Q. You recently replied to a person who has weak fingernails. You mentioned some treatments but did not point out that together with other problems this could be a symptom of hypothyroidism.
Often little things like brittle nails and dry skin are overlooked and never mentioned to the doctor because of their seeming insignificance. Some of these apparently unrelated problems could be a hallmark of a more serious health concern, especially when they occur in a constellation of symptoms. With hypothyroidism, brittle nails, dry skin, hair loss, poor memory, trouble with concentration, weight gain and depression are all indicators.
Any condition that does not improve as it should might be signaling an underlying problem. It is better to find and treat the cause, not just the symptom.
A. You have described many symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland. Other signs include constipation, fatigue, cold intolerance, reduced sex drive, high cholesterol and slow pulse. Because such complaints are so common, they are sometimes overlooked or dismissed. Thank you so much for suggesting hypothyroidism as a possible contributor to brittle nails.
What To Do for Brittle Nails
Not everyone with brittle nails suffers from a sluggish thyroid gland. Ask most physicians what causes brittle, dry or weak nails and you could easily get the dear-in-the-headlights look. That’s because there is no clear understanding of an underlying etiology (doctorspeak for cause). Speaking of big words, the medical term for brittle or splitting nails is onychoschizia. Try pronouncing that word three times.
Sometimes you will be told it is just part of the aging process. Other times you will get a shrug. It is always worth checking with a physician to make sure there is no serious underlying health condition such as anemia. Assuming there is nothing obviously wrong, let’s start with the basics.
Your nails are a lot like your skin. When the heat comes on the air dries out. That means both skin and nails are likely to become dry. Avoid detergent at all costs. It will dry out both your skin and your nails. Rubber gloves can be very helpful.
By the way, steer clear of most so-called nail strengtheners, especially if they contain formaldehyde. This chemical may “harden” nails but it does this by drying them, which often makes them even more brittle. You will also want to avoid nail polish remover containing acetone. It is a solvent and will make nails dry and brittle. Some people go so far as to recommend avoiding nail polish completely:
“One thing I’ve noticed is that after I remove nail polish, for a few weeks my nails splinter, form ridges and look nasty. Nail polish does not allow your nails to ‘breathe.’ My trick to healthy nails was to stop using nail polish.”
Ruth discovered vitamin D was helpful:
I am 77 and had soft fingernails, which often broke and split. When the doctor checked my vitamin D level and found it to be 23, he prescribed 50,000 IUs of vitamin D weekly. Soon my nails were much stronger – no more breaking or splitting and I actually have to cut them. After 6 weeks my vitamin D level was 51, so I now take 2,000 IUs daily (in 2 doses), and just hope its helping my bones as much as my fingernails.
A moisturizer can be helpful for brittle nails as well as dry skin. Some people soak their nails in almond oil. Others use cuticle crams. Elon Nail Conditioner is a favorite because it contains lanolin and beeswax along with an antifungal ingredient and petrolatum. Another favorite is Mane n Tail Hoofmaker. It was developed as a moisturizer for horses hooves but groomers discovered that it could help their rough dry nails as well. Because it is a veterinary product it is surprisingly affordable. You will find it online or in horse supply stores.
Gin the bank teller:
“Years ago I worked as a bank teller . In each cage was a dish with a sponge and liquid glycerin. We patted our finger tips in it before counting money (bills). I would then massage the remainder into my nails. I had beautiful nails. But to remind everyone it is not a quick fix as the nail bed absorbs the product and it takes a while for the damaged nails to grow off and form new ones.”
Gelatin for Brittle Nails:
A study in the journal Archives of Dermatology (Sept., 1957) found that a packet a day of gelatin seemed to improve weak nails after about three months. Some people put a packet of Knox Gelatine in their yogurt to ease arthritis symptoms.
What about Biotin?
There is a lot of anecdotal support for the use of the nutrient biotin to strengthen soft nails. A report in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology (Aug., 2007) notes:
“The evidence that we adduce in this paper suggests that: 1) proper nail care seems to help maintain nail health; 2) no evidence supports the use of vitamin supplementation with vitamin E, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin A, retinoids, retinol, retinal, silicon, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, or vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin) for improving the nail health of well-nourished patients or improving the appearance of nails affected by pathologic disease; and 3) brittle nail syndrome appears to abate with supplementation with a 2.5-mg dose of biotin daily or a 10-mg dose of silicon daily, a useful form of which is choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid.”
The Bottom Line for Stronger Nails:
Avoid washing dishes with bare hands. Always use rubber gloves. Stay away from solvents. If you avoid nail polish you won’t need a solvent to remove it. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.
Our Guide to Hair and Nail Care will provide tips on overcoming nail fungus. And our Guide to Thyroid Hormones provides details on symptoms, lab test interpretation and various treatment options for hypothyroidism. If, as our initial reader suggested, the problem is linked to a sluggish thyroid gland, then the most appropriate solution would be to get the thyroid function back to normal.