There are so many supplements being touted for dry skin, brittle hair, and brittle nails these days. And people think that because skin, hair, and nails all contain keratin, what works for one must work for all three. But the truth is that only a few supplements have been tested for treating all three problems in humans—and without much success—so I’m tackling each condition individually.
One caveat: If your nails, hair, and skin are healthy but you want them to look even better, supplements won’t help. You may see claims that vitamins C and D, gelatin, amino acids, essential fatty acids, and even biotin can help make a difference, but there’s simply no research that these supplements work with already healthy tissue. Many of the claims are based on rare deficiency syndromes that when corrected can improve nails, hair, and skin.
What is Brittle Nail Syndrome?
Brittle nail syndrome, or BNS, is characterized by rough, ragged, and peeling nails. Approximately 30 percent of women and 15 percent of men experience it, and it’s more common with age. In BNS, the nails become soft, dry, and weak and they chip, peel, and break easily. The nail tips may split (a condition called onychoschizia) or the nail plate— the rest of the visible part that sits on top of your skin—may form longitudinal ridges (a condition called onychorrhexis, or senile nail).
Most cases of BNS are idiopathic, which means doctors are stumped about the cause. Aging may be the biggest risk factor, simply because our bodies aren’t as productive and efficient as they used to be at keeping all of our tissues healthy, and one of the areas where this shows up is the nails (and hair).
In rare cases, BNS can be caused by an iron or zinc deficiency. It can also be a side effect of underlying problems, such as gout, osteoporosis, peripheral artery disease, and gastrointestinal and eating disorders; basically any medical issue that affects the entire body will also impact the nails.
Home Remedies For Brittle Nails
1. Silicon (the ch-OSA form) 10 milligrams daily (5 milligrams in the morning and evening)
This mineral is found throughout the body, and it helps with the formation of proteins in your hair, nails, and skin. Studies have shown that taking 10 milligrams daily of a form of silicon called choline-stabilized orthosilicic acid (ch-OSA) for 20 weeks reduced nail (and hair) brittleness and might even reduce skin roughness caused by the sun. (Note: This is the rare supplement that may be beneficial for all three conditions.)
Other forms of silicon might deliver results as well, but there hasn’t been enough human testing yet to give them my official stamp of approval, so I recommend the ch-OSA form. One word of warning: Excessive amounts of silicon from supplements can increase the risk of kidney stones, so more is not better.
2. Biotin (B7) 1 to 3 milligrams daily (1,000 to 3,000 micrograms)
Farmers and ranchers have used biotin for years to treat abnormal horse hooves and pig claws, so researchers decided to test its effectiveness in several small human studies and noticed a benefit. Based on the research, daily supplementation for 6 to 15 months with doses ranging from 1 to 3 milligrams (1,000 to 3,000 micrograms) resulted in stronger, thicker, and smoother nails with fewer ridges.
Brittleness generally returned within about 10 weeks after quitting, and the only side effect most subjects experienced was mild stomach upset. In horses and pigs, biotin supplements correct a nutrient deficiency, but researchers aren’t sure if it works the same way in humans.
Biotin deficiency is rare today, but it can be caused by a limited diet, regular consumption of large amounts of raw eggs (a compound in uncooked egg whites binds to biotin so it doesn’t get absorbed), intestinal absorption problems, and some medications (like antibiotics and anticonvulsants). Keep in mind that all the good research has been conducted with oral dietary supplements; topical biotin has not been proven to work.
3. Iron only as directed by your physician
It’s somewhat rare for people to suffer true nutrient deficiencies that can lead to BNS or brittle hair syndrome (BHS), but iron is the one exception. Iron helps the blood carry oxygen throughout the body, and it’s also used in all the cells. Low iron stores can easily cause brittle nails and even hair loss because the cells aren’t getting sufficient nutrition and oxygen to grow. While iron deficiency is arguably the most common nutrient shortage in the world, you should only supplement this mineral if directed by your doctor since getting too much iron is just as dangerous as not getting enough.
Certain foods can hinder or improve absorption of iron, but I always just recommend taking it by itself between meals (an hour before or a couple of hours after) or at bedtime, when your gastric juices are most active, which is better for absorption.
Work with your doctor to find the correct dose for you because iron can cause stomach upset, constipation, and other problems (don’t be surprised if your stools turn dark; this is common and harmless). Like most supplements, iron comes in various forms; some of the most common are ferrous sulfate, ferrous gluconate, ferrous fumarate, and ferrous lactate.
You may find that you tolerate one better than another, so don’t give up after trying one type. Also, some people prefer enteric-coated supplements because they cause fewer stomach problems, but I’ve found that they’re less effective, primarily because the coating prevents the iron from being fully absorbed in the small intestine.
What Are Useless For Treating Brittle Nail?
People take this for a variety of reasons, but in high dosages (more than 200 micrograms per day), selenium can actually cause weak or brittle nails or nail loss and brittle and discolored hair and hair loss.
Calcium and vitamins A and D
I can’t tell you how many times during the past 20 years someone has come up to me and sworn that calcium supplements can improve brittle nails or hair. They think that because calcium is good for bones, it must help nails and hair as well, but this is a myth. Calcium does not make nails harder.
And since there is so much calcium in our diets today, getting too much of it from supplementation can increase the risk of kidney stones or potentially cause calcification of the arteries. There’s no research showing any nail or hair benefits from vitamins A and D either.
What Lifestyle Changes Can Help With Brittle Nail Treatment?
There is a small amount of clinical research suggesting that our food and water intake diminishes as we age, which can make BNS worse, so a healthy diet and adequate hydration are key. Also, one study showed that overwashing and over-drying hands and nails can increase the risk of BNS (germaphobes, consider yourself warned). Other tips for reducing your risk of BNS include: filing nails in one direction only, wearing gloves to reduce trauma to the nails or exposure to harsh chemicals, keeping nails short, and limiting the use of nail polish removers and artificial nails.
What Else to Know About Treating Brittle Nail Syndrome?
There aren’t really any effective drugs (over the counter or prescription) for BNS —and none have yet proven to be better than dietary supplements—but tazarotene cream (0.1 percent) applied twice daily for 24 weeks is showing promise in preliminary research.