Our nails have a number of functions, from protecting the tips of fingers and toes to helping us grasp and dig. Even if you’re not really using them as a multipurpose tool, you probably want them to look and feel strong. Although they’re not always painful, peeling nails can be the result of external damage or a sign of an internal condition.
Nails are made of a strong protein called keratin, which also makes up hair; this protein forms in layers, which, when they’re in good shape, stay together to form a strong nail. Nails can become thinner and brittle, causing them to peel and spilt — this condition is called onychoschizia.
The damage that causes nails to spot can be from an external source, such as excessive water exposure, which weakens the nail, trauma from being overused, or habitual picking at nails or nail polish. External causes are the most common source of splitting nails, although in some rare cases they can be the result of an internal issue, usually a vitamin deficiency — low iron levels are the most likely.
One way to help tell the difference between an internal and external cause of splitting nails is to look at both fingers and toes: if your fingernails are splitting or peeling but your toenails are not (which is common), it’s likely that external damage is to blame, but if both are peeling it’s probably internal.
Splitting nails usually look worse than they feel: in most cases they’re not painful. If your nails bleed, develop deep splits or grooves, or cause you pain, you should consult a doctor. In most cases however, they can be treated easily at home: if you suspect a vitamin deficiency, a supplement for iron or biotin can help, as well as increasing your iron intake in your diet. Keeping nails moisturized with hand lotion and protecting them from water by wearing gloves when washing dishes can help them recover and also prevent future splitting. You may also try a nail-strengthening nail polish for added protection and nutrition.