Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

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Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

The Balancing Act

Natural nails are a composite of keratin cells and the perfect balance of 18% moisture (water) and 5% oil.

  • Nails with too much water are spongy and overly flexible like particle board left out in the rain.
  • Nails with too little water break and crack like brightly colored autumn leaves.
Disclaimer: I am not a nail tech and I don’t have a science degree. What I do have is a great skill at doing thorough research and taking complex topics and simplifying them so the rest of us can understand … And I just happen to be very geeky about nails because Nail Structure and Product Chemistry by Doug Schoon is my Nail Bible … I credit all of the sciencey stuff to Mr. Schoon and the fun analogies are mine … yep, totally geeky … so, on with the show. ~Ana

The Ultimate Water Trap 

That magic 5% of oil is all that’s required to trap the perfect amount of moisture in the nails. But not all oils are created equal.

Of course, the best oil is the one your body produces in the nourishing layer of pinkish tissue under your nail plate—the nail bed.

This is tissue very similar to the inside lining of your mouth—and if you’ve ever lost your nail, then you know it’s skin that has tons of nerve endings and hurts like the bajesus! Speaking from personal experience when I was about 8 years old and slammed my thumb in the car door.

My nail turned green and then fell off exposing the tender nail bed, which I seemed to bump everywhere…over 2 months of excruciating pain… but I digress….

100 Layers of  Keratin Cells

Your nail is made up of approximately 100 layers of dead, densely packed, flattened keratin cells, which are magnified about 400 times in the photo below. Toe nails have about 150 layers. Keratin is extremely important to the natural nail’s flexibility.
Nail Keratin magnif frame Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

Like A Sponge

A normal nail plate can hold almost one-third it’s own weight in water! I’m sure you’ve noticed that after you’ve been in the shower or bath for too long.

Through a process called diffusion, water and oil travel between the 100 layers of cells as well as the microscopic spaces between the cells. 

Water molecules are so small that can travel through and between the cells. Oil molecules are larger and can only go between the cells.

Houston, We Have a Problem

Nails are exposed to two major solvents; water and polish removers.

The average person washes their hands with soap 12 to 20 times per day with harsh, antibacterial soaps.

  1. Your nails soak up the water
  2. Soap washes away your nail’s oil
  3. Water evaporates out of your nail even quicker … Rinse and repeat  :D

Because the nail’s oil has been washed away, water evaporates even more. Now your perfect 18% water/5% oil balance is down the drain. You have nails that are dry and crispy, waiting to snap the next time you bump them.

acetone peeling nails e1348867329791 Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

Lacquer Lovers Beware

Peeling and Splitting?

Anything that dries out the nail plate will also lower flexibility and toughness, this includes acetone AND non-acetone polish removers. Many people think that non-acetone removers are safer and less damaging. This just isn’t true. Acetone is the better choice since it dissolves the polish quicker. Less time scrubbing equals less drying damage to your nails.

Acetone and the ingredients in non-acetone remover (ethyl acetate & methyl ethyl ketone) are all safe solvents when used sparingly. When used only once a week, the drying effect is temporary and quickly corrects itself.

peeling nails book Simple Nail Art Tips 300x223 Why Do Nails Peel and Split? Picture your nail’s 100 keratin layers like the paper pages of a book. The paper fibers interlock tightly together very similarly to the keratin cells in each keratin layer of your nails.

The spine of the book is like your cuticle. Brand new, the book pages stack together perfectly flat. Everything lies smoothly.

What happens when the book’s pages get wet? The water gets absorbed into the paper fibers, they relax, and spread out. 

And when the pages dry? The paper’s fibers are still spread out so the pages dry warped and the layers of the pages don’t fit nicely together any more.

My Nails Are Tougher Than a Book

But you might be thinking, “Ana, my nails get wet over and over and this little book analogy isn’t right.” And you’re right … up to a point. And the point is when your nails start peeling and cracking.

Too much exposure to water over a period of time weakens the nail plate and leads to all kinds of damage. This is what peeling nails look like under an electron microscope. A little different than the nice, flat picture at the top of this post. Huh?
delaminated peeling nails magnified Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

What’s The Solution?

Well … since I can’t recommend no hand washing, the only other option is to put the oil back in your nails.

Remember when I said not all oils are created equally? Many people have rubbed avocado, canola, mineral, or olive oil into their nails with no progress. The reason is because the oil molecules are too large. They can not get into the keratin layers so they just sit on top.
Jojoba fruit peeling nails 300x218 Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

Jojoba’s History

Although Jojoba Oil has been around since 1822, it gained notoriety in 1971 when the United States banned the import of sperm whale oil which was used extensively in the cosmetics industry.  The industry was forced to search for a substitute and Jojoba was discovered to be ideal. 

Without getting too geeky on you, most vegetable seed oils are triglycerides. Jojoba oil is made of long-chain fatty acids and fatty alcohols with no side branching. This unique chemical configuration accords jojoba special characteristics unparalleled in the plant kingdom. (Hort.Purdue.Edu)

How It’s Different

Jojoba oil is the same molecular size as the human body’s own oil, sebum. Since jojoba oil contains wax esters and fatty acids that are similar to human sebum, it’s a favorite ingredient in cosmetics and skin products. (eHow.com)

Why It Works

“Oils are absorbed into the nail plate to keep it flexible, but much more slowly than water. Just as oils are absorbed more slowly into the nail plate, it is also more difficult for the oils to escape. Therefore, oils stay in the plate for a very long time and can exert a dramatic long-term influence on the durability of the natural nail plate.” (Nail Structure and Product Chemistry Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

What to Look For in a Nail Oil

As you can probably tell by now, your nail oil MUST have jojoba oil, and preferably near the beginning of the ingredient list. 

jojoba oil Ana Simple Nail Art Tips 249x300 Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

How To Apply Nail Oil

The First Three (3) Days

Your nails will absorb the oil like a sponge so you will be reapplying frequently

  1. Remove all nail polish
  2. Follow the application directions below. When you’re finished, your nails will feel a little oily.
  3. Periodically through the next hour or two, rub the oil into your nails. Each time you do this the nails will feel less oily. 
  4. When you feel the oil has been absorbed, reapply. 
  5. Repeat step 4 for the first three days. When you get to the point that it takes your nails 4 hours or more to absorb the oil, you can move to the basic daily application.

Basic Daily Application: Two Times (2x) Daily or More

  1. Uncap the pen, twist end until you see oil in the bristles
  2. Brush oil all over your nail, cuticle, sidewalls and under your free edge of the nail
  3. Recap pen
  4. With your fingers, rub the oil into your nails and fingers up to the knuckle closest to your nail. 
  5. Spend a little time rubbing the matrix (right behind the cuticle) 
    *  This increases the blood flow to where your nail is formed so they will be stronger and healthier.
  6. Continue using this oil applications with lacquer manicures, acrylic or gel manicures.
    * Just as your nails are not solid, neither is lacquer, acrylic monomers or gel. Jojoba oil is absorbed into all of these products and keep them more flexible because they aren’t drying out.

Polishing After Nail Oil

  1. Using 91% rubbing alcohol or acetone, quickly clean the surface of your nail. This will remove the oil sitting on top of your nail for better adhesion of your lacquer.
  2. Polish your nails with your favorite base coat. 
  • Base coat a must! 
  • Base coats have a high percentage of a resin which improves nail plate adhesion and blocks staining. 
  • Topcoats generally have high amounts of nitrocellulose to improve wear by coating the polish with a protective shield while increasing gloss. 
  • Base coats and topcoats are not interchangeable.

Removing Nail Polish

Use Acetone

Since acetone works quicker than the non-acetone ingredients, which causes you to rub and scrub more, it’s actually better to use acetone to remove your nail polish.


Just wash your hands when finished to get a bit of water back in your nails and then rub in your nail oil thoroughly.
How has this article helped you? Comment below….Red Arrow 300x100 Why Do Nails Peel and Split?
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12 Responses to Why Do Nails Peel and Split?

  1. Donna K September 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm #

    This is probably the best explanation I have ever read regarding nail splitting. I’ll start this regimen when I get back from a trip. my nails are splitting so bad. I had not having anything on them at all. but i guess if I have to constantly put the oil on for the first few days, it will be all worth it. Thanks so much!!!!

  2. MY Nail Journey September 28, 2012 at 10:21 pm #

    Wow! This is super helpful and very informative! That you for putting this together.

  3. Ana September 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    You’re welcome and thank you so much Donna! Your nails will tell you how much they need. You’ll be surprised how much they absorb the 1st day. By the 3rd day, you should see a dramatic difference in the number of hours it takes before your nails need more oil. ~Ana

  4. Ana September 29, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    You’re welcome Melissa! What was the most interesting thing you learned?

  5. Thea January 7, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    I love this article! Was coming to a point where I was starting to throw the towel in on my peeling nails but this is super informative! Just 2 questions regarding the nail oil recipe. How vital is the Vitamin A in the recipe? I am really struggling to find Vitamin A oil and want to make a batch so badly! And what essential oil is the best? Went to a health shop and they have quite a few! From chamomile to lavender to rose hip! Yes I can order it from you but the shipping to South Africa is…..ouch! (Not your fault, I know!) Thanks for the awesome article! I can see that this seriously took a lot of hard work and research!

  6. Brittany Dee January 3, 2014 at 8:28 am #

    Oh my goodness! Thank you for ACTUALLY explaining things!!! This is the best thing I have read on the subject and I think I might love you;) haha! But really I am ordering a giant thing of jajoba oil right now….

  7. Brittany Dee January 3, 2014 at 8:29 am #

    And I didn’t mean to say “thing” so many times just then. I am normally more eloquent. :P

  8. Anton July 15, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    Finally i quit my regular job, now i earn a lot of money on-line you should
    try too, just type in google – bluehand roulette system

  9. Alpsnailart November 15, 2014 at 7:03 am #

    This Article is so helpful. I am very lazy when it comes to nail care. With winters around, my nails and skin suffer a lot and i completely drop nail polish application during winters. Reading this article has given me lot of understanding of oil and water balance. I got a morale boost as well. I gotta try working on this issue this winter.

  10. carol July 8, 2015 at 9:13 am #

    So do you happen to know why nails crack vertically? My thumb has one area that cracks back into the nail about 1/3 of an inch. This has been going on for about a year and haven’t found why or what is causing it. I thought maybe if I painted my nails it would help to stop it but I found instead a couple of the nails started peeling now too. The good news is I found this amazing article. You did the best job explaining the nail layers and the peeling I have ever experienced. Wow! I hope you have an answer to this because I have not been able to locate much at all on this situation. Hopefully you are a better researcher then I am.

  11. Margaret October 10, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

    Thanks for this info my nails tend to be very weak. It breaks almost every weak. I’ll start this regime from tomorrow, somehow i believe it will work because i’ve never used oil on my nails before. BTW thanks for taking time to research and share this info.

  12. Nicola September 12, 2017 at 4:16 pm #

    This article is great and very helpful! However I do have a question, I have recently started using cuticle oil on my nails and since I’ve started using the oil my nails have started peeling. Just a few layers, the nails dosent break but I get flakes of nail I can peel off. I was wondering why this is as I thought nail oil was to help the nail?

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