Splitting Fingernails that are Cracked, Dry, and Brittle; Dermatologist's Tips

how to heal splitting fingernails

Splitting cracked, dry and brittle fingernails are a common problem for some people. The problem gets worse as we age and our skin, hair and nails become more prone to dryness. You use your nails like handy little tools. When they are brittle and dry, they won't stand up to the task and you will end up with splitting fingernails. Almost every day in my dermatology practice I am asked by a patient for advice to fix their brittle, splitting fingernails. It's because the problem is so common!

Healing Insights for Splitting Fingernails and Cracked, Dry Skin

Just yesterday, an 80-year-old man who is one of my dermatology patients asked me why his splitting fingernails were dry and brittle on the ends.  He'd always had strong nails. He wanted to know if I thought Knox Gelatin Capsules would work for him; it's what his mother used when she had nail problems. They didn't work for her, but he didn't know what else to do.

Splitting and cracked fingernail problems can happen at any age, but it's definitely one of those “as we age” stories. If your nails are splitting, there are things you can do to improve them, but there are also common "remedies" that actually make the problem worse.

What causes brittle and splitting fingernails?

Your nails dry out as you age, losing their natural oils which act as a glue to hold the nail layers together.

If you have thin fingernails and dry skin to begin with, you can expect this to happen to you "sooner rather than later."  

Exposing your hands to harsh soaps, cleaning products, solvents, and rough work makes the problem worse because it pulls natural oil from your nails and damages the nail keratin protein. At first, your nails begin to "fray" on the edges, becoming brittle. Eventually, the layers split. 

Nail hardeners make the problem of nail splitting worse, too. This is because the alcohols, formaldehyde and other chemicals in the nail hardeners really dry out your natural oils. (Crazy fact: Nail hardeners actually contain more of these chemicals than nail polishes!  It's these chemicals that make the nails feel harder at first. But - whammo - after a few weeks, the splitting is worse than ever.)

heal cracked dry brittle splitting fingernails dermatologist tips

How do you fix cracked, dry and splitting nails?

Fixing your dry fingernails at home is easy. But it takes time and care. With these simple tips your nails will gradually improve. Your hand skin will feel better too.

Dermatologist's 3 Simple Tricks to Treat Cracked and Splitting Fingernails.

#1. Hydrate your nails and add oils. 

Bag Balm 1 oz best remedy for splitting fingernails

Do this by using creams, oils and ointments on your nails every day after they've been wet. My favorite remedy is good old fashioned Bag Balm which is made with wool alcohol (a.k.a. lanolin). Know that the thicker the cream, the better. Oil-rich products or ointments are best. The trick is to use something that stays put for a while and does not rub off right away. 

best hand cream to heal dry hands and fingernailsOne of my other favorite hydrating ingredients for nails is glycerin. It is in my Dry Skin Hand Cream.  This is a great product to apply to your hand and nails numerous times a day after washing. It is non-greasy and convenient making it easy to use. It's important to moisturize skin and nails immediately after water exposure: applying moisturizers to dry nails is not nearly as effective. 

Always apply moisturizer within minutes after your bath or shower, or after washing your hands.  Do it as often as possible.

dermatologist's personal tips to heal dry hands and splitting nailsI love this hand cream; I wash my hands so many times during my work day that they would be chapped and cracked if it weren't for my Dry Skin Hand Cream. I keep it in my lab coat pocket! Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey  

Use the Hand Cream many times during the day and the Bag Balm at bedtime to create an intensive healing treatment to help keep your nails from splitting. If your nails are really bad, you may want to even apply Bag Balm to them numerous times a day after washing your hands.

Best Dermatologist Approved Dry Skin Hand Repair KitMy Dry Skin Hand Repair Kit is a turn-key kit for hands and nail problems and is another great option to heal brittle nails. It contains Bag Balm with cotton gloves to give yourself a great hydrating nail and hand treatment at night without getting Bag Balm on your bedding. It also contains my Dry Skin Hand Cream and a non-drying hypoallergenic foaming hand cleanser that's gentle on nails and hand skin.

#2. Clip and file your nails when they're wet.

Clipping and filing dry nails makes the splits worse so always do it after water exposure. Towel off the water and then use sharp nail clippers to trim your nails, followed by gently filing the edges towards the top center. 

You can also very gently buff the nail edges to keep the splitting layers from catching on things and progressing down the nail.

#3. Wear gloves when you do rough work or get your hands into harsh chemicals.

Obviously, you want to protect your brittle and splitting nails from the things that make them worse. Harsh soaps and solvents pull out your nails' natural oils and damage nail proteins.

Do vitamin supplements or gelatin capsules help harden nails?

Gelatin capsules don’t work, but vitamin supplements formulated specifically for nail growth may help. I’ve had patients who feel that their nails grew a lot faster and stronger once they started taking supplements. Nail supplement formulations appear to vary, though most contain biotin.

Biotin is probably the best supplement ingredient to possibly help brittle nails.

I tell patients to go to their favorite, high-quality natural food store and ask the vitamin specialist for their best nail formula.  It's important to know that many of the ingredients in these supplements are lavishly present in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, natural oils, beans, and fish. 

Eating a richly nutritious diet is key to supporting healthy nails and vitamin supplements should be used in addition to, not in place of, a healthy diet.

Be patient. Your fingernails grow slowly at a rate of about 1mm per month.  As you age, the growth slows down even more.  This means it will take several months for the dry and split portion of your nails to grow out. 

If your entire nail is brittle, it could take as long as a year for your nails to improve. Keep up the good nail care, nutritious diet and your vitamin supplements, hang in there and don't give up!

Lastly, there are internal diseases that can affect splitting fingernails, the most common being thyroid problems and anemia.  Some skin diseases affect the nails as well and cause splitting.  If your nails don't improve, see your doctor.


Abdullah L, Abbas O., Common nail changes and disorders in older people: Diagnosis and management. Can Fam Physician. 2011;57(2):173–181.

Colombo, Victor E. et al., Treatment of brittle fingernails and onychoschizia with biotin: Scanning electron microscopy,  Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Volume 23, Issue 6, 1127 - 1132

For help with your splitting fingernails and dry skin, get more information here.