Brittle nails can have many causes—age, diet, wearing polish for too long, or just bad luck. But there are plenty of natural ways you can restore nail health.
Here, the 11 best (and research-backed) tips to help you get longer and stronger nails:
Use a natural nail strengthener
Nail hardeners and strengtheners were traditionally made made with formaldehyde (it's what makes the polish dry so stiff).
This is why most natural or clean-leaning experts would tell you to avoid them, says Nadine Abramcyk, co-founder of clean salon tenoverten, as formaldehyde is a potentially dangerous ingredient.
Take a collagen or biotin supplement
Studies indicate that collagen supplements can support healthy nail growth.*
Avoid alcohol-based sanitizers
Of course, hand sanitizers are often necessary—and you should continue to use them when needed—however, just know they might be the cause of nail brittleness.
Traditional hand sanitizers are very drying to your skin. (You can thank the high alcohol content, which is often north of 90%.) Alcohol in skin care of any kind is very drying, and it's often an ingredient we are told to avoid by dermatologists if you have any sensitive skin woes.
"Alcohol, the active ingredient in most sanitizers, will dry out your hands and strip the skin of its natural barrier," says board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D.
If your nails are consistently brittle, consider switching to a non-alcohol-based option or just apply hand moisturizers more regularly.
Don't soak nails in water
Water causes nails to expand and contract, and doing so regularly or for long periods of time will make them weaker. (It's why you're told to avoid water or showers up to 24 hours after getting a manicure or pedicure while the polish sets. The stretch from water can cause the polish to chip prematurely.)
Wear gloves while doing the dishes, and try to keep them dry when possible.
Wear gloves while cleaning
Along the same lines as above—wearing gloves while washing dishes—also keep gloves on while doing home chores.
Some common natural cleaning agents—like soap, vinegar, and lemon extract for example—are often drying and can be harsh for the hands and nails.
Keep them protected from the sun
Like the rest of your body, nails can get sun damage, too. They can yellow, turn brittle, or even develop vertical ridges that can last up to six months.
You can also develop skin cancer under the nail. As for protection, most colored nail polishes will act as a physical barrier to UV damage, but you can find clear or nude polish with UV protection (it will indicate so on the label).
Practice nail hygiene
Don't confuse this with getting a manicure regularly (experts suggest getting no more than two salon manicures a month). However, you can keep chips at bay by keeping nails clipped, filed, and cleaned—or it at least limits the chances of snagging and breaking nails. "It’s important to care for the entire nail area so that your nails stay healthy in general," says board-certified holistic dermatologist Keira Barr, M.D.
Consider your diet
There are a few nutritional deficiencies that contribute to brittle, damaged nails3 research shows.
The most common deficiencies are iron, vitamin B7, B12, magnesium, and proteins. Of course, changing your diet won't be an immediate fix, it will help your nails over time.
If you suspect a deficiency might be the cause of your brittle nails, see a doctor to get tested.
Limit the exposure to cold
When the temperature drops and there's less moisture in the air, it can dehydrate the nail bed in the same way that cold, arid environments can lead to dehydrated skin.
"Your environment affects all parts of your body, so of course it will affect your skin. But the winter is drier, so that's when we need to focus on adding moisture, preventing water loss, and making sure the skin barrier is supported, as it becomes easily compromised when it's dry," says board-certified dermatologist Howard Murad, M.D.
While you can't control the weather, be sure to wear warm gloves or mittens when outdoors as not to expose them to the elements.
Apply a cuticle oil daily
The cuticle is a vital part of nail health, as it overlaps the nail plate and rims the base of the nail. And dry, frayed cuticles—as well as the skin around your cuticles— can lead to picking.
Barr agrees: “The matrix is the part of the nail that constantly produces new keratin at the nail plate and slowly pushes the nail forward causing it to grow. Damage to this part of the nail can interfere with growth.”
If applying a daily cuticle oil seems like an arduous extra step, don't worry: You don't need a special oil for this.
And then just remember to rub the oil into the cuticles when you are applying your full-body moisturizer, as usual.
Use a natural exfoliator
Sometimes nails need exfoliation, too. Don't take a scrub to your fingers, however (far too abrasive).
Instead, opt for a gentle, natural chemical exfoliator. Research suggests that glycolic acid can help with restoring nail strength4.
It's a common skin care ingredient—in peels, pads, or serums—so simply rub it in your nails once a week.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.