Nail problems

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Factors that can cause unhealthy or unsightly nails include poor hygiene, infections, trauma, underlying health problems, and poor nutritional status.


Signs of nail damage include fingernails or toenails that are:

  • Brittle and prone to splitting or breaking
  • Ridged
  • Crumbly
  • Pitted
  • Flaked
  • Thickened
  • Discoloured
  • In-grown
  • Painful
  • Spoon-shaped
  • Lifted from the nail BED

The surrounding tissue may also be affected, especially if an infection is present. For example, the presence of itching between the toes, thickening and cracking of the surrounding skin, and nails that are white or yellow in colour may be symptomatic of tinea (athlete’s foot).


Nail problems may be due to a wide range of different causes, including:

  • Trauma, whether due to an acute injury (e.g. dropping something on your toe), chronic injury (e.g. toes repeatedly butting up against running shoes), or the nails and surrounding tissues being too closely cropped during a manicure or pedicure.
  • Paronychia, an infection of the tissue around the nail, which is often caused by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. Paronychia is more likely to occur when the skin around the nail is damaged (for example by nail biting or exposure to irritating chemicals), allowing the infecting organism to enter the body.
  • Tinea, a contagious fungal infection that is often picked up by using communal showers (such as at the gym or pool). It is most likely to develop when the area between the toes is moist, as occurs with excessive perspiration or from not properly drying the area. Tinea and other fungal infections are more likely to affect people who are diabetic, spend long periods of time with the hands immersed in water, bite their nails, or use nail polish and artificial nails.
  • In-grown toenails occur when part of the nail grows into the skin. They may be due to the nails being trimmed too closely, or wearing shoes that constrict the toes. If not treated quickly, infection may develop. In-grown toenails are most likely to affect people with diabetes, as their peripheral circulation and nerve function may be damaged.
  • Skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis.
  • The use of certain medicines (e.g. some antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs and malaria drugs).
  • Certain chronic health problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and lung disease.
  • Cigarette smoking (which can cause discolouration).
  • Hands often being wet for extended periods of time (e.g. washing dishes), especially if detergent or soap is present at the same time.
  • Nutritional deficiency may lead to nails becoming weak, brittle and poorly formed. For example, a pale-coloured nail bed may indicate iron deficiency, and so may nails that are spoon-shaped (curled up at the edges) or flat. Many natural therapists also believe that a wide range of other nutritional deficiencies may be detrimental to nail health.

In addition, as we get older, the texture of our nails tends to change, and they are more likely to become ridged, brittle or discoloured. They also become thicker, and the growth rate tends to decline .

Diet and lifestyle

  • Take good care of your fingernails and toenails, and in particular, pay attention to hygiene.
  • Follow these hygiene practices to help prevent and treat tinea (athlete’s foot):
    • Keep your feet clean and dry.
    • Change your socks or stockings daily, and favour natural fibres such as cotton over synthetics. Where possible expose your feet to the air by wearing open-toed shoes.
    • Wear a pair of thongs or sandals when using communal showers or changing rooms.
    • Prevent the spread of infection by washing your hands after touching any infected area. Avoid sharing shoes, socks, or towels, and take the time to clean the bathroom and shower floor after use.
  • Soaking the affected hand or foot in warm water and antibacterial soap for fifteen minutes several times daily until the infection resolves will help treat other nail infections.
  • Both fungal and bacterial infections may respond to topical applications of tea tree oil, however, note that in some cases it may need to be used for several months before it is effective.
  • Wear protective gloves when immersing your hands in water or when using detergents, soaps, dyes or other chemicals. Gloves are also useful when performing activities where the hands may get injured, such as gardening.
  • Don’t bite your nails, as you’re more likely to injure them. Use a pair of nail clippers instead.
  • Manicures should be gentle. Take care not to trim your nails or cuticles too severely and always remove nail polish and artificial nails carefully.  In fact, many experts recommend that the cuticles should not be pushed back or trimmed at all, as this may increase the risk of infection and damage to the nail bed.  Nail polish should not be applied if an infection or open wound is present.
  • Limit your use of nail polish remover, especially if your nails are weak or brittle. The harsh solvents it contains may dry the nails, making them even more delicate.
  • Use hypoallergenic moisturising hand cream to keep the skin on your hands moist and supple, especially if you are prone to eczema.
  • Make sure your shoes fit well, and that they don’t restrict your feet or make them sweat excessively.
  • If you are diabetic or have poor circulation, see your podiatrist regularly to ensure your feet and nails remain in healthy condition.
  • Stop smoking.

Important notes

  • See your doctor if your nails suddenly develop horizontal ridges or become discoloured. These may be symptoms of serious health problems.
  • Talk to your doctor if your nail problems are associated with any other symptoms, or if you suspect that your prescribed medicines may be the cause of your nail problems.

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Hi Leigh

Thank you for your post. Biotin is an essential vitamin for the skin, hair and nails. Biotin may strengthen brittle nails and reduce breaking and splitting. It also may increase nail thickness. Wishing you all the best with your moving and unpacking. Kind regards, Emma (Blackmores naturopath)
normally soft nails now tearing more easily. Much stress - age 72 and moving/unpacking many heavy items.
Anonymous 13 Nov 2014

Hi Lynn
Biotin is an essential vitamin for the skin, hair and nails. Biotin may strengthen brittle nails and reduce breaking and splitting. It also may increase nail thickness. While zinc helps maintain the structural integrity of the nails, hair and skin. Vitamin C is also important in the production of collagen. I trust this is of assistance. If you require product recommendations or further advice you can contact us here on 1800 803 760. Kind regards, Emma Flett (Blackmores naturopath)

My nails have ridges that run down the nail not across, when they split they tend to split down the ridge, they are also quite soft and pliable. I started taking Q silica in liquid form about 3 months ago but will shortly change to tablet form for convienence. Can you please let me know if there is anything else I can do to strengthen my nails. cheers Lynn
Anonymous 07 Feb 2014
Dear Shelley,
The lifting off of the nail from the nail bed could potentially be due to infection. Apparently infection is quite a common complication of long term acrylic nail use .If infection is the cause; your client will probably need to go to the pharmacy and get specific antifungal treatment. Normal healthy nail growth usually takes up to 3 months so it does seem unusual that there has been no new “healthy” nail growth and that it appears unattached to the nail bed.
I suggest that your client goes to see their local pharmacist for assessment and appropriate treatment..
Please call the Naturopathic Advisory service 1800 803 760 if we can assist you any further.
Kind regards, Rebekah (a Blackmores naturopath)
I have a client who has had acrylic nails continuously for 18 years, she has now one nail 3/4 lifted from the nail bed, over the past 8 months it has remained that way with no sign of growing out, could this be permanent damage? What do you recommend?
Anonymous 09 Jan 2014
Hi Robert,

Brittle nails can be sign of nutrient deficiency which may be due to a variety of reasons including: insufficient nutrients in your diet, low stomach acid, poor digestive function and poor, absorption of nutrients from the diet. It could also be due to environment issues such as prolonged exposure of nails to liquids or various chemicals. Nutrients which may be of benefit for absorption and dietary issues include iron and vitamin B12 . Other nutrients to look out for include zinc, silica, biotin and essential fatty acids.

It sounds like you would benefit from concentrating on a wholefood, nutrient-rich diet with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, good quality proteins (lean red meat, organic chicken, cold water fish, eggs), nuts, and seeds whilst supplementing with a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement. Herbs such as horsetail and nettle could be taken as herbal teas as these will provide additional iron, silica, potassium, magnesium and other minerals. A fish oil supplement may also be beneficial for you. To speak with a Blackmores naturopath for advice more specific to your circumstances please feel free to contact the Blackmores Advisory service on 1800 803 760 or email Kind regards, Leanne (Blackmores naturopath)
Hi Prue,

I do apologize for not responding to your post sooner! You are in quite a tricky situation as long-term exposure of your nails and skin to chlorinated water is unavoidable.

A supplement which includes nutrients such as zinc, silica, biotin, essential fatty acids and iron (if indicated) could be of benefit in your case, to support the nails and skin. To speak with a Blackmores naturopath for advice more specific to your circumstances please feel free to give us a call. All the best, Leanne (Blackmores naturopath)