Fingernails misshapen

Dear Alice,

I'm a forty-five-plus-year-old woman and have noticed that my fingernails have become quite misshapen over the past few years. Some are quite flat, while others curl down at the sides. They are also very easily damaged — they thin and flake easily at the ends. What can I do diet-wise to strengthen them?

— Nailpolish

Dear Nailpolish,

Increasing your nail knowledge is a great way to keep your fingers looking fancy. While you’ve hit the nail on the head about supporting nail health through your diet, there are a few other factors that can impact your nails. Other than the nutrients you get from what you eat, general nail care, environmental exposures, and underlying medical conditions can also impact nail appearance and growth. However, some changes may improve with do-it-yourself strategies, while others may require help from a health care provider. Need more nail know-how? Read on!

As you suggested, nails rely on a variety of nutrients to stay strong and maintain their shape and color. When a person is deficient in certain nutrients, it may result in noticeable changes to the nails. For example, it's been noted that not having enough iron can result in dry and brittle nails. Similarly, a zinc deficiency can also result in dry and white flecks on the nails and not getting enough calcium could also cause white lines on nails or they may become soft (leading to more breakage). Being evaluated for nutrient deficiency by a medical professional may determine the best route for treating it (if diagnosed) and for seeing improvements in your nails.

While a nutritious diet supports nail health (and really, overall health) from the inside out, what comes in contact with the outside of your nails can impact how they look as well. Excessive immersion of hands in water with detergents, disinfectants, and soap may may be damaging to nails. Additionally, cold weather and wind can be tough on nails. Protecting nails from harmful environmental exposures is keyStrategies to reduce the impact of these exposures include wearing plastic gloves while doing dishes and wearing gloves when outside in winter weather.

To protect your nails even further, some general nail hygiene tips include kept short, clean, and dry. If you enjoy using certain nail products, paying attention to how they could be affecting your nails is wise. For instance, some nail polish colors are more prone to staining nails, while nail polish remover and enamels can dry them out. Despite their name, some nail hardeners (such as those that contain formaldehyde) can make brittle nails even more brittle. Likewise, artificial nails, nail wraps, and gel and shellac nail manicures could also impact the appearance and health of natural nails. So, if you're using any of these products and have noticed changes, you might consider taking a break from them for a bit and just letting your nails be natural.

As mentioned, maintaining a nutritious diet and physically protecting your nails might not be enough to see improvements in your nails. In some cases, changes, such as clubbing, may indicate an underlying medical condition (for more on these indicators and possible conditions, take a look at Fingernails as health indicator) If you think this may be the case or are still concerned about the more recent changes in the way your nails look, you may consider making an appointment with your health care provider. They can take a closer look at your nails and provide insight on what your next steps could be.

Hope this helps!

Last updated Jun 09, 2017
Originally published May 18, 1995

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