Split Nails

A Simple Guide To Split Nails


Onychorrhexis is the official term for this very common condition where the nails split, become brittle and break.  Longitudinal splits parallel to each other on one or more nails may be found.  Flakiness and dryness of the nails and the cuticles is also a very common complaint.


Split NailsThere are various reasons why nails may split, become brittle, dry, dehydrated and flaky. The following list is designed to provide a simple overview of these reasons and hopefully, help you understand how you can reduce the risk of split nails:-

Neglect, careless filing, over-exposure to harsh detergents or over-use of nail cosmetics.  Filing the nails with metal files or an incorrect file (e.g. a high-grit emery board meant for artificial nails rather than natural nails) will put too much pressure on the nails whilst filing and may eventually weaken them resulting in ‘Split Nails’.  Always use a low-grit emery board.  If you need to reduce a lot of length, cut the nails first with nail scissors or clippers and then gently file them into shape.

Nail polish – constant wear  of polish without a break will dehydrate and weaken the nails, the nails don’t get time to breathe and may also develop fungal infections.  Try to only wear polish for the required occasion and then remove it after a day or two rather than leaving the polish on until it chips or wears off.  This will prevent the nail plate from drying out too much and give you the opportunity to nourish and treat your nails in between polishes.

The same applies for toenails – it is very tempting to leave polish on toenails for weeks or even months, as, when correctly applied, it can last a very long time without chipping.  However, you will find that if you’ve gone all summer constantly wearing polish on your toes, once you remove it in winter you will probably find white patches on the nails.  These are dry patches of dead nail cells – they can easily be buffed away but if left untreated it is possible for fungal infections to occur as moisture may get into the loose dead cells and be trapped in by further applications of nail polish.  Always treat your toenails to a pedicure and buffing in between polishes and try to give them a long break without polish where you can be applying tea tree oil (which is anti fungal) and nail oils or creams.

The use of nail hardeners and strengtheners in the form of a lacquer can also do more harm than good.  They will certainly harden up the nails in the short term but long term use can cause the nails to become so hard that they end up cracking and breaking anyway.  They also contain harsh chemicals.  It is always better to use a special protein-rich nail cream or oil to nourish the nails.  The effect can be seen quite quickly and the treatment will encourage nails to grow out stronger too.

Domestic detergents – think about how often you wash up or carry out household cleaning chores without wearing rubber gloves – these harsh chemicals can dehydrate the nails and cause longitudinal ridges which may eventually split down.  Always try to wear gloves for these chores so your nails don’t come into contact with the chemicals found in things like bleach, washing up liquid, toilet and bathroom cleaners.  Gardening without gloves can also damage the skin on the hands and fingers as well as the nails.  The skin can become dry and ‘shredded’ and become ingrained with dirty patches from soil and compost, which can also get down the nails and cuticles and become difficult to clean and remove.  Using a sharp object to get ‘down’ the nail to clean it must be done with care as pushing too far will cause the nail to separate from the nail bed which in turn can cause infections if bacteria were to then pass down under the nail.  A professional manicure will help to clean up the nails and hands but if you’re doing this yourself at home, soak in the bath and use a nail brush to first try and clean out the dirt, before gently using a toothpick to remove any remaining dirt, but again, be careful not to push too far.

A bout of illness can leave the nails in a dry condition.  As with your hair and skin, your nails can be a tell-tale sign that you are or have been unwell.  Try to boost your immune system either with vitamins or other natural supplements and consider a special supplement for skin, hair and nails.  If your nails are in particularly bad condition, speak to your GP or pharmacist, or even a health food shop worker, who will be able to advise you on the best supplements for your needs.  Otherwise, these supplements can be found in health food shops and chemists.  You can also apply topical preparations to help your nails back to recovery – a protein-rich nail cream will nourish the nail plate and cuticle, helping the nails to become healthier and grow stronger.  Nail and cuticle oils are also good for this purpose, especially if the cuticles and skin are also dry.

Moisture/Fat – the water content of the nail affects its pliability or brittleness.  The normal water content is approximately 10-12% for nails in a good pliable condition but at a lower percentage the nails becomes brittle and tend to split or flake.  Nails also contain a very low percentage of fat, normally only 1%.  The compressed cells of the nail plate are held together by a minimum amount of moisture and fat, which decrease with age, producing a dryer nail condition.

Dietary deficiency, in particular lack of fats, may result in dry nails.  If a person is following a no fat or low fat diet to lose weight this will cause a dry skin condition and the nails will also be affected as they require a certain amount of fat for the layers of the nail plate to bond together.  The small amount of fat that is obtained from natural sources will be required by the body for essential functions, such as the uptake of fat-soluble vitamins.  A lack of fat can cause brittle and dehydrated nails as it is necessary to maintain flexibility and prevent breakage.  If you are following a low/no fat diet and notice a change in your nails, try to introduce some ‘good fats’ into your diet, such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and oily fish.

Climate – It has been proven that nails grow more quickly in summer rather than winter.  Cold weather conditions will dehydrate the skin and nails if they are not well protected.  Also, a noticeable increase in nail growth can be seen when spending time in a warmer climate.  As natural sunshine is beneficial to most people in small doses, one of its advantageous effects on the nails is that it stimulates chemical activity in the skin and increases cellular regeneration.  As the nails are an appendage to the skin this means that cellular increase in the nails will also take place.   Warmer weather and sunshine are therefore beneficial for hydrated healthy nails, but as we cannot always avoid a bitter winter your nails will benefit from keeping your hands warm, drinking plenty of fluids and being treated with protein and oil rich nail/cuticle creams or oils.  In winter your nails and hands may also benefit from the special cotton gloves you can wear in bed – first apply a rich moisturiser and nail cream or oil, then put on the gloves and go to bed.  In the morning your hands will be softer and less dry and if you can do this repeatedly you should be able to improve the condition long term.  Moisturising socks are also available for the feet.  You should be able to buy these from beauty stores, chemists and online.


Regular professional manicures or pedicures with hot oil or paraffin wax treatments will improve nail and skin condition and try to have breaks in between nail polish application.  Avoid harsh products and over-use of nail polishes; use hand and nail creams; wear gloves for household and garden chores; consider taking a supplement and check your diet for essential fatty acids.

Following the above advice and implementing it into your own nail care routine, will help strengthen your nails and also help prevent you experiencing split nails.