Why Your Nails Are Peeling in Layers and How to Stop It From Happening

November 15, 2022
Samantha Holender
By: Samantha Holender | Makeup.com by L'Oréal
Image of a model painting her nails with cuticle oil on a yellow graphic background, with a text box that says "Beauty Q&A"

If your nails were once long, strong and healthy, but lately they’ve been dry, brittle and peeling, don’t worry — you may not need to give up your monthly gel manicures entirely or even make particularly drastic changes to your nail-care routine. You might, however, have to start giving your nails some extra TLC. Below, we spoke to nail experts and a dermatologist to find out how to address peeling nails and restore them back to their original strength. Ahead, find out more about some potential causes of peeling nails — and how to make it stop if it has to do with your manicure habits. 

Why Are My Nails Peeling?  

Here’s the good news: Depending on how frequently you’re getting them and the application technique, getting a gel manicure won’t necessarily harm your natural nail and or cause peeling (phew!). That said, when they’re not applied or removed correctly, all bets are off and you’re entering dangerous nail-health territory. “Gels are great at hiding nail imperfections, but the issue of peeling could have been going on a lot longer than you realize,” says Essie Global Lead Educator Rita Remark. “Over-buffing between gel manicures and prying the gels off your nails as opposed to gently soaking them can thin, harm and separate the layers of your nails.” Whether you’re DIY-ing your gel mani at home or going into a salon, make sure to be gentle with your buffing tools or nail file, and refrain from picking off your polish. 

So if gel manicures themselves aren’t causing the peeling, what does? “Peeling nails, or onychoschizia, is the result of trauma to the nail,” says Dr. Melanie Palm, a board-certified dermatologist at Art of Skin MD in San Diego, California. Trauma includes over-buffing or filing of the nail when removing gels or acrylics, biting your nails and even repeatedly washing your hands with hot water. “Exposure to extreme water temperatures like dish washing with hot water and hot showers should be avoided,” notes Tina Wang, owner of Lunula Salon in Brooklyn, New York. “This dries out the nails and can lead to peeling.”

Peeling nails could also be indicative of an underlying health issue, such as a fungal infection, a thyroid disorder or a nutrient deficiency, says Dr. Palm. If you have any concerns about the cause of your nail peeling, see a physician to find out if any of the underlying health causes are applicable to you.

Peeling Nails and Vitamin Deficiencies 

“Nutrient deficiencies in iron, vitamin D, biotin and calcium are typically associated with peeling nails,” says Dr. Palm. “These vitamins and minerals are critical in building and strengthening keratin, the tissue that nails are made of.” In addition to taking supplements that include these vitamins, Dr. Palm recommends eating a diet “rich in leafy greens, fruits and lean proteins” to support the health of your nails. Again, check with your doctor before changing your diet or taking any supplements to see if they’re the right choice for you.

How to Stop and Prevent Nails From Peeling

Start by paying attention to the everyday habits that could be damaging your nails, from washing your dishes (or your hands themselves) in scalding hot water to picking off your acrylics instead of getting them soaked off at a salon. “When you start focusing on your hands more, you may start realizing that we put them through a lot!” says Wang. For more pro tips on how to keep your nails from peeling, keep reading. 

11 Pro Tips to Strengthen Your Nails

Tip #1: Don’t Pull Off the Layer

While it can be tempting to rip off the peeling layer of your nail (trust us, we understand the urge), Remark advises against it. “It’s admittedly super satisfying to peel off the layer, but it’s important not to,” she says. “The goal is to have the peeled layers slowly grow off of the nail and for it to re-mend on its own.” 

Tip #2: Keep Nails on the Shorter Side 

Due to peeling, the tip of your nail can be really strong on one side, but super weak and at risk of breaking down the center on the other side. Rather than trying to preserve your length, cut your nails a little shorter. “The tips of your nails are literally split ends, and they need a trim, so keep them short until the layers grow out,” says Remark. “Otherwise you’re putting stress on the nail and promoting more peeling.” Be sure to use a nail trimmer to cut your nails instead of filing them down, as improper nail filing can lead to more breakage.

Tip #3: File Your Nails With Care

This nail filing guide will provide you with all the details you need to properly file your nails, but we’ll give you the TL;DR version of it here: Filing nails is for shaping your nails, not removing length, and should only be done on dry nails. You should also only file your nails in one direction at a time, rather than using a back-and-forth or sawing motion in order to prevent chipping and peeling.

Tip #4: Buy a Pair of Dish Gloves

When you use hot water to wash your dishes, you may be getting rid of all the grime on your plates, but you’re also drying out your nails, which could lead to peeling. Buy yourself a pair of thick rubber gloves so you can get your dishes sparkling clean without compromising the health of your nails. Using gloves when washing dishes will also help prevent regular polish from chipping prematurely. You can find some surprisingly cute sets of dish gloves online, including this muted coral pair from Amazon

Tip #5: Stop Opening Things With Your Nails

Yes, popping a can of soda open with the tip of your nail is extremely satisfying, but Dr. Palm says that using your nails to pry things open could also lead to damage. Instead, be gentle with your nails, and try to use the tip of your finger to open things (or even the tongs of a fork to get underneath that soda can tab).

Tip #6: Consult Your Doctor

“If you suspect your nails are brittle due to a health condition or nutrient deficiency, consult with your dermatologist or doctor,” says Dr. Palm. Before making any changes to your diet or taking any supplements, it’s always important to speak with your doctor first. 

Tip #7: Apply a Strengthening Nail Polish

To help resist the urge to pick and pull, try using a strengthening nail polish to bond the layers together as they grow out. We recommend the Essie Hard to Resist Nail Strengthener Treatment, a translucent polish that uses nail bonding technology to strengthen nails and help them appear smoother, shinier and less fragile. Simply apply two coats to bare nails and let dry as you would a regular nail polish — after just three days, you should start to notice your nails become less brittle.  


Essie Hard to Resist Nail Strengthener Treatment

Tip #8: Use a Cuticle Oil

Remark says that unless your nail has been physically damaged, most of the weakness is a result of dehydration. She suggests using a cuticle oil, like the Essie Apricot Cuticle Oil, around the nail area to get your nails back on a healthy path. Wang notes that it’s especially important to apply cuticle oil after you’ve wet your hands — she suggests reapplying up to three times a day. 


Essie Apricot Cuticle Oil

Tip #9: Make Sure Your Nail Enhancements Are Removed the *Right* Way

As celebrity manicurist Julie Kandalec told us, acrylics don’t actually damage the nail. “Like other nail enhancements, the damage comes from improper prep, application or most commonly, removal; aka the person doing them or removing them,” she previously explained to Makeup.com. Make sure your gel, dip powder and acrylic nails are being soaked off properly, instead of being torn or ripped off your nails. We have a guide to help you gently remove acrylic and dip powder nails at home here. 

Tip #10: Take a Break From Nail Enhancements

If your gel or acrylic nails have been taken off improperly, both Dr. Palm recommends giving your natural nails a break from them. “It’s worth noting [that] overusing acetone, a commonly used nail polish remover, can weaken your nails,” she says, so leaving your nails bare as they recover and just using cuticle oil and a nail strengthener to hydrate them could be beneficial during these breaks. 

Tip #11: Prioritize Hydration

According to Dr. Palm, your nails can fluctuate in hydration very rapidly, even faster than your skin can. “For this reason, it’s great to wash your hands, but it’s very important that you use a moisturizer afterwards to lock in moisture and keep nails healthy,” she says. We recommend applying the CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream, which treats your skin to softening ceramides, soothing niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. 

CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream

Additional reporting by Ariel Wodarcyk. Design: Juliana Campisi

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