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Your fingernails can be a window into possible body issues or simply a reflection of regular habits. Identifying underlying causes and protecting your nails from damage and cracking can help you keep them strong and functional.

From infections to the normal side effects of aging, cracked nails have many causes. Women are also more likely than men to have cracked nails, according to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.

Here are some common causes.

Aging

As a person ages, fingernails will typically become thinner and more prone to cracking. Toenails will thicken.

Frequent exposure to water

If you perform a job that requires you to wash your hands frequently or submerge your hands in water, you may be at greater risk for nail cracking.

Frequent manicures and nail polish removal

Using acetone-based nail polish removers can weaken the fingernails and make them prone to breaking.

So can removing gel nail manicures because of the chemicals involved and need for the fingernails to soak in liquid nail polish remover. This may make the nails more vulnerable to injury.

Fungal infection

If you have existing cracks or injuries to the skin around your nails, fungus can invade the skin and lead to infection. Symptoms of a fungal nail infection include:

  • cracking
  • thickened nails
  • slightly discolored nails, such as yellow, white, or brown nails

The toenails may be more vulnerable to fungal infections because of the warm, wet environment wearing shoes can create.

Nutritional deficiencies

The body uses various nutrients to grow healthy nails. Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiency causes of cracked nails.

The body also requires proteins and B vitamins to effectively build strong, healthy nails.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis that affects the fingernails can cause nail changes that include nail cracking. People may experience other symptoms too, such as nail splitting, crumbling, or separation of the nail bed.

Thyroid disorder

The thyroid is responsible for maintaining a person’s metabolism as well as many functions for growing skin, hair, and nails. People with thyroid dysfunction can experience nail problems, including dry, cracked, and brittle nails.

Some people call cracked nails split nails. The cracking can occur in various places, such as the middle of the nail tip or across the nail.

Typically, nails that crack are thinner than usual. They may also be brittle and flake off in spots. Sometimes the nails may feel “soft” or bend easily.

Treatment for cracked nails depends on the underlying cause. For example, doctors may prescribe antifungal treatments to get rid of the fungus. These are often painted on the nail like nail polish. However, if the cracking persists, a doctor may prescribe an antifungal pill.

If you have nail psoriasis, treatment may include applying topical medications to the nails. These include vitamin D ointments or topical corticosteroids. Sometimes, a doctor may recommend phototherapy. This involves exposing the fingernails to a special light.

Most of the time, cracked fingernails don’t require further medical treatments, but talk to a healthcare provider if you notice certain signs.

When to see a doctor

If your nail is very painful or showing signs of infection, it may be time to call your doctor. Symptoms of an infection include swelling, redness, or skin that’s hot to the touch.

Your nails take time to grow and repair. But if you haven’t experienced improvements in six to eight weeks or the cracking is getting worse, talk to your doctor.

In addition to treating the underlying cause or causes of cracked nails, try these preventive steps:

  • Avoid prolonged exposure to hot water, like in the shower or when washing dishes.
  • Apply moisturizers to the hands and fingernails after washing them. Examples include cuticle oils that have vitamin E as well as petroleum jelly-based lotions that seal in moisture.
  • Trim nails after the bath or shower when they’re softer and less likely to crack. Keeping nails shorter makes them less vulnerable to injury.
  • File your nails in only one direction using a fine-grained emery board.
  • Use nail polish removers that don’t contain acetone. Acetone-free options are less likely to strip the nails.
  • Refrain from picking or biting your nails and cuticles.
  • Wear protective gloves when performing activities that require you to submerge your hands in water for long periods of time.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of vitamins and minerals, including iron and B vitamins. Many foods are often fortified with these minerals, such as cereals, breads, or orange juice.

While research hasn’t proven this true, some people find taking biotin supplements promotes healthier nails. These supplements are available at most grocery stores and pharmacies.

Many beauty stores also sell “nail hardening” products. These may be effective in helping some people prevent cracking.

If you get gel manicures often, consider alternating between gel manicures and regular polish manicures. You can also give your nails a break from time to time to allow them to rebuild.

Some people also choose a polish that has a gel topcoat instead of multiple layers, as it can be more easily removed.

The nails serve as protection for the fingers and toes. Cracked and brittle nails can make it harder to complete daily activities, especially if you work with your hands.

If cracked nails affect both your fingernails and toenails, a doctor may suspect a systemic condition or nutritional deficiencies.

Fortunately, preventive tips and refraining from using your fingernails as multipurpose tools can help resolve most concerns related to cracked nails.