’re not sure where to start, she likes these options: Aveeno, Cetaphil, or Dove bath care products; Seventh Generation dish soap; Dove hand sanitizer; and Arm & Hammer Sensitive Skin Free & Clear laundry detergent.

4. You’ve experienced nail trauma.

Picking at polish, biting your nails, or using your nails to open a can of seltzer might not sound very traumatic, but activities like this really can cause nails to start peeling.

“While the exact mechanism is not entirely understood, generally speaking, nail peeling occurs when cell-to-cell adhesion is disrupted,” says Dr. Rose.“Our nails are made of many layers of compacted cells. The connection between one cell and other adjacent cells can be compromised as the bonds between them loosen. This is what occurs when the nail peels. The cell-to-cell adhesion breaks down and the layers separate.”

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To prevent that separation from happening, Dr. Rose recommends applying a nail strengthener like Ella+Mila First Aid Kiss Nail Strengthener or OPI Nail Envy Nail Strengthener—and be sure to use a gentle, acetone-free nail polish remover instead of picking polish off bit by bit.

5. A nutrient deficiency could be playing a role.

“Peeling nails have been associated with low calcium, as well as a deficiency in iron, vitamin D, and B vitamins like biotin,” says Dr. Peters.“These vitamins all help keratin—what the tissue nails are made of—grow stronger.”

Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins is a good place to start addressing nutritional deficiencies, but you might also want to ask your doctor if you could benefit from taking certain supplements.

6. A thyroid issue might be to blame.

While typical signs of a thyroid disorder include weight changes, anxiety, fatigue, and brain fog, peeling nails can also be a red flag that you should have your thyroid levels checked.

“Thyroid disease causes a slower turnover rate of the skin and nails so older nail tissue stays around for longer, causing nails to become brittle,” explains Dr. Peters.

7. You have a fungal infection.

“Onychomycosis, or fungal infection of the nail, can cause several different types of nail dystrophy including nail peeling,” says Dr. Rose. You may also experience thickening of the nails and white or yellow-brown discoloration, according to experts at the Mayo Clinic.

If you think you have a fungal infection, make an appointment with your dermatologist, as they can be tricky to treat. Your doc can confirm that you have an infection and will likely prescribe o*** antifungal meds to help the nail heal.

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