How can I make my fingernails stronger?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My fingernails chip and split a lot. Is there anything I can do to make them stronger? I’ve heard eating gelatin can help.

DEAR READER:

Misconceptions about fingernails are common, and so are remedies claiming to make your nails better. But like it or not, there’s relatively little you can do to change the overall health of your nails.

It’s a myth that eating gelatin will encourage healthy, longer nails. I can see where the myth started. Gelatin is made of processed collagen. Collagen is an important protein; it provides strength and elasticity to skin, cartilage, tendons, ligaments and other body parts. So someone figured that brittle fingernails needed more collagen.

There are two problems with that line of reasoning. First, the collagen you eat gets digested in your gut. More important, your fingernails are not made up of collagen; they’re made up of keratin. Although it’s also a structural protein, keratin is unrelated to gelatin. That’s why eating gelatin or soaking your nails in it will not affect your nails in any way.

It’s also unlikely that your nails are unhealthy due to inadequate dietary protein or other missing nutrients. My skin-specialist colleagues tell me that the culprit behind brittle nails is usually dehydration. This may result from living in a dry climate or from frequent use of nail polish remover. Moisturizers can help — but supplements and diet won’t.

Nail growth slows after age 20. Most people notice that their fingernails tend to become more brittle and thinner with age. Some people have faster-growing nails than others, and some people are able to grow long and strong nails while others can’t.

To help keep your fingernails healthy:

  • Trim your nails regularly to keep them short and smoothly rounded at the tips.
  • Protect fingernails from injury. Wear gloves if you are performing manual labor.
  • Don’t bite your nails.
  • Apply moisturizer to your hands and nails while they’re wet.
  • Use a nail hardener or clear polish to strengthen the nails.
  • Limit use of nail polish remover to twice a month to avoid excessive nail dryness, which can make them brittle.
  • If you get manicures, stick with reputable nail salons that sterilize instruments. Better yet, bring your own.

Long ago, when I was in medical training, I had a patient who suffered from many different “important” diseases. She had heart failure, her kidneys were not working well, years of smoking had caused emphysema of her lungs, and she had trouble walking because of severe arthritis in her hips. The treatments available at that time were only partially effective.

I asked her how she had been doing, and I was startled when she replied: “I’ve got no complaints, doctor, except can you do something about my nails?” I learned that if a medical condition is important to a patient, it doesn’t matter if it’s not on my list of “important” diseases — it should be important to me.

Related Information: Skin Care and Repair