Pimples. Split ends. Peeling nails. These three beauty blunders can all be filed under "things you know you shouldn't pick but do anyway." Hey, it happens. But just a friendly reminder that you might want to (read: should) stop getting so handsy, especially when it comes to peeling nails.
Your nails—their color, shape, texture—can act as a window into your body, giving clues about your health. And in the case of peeling nails? They can be a symptom of many different conditions, says Salar Parvini, D.C., holistic skin-care expert and founder of Saffron & Sage Skincare. "Typically, we look at both external and internal causes," which can include thyroid conditions, lung diseases, kidney disease, iron deficiency, chronic dehydration, or a vitamin B7 deficiency, he explains. (Related: 7 Things Your Nails Can Tell you About Your Health)
But don't freak out: Split nails can also just be a normal result of aging, according to Hadley King, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. They can also be genetic or product-related (think: one-too-many gel manicures).
So, if you're wondering, "why are my nails peeling?", there are a lot of possible answers.
What should I do if I have peeling nails?
See a doctor. Different types of peeling and discoloration can help the doc identify the root problem, each of which has a different fix, according to the experts.
It's also important to seek out an expert if split nails are a new and sudden issue that you've never had before, says Dr. King. "If someone has never had an issue with peeling nails, and then suddenly multiple nails are peeling and there have not been other changes (as far as nails products, etc.), then it would be prudent to rule out anemia and thyroid disease."
Along with peeling, you should also consult your doctor if you experience pitting (pits or dents in the nail bed), white streaking, significant ridging, bubbles, flaking, and fingernails falling off. All of these nail changes can give clues about internal and systemic health problems. (Related: The Symptoms You Should Never Ignore)
Why are my nails peeling?
It's pretty tough to self-diagnose one of these underlying problems, so it's best to go see your doctor (a general practitioner or dermatologist). "Your doctor will do a full exam," says Suzanne Friedler, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. "They'll get a good patient history, go over patient [lifestyle] habits, review what they do for work, and some [root causes] can be determined on a physical examination. If they suspect a thyroid disorder or vitamin deficiency [or another kind of underlying condition] they'll order blood tests."
Underlying conditions such as anemia (more on that later), tuberculosis, and endocrine hormonal issues "can manifest in the nails," says Dr. Friedler. In addition to peeling, you might also see "nail color changes like yellowing, which can be related to lung health, or whitening, which can be present with kidney or liver problems," she adds.
Split nails might also be a sign of thyroid disease, such as hyperthyroidism—when the thyroid gland overproduces hormones—and hypothyroidism—when it underproduces hormones. "Nail changes are more common with hyperthyroidismthan hypothyroidism, but why it happens is still unknown," says Caren Campbell, M.D., a San Francisco-based dermatologist.
It's important to emphasize, however, that peeling nails are not the only sign of thyroid conditions. In addition to other nail-related changes like curving, softening, or thickening skin above a nail, you might also experience unexplained weight changes, fatigue, sensitivity to temperatures, among many other symptoms, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. (Related: I'm a Fitness Influencer with an Invisible Illness That Causes Me to Gain Weight)
Skin Conditions (Such as Psoriasis)
"Systemic problems that create inflammation in the skin—like psoriasis—or any inflammatory skin condition can also affect nails," says Dr. Friedler. And this is true no matter the location of the psoriasis-caused inflammation or rashes.
In these cases, you may also see significant ridges, pitting (shallow or deep holes in the nail), or discoloration, and the peeling will likely occur closer to the cuticle, near the nail bed, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation.
Once your doc determines that a skin condition is to blame, they'll likely prescribe a topical steroid to treat your peeling nails and underlying issue, says Dr. Campbell. (Speaking of which, here's how Kim Kardashian handles her psoriasis.)
Peeling nails can also be a side effect of certain medications, such as oral retinoids like isotretinoin, according to Dr. Campbell. But this type of acne treatment is not the only medication that could be to blame, so definitely keep track of when your nails started peeling and talk to your doc about any potential side effects of new meds or even supplements. (Related: How Dietary Supplements Can Interact with Your Prescription Drugs)
As if the list of pregnancy side effects wasn't already long enough, you can add peeling nails on there, too. This is due in part to the influx of hormones, which cause your nails to grow faster but not necessarily stronger, says Dr. King. "Many women experience faster nail growth during pregnancy, but for some, this can be accompanied by increased nail brittleness, breakage, grooves, or peeling." (You might also experience skin tags or cherry angiomas during pregnancy too.)
A common culprit of peeling nails are vitamins, or rather a lack thereof, according to the experts. Most specifically? B-vitamins, such as biotin (which, btw, might be low during pregnancy) and B12, which can also cause brown-grey nail discoloration, says Dr. King.
And ICYMI earlier, you might also be dealing with anemia or low iron levels that can lead to brittle or split nails or "spoon-shaped nails" (aka nails with indentations), she explains. (Psst...bruising easily? That might be another sign you're suffering from anemia.)
"Once you've been cleared by your healthcare provider, you can review what you may be doing to your hands externally," says Dr. Parvini. This includes everything from how often you wash your hands, to the type of manicure you get, to the type of work you do with your hands.
These should be a little easier to identify since it involves tracking your habits versus looking for biomarkers of disease, explains Dr. Friedler.
Hand Washing and Dry Skin
Dr. Campbell says that washing your hands frequently can sometimes lead to brittle, split, or peeling nails—something that's especially relevant during the COVID-19 outbreak. Scrubbing on repeat dries out your hands and nails, which can cause problems with nail strength and suppleness. "Water also breaks down the bonds between nail cells, therefore weakening their structure," she says. (Related: The Very Best Hand Creams, According to Dermatologists)
Dry skin and thus dry, peeling nails can also be a result of the weather or dehydration. The treatment here is simple: hydrate all day long and moisturize on the reg (more on the latter below).
Manicure Faux Pas
"Peeling [and picking] your nail polish off instead of using nail polish remover, wearing gel or acrylic nails and not using proper removal techniques, and using your nails to open things (that's what scissors are for!) can all lead to nail peeling," says Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder and CEO of Olive & June.
Even the type of nail polish remover—more specifically, acetone—can cause problems, according to Dr. King. Although super skilled at removing layers of polish, it can also dry out your nails to the point at which, yup, they start peeling, she explains. (Related: The Essential Oil DIY Remedy for Dry, Brittle Nails)
Bad Nail-Health Habits
Even if you press pause on your weekly manicures, you still need to take care of your nails to prevent further peeling. And this is especially true when giving yourself a DIY mani (sans-paint and remover, of course). Avoid filing your bare nail as this can weaken your nail, making it vulnerable to damage, explains Gibson Tuttle. And steer clear of your cuticles. "Pushing back the cuticle or picking the skin around the cuticle or that little half-moon called the lunula, which is part of the nail matrix, can cause problems," says Dr. Friedler. "If there is inflammation in the area of the nail matrix, that will prevent [the nail] from growing appropriately as well."
Now, if you're a nail biter, it probably doesn't come as a shock that your nails might start to peel. Not only can it damage the shape and curvature of your nails over time, but gnawing at your fingernails can also "increase the risk of getting bacteria in and around the nail, and creates uneven splits in the nail which can then peel back," says Dr. Campbell. (Related: Terrifying Reasons to Stop Nail Biting—for Good)
General Tips to Prevent Peeling Nails
While the treatment for peeling and brittle nails very much depends on what the root cause is, there are things you can do to improve your overall nail health.
1. Try a multivitamin.
Vitamin deficiencies can cause peeling, splitting nails. "Taking a multivitamin or taking a nail vitamin that contains biotin and some other ingredients can be helpful if there's a deficiency," says Dr. Friedler. Still, it's best you consult your doc before poppin' any pills, as vitamins and supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
2. Care for your cuticles.
One of the keys to improving overall nail health? Treating your cuticles—which protect your nails so that they can grow stronger and healthier—to ample TLC. "You want to grow the damage out as fast as possible," explains Dr. Friedler, who recommends massaging "vaseline or cuticle oil a couple of times a day into the cuticle."
3. Hydrate your hands and nails.
Make a habit of moisturizing your hands and nails after you wash your hands to help prevent excess drying and, thus, peeling nails. While any ole hand lotion will do, Dr. King suggests also using a nail-specific moisturizer like sunflower oil that is "rich in phospholipids," which are known to prevent splitting or cracking nails.
For an added layer of protection, Dr. Campbell recommends using a nail strengthener like ISDIN Si-Nails Strengthening Treatment (Buy It, $30, isdin.com). Her reasoning? It helps coat the nail and protect it from trauma from, say, banging your nails or washing dishes without gloves. Speaking of which…
4. Steer clear of excess water.
When you're doing tons of dishes, cleaning, or any kind of 'wet work', wear gloves and "minimize frequent hand washing with alcohol-based hand sanitizer," which is also drying, says Dr. Campbell.
5. Keep your nails short.
"Keeping nails trimmed as short as possible helps resolve the peeling of the nails more quickly as it results in less trauma to the nail," says Dr. Campbell.