It can be quite scary to look down at your fingernails and notice that they’ve started to peel. But before you hit the panic button and go down a Google rabbit hole and come to the absurd conclusion that your hands will surly fall off, know that you’re not alone. Peeling nails, medically known as onychoschizia, can be caused by a variety of factors — some more series than others.
Everything from picking at your nails to peeling off gel, damage from extensions like acrylic nails, and fungal infections can cause peeling nails. However, before you go jumping to conclusions, it’s important to seek a professional evaluation from a dermatologist. They can conduct a thorough assessment — including nail sampling if necessary — to determine why you’re experiencing peeling fingernails in the first place. From there, you can work on treating the problem and restoring the health of your nails.
Ahead, we’ve consulted with two board-certified dermatologists to determine the most common nail peeling causes and the treatment options available to you. Keep reading for more information.
Why Are My Nails Peeling?
According to Kseniya Kobets, MD, MHS, FAAD, director of cosmetic dermatology at Montefiore Advanced Care, “Peeling nails can exhibit symptoms such as brittleness, dryness, detachment from the nail bed, or peeling off at the tips over time.” Dr. Kobets explains that several factors can contribute to this condition, including disruption or infection of the nail matrix, as well as inflammation resulting from conditions like eczema, viral infections, or psoriasis, which can hinder nail growth. Fungal and bacterial infections can lead to peeling, with fungal infections affecting the nail itself and bacterial infections impacting the skin surrounding the nail. Additionally, “the use of mechanical filing and drilling during manicures, as well as the application of nail polish or acrylic nails, can also cause nail damage,” she says.
It’s likely the reason your nails are peeling isn’t health related at all. “The most common cause of peeling nails is repetitive wetting or drying of the nails,” says board-certified dermatologist Nazanin Saedi, MD FAAD. She explains that excessive exposure to water or wetness can make the nails soft and brittle. Trauma, such as picking off nail polish or frequently getting gel manicures or acrylic nails, can also contribute. So, if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why is the top layer of my nails peeling off?” after getting a manicure, you have your answer. Other causes include nutritional deficiencies (such as iron), hypothyroidism, kidney dysfunction, and certain medications like chemotherapy.
“Regardless of what your manicurist may tell you, all types of nail polish, gel, or powder contain chemicals that can damage the nails,” says Dr. Koberts. While longer-lasting and hard manicures like dip powder can help the nails grow by temporarily strengthening them, they can still cause damage and thinning — especially during the removal process. It’s important not to keep long-lasting powder or acrylic nails on for an extended period of time — four to six weeks is the maximum recommendation. Longer, and you increase your risk of fungal infections.
Treatments For Peeling Nails
Maintaining healthy hand hygiene is crucial for nail health. If you frequently engage in housework or other activities that are hard on your hands, Dr. Kobets suggests wearing gloves and using a hydrating hand wash whenever possible. Using a hydrating hand cream can also help protect the skin barrier, lock in moisture, and nourish your fingertips. Keeping hands moisturized is essential, especially if you wash them frequently, as it can prevent the skin around the nails from peeling. For individuals with sensitive skin, Dr. Kobets recommends using thick hand creams that contain ceramides. And for a more targeted treatment, try using a cuticle oil or cream to promote healthy nail growth.
For any progressive nail issues, Dr. Koberts recommends getting an evaluation by a board-certified dermatologist. They can check for any underlying medical issues by screening for anemia, thyroid disorders, and vitamin deficiencies. “If there are low values, supplementation should be started under the guidance of a primary care provider,” she says. To promote nail growth, supplements may be effective but you should always consult with your doctor before adding a new one into your routine.