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What causes brittle toenails?

About 20 percent of the population suffers from brittle nail syndrome, a condition that causes toenails to become extremely brittle and ultimately break.

Your toenails are made up of layers of protein that are responsible for making the nail strong and thick. In people suffering from brittle nail syndrome, these protein layers separate or break down.

Get help for brittle toenails at Delray Beach Podiatry. [Image via]

Get help for brittle toenails at Delray Beach Podiatry. [Image via]

It’s important to remember that like our skin, nails can also dry out, which causes them to break and become more vulnerable to toenail infections. This condition most often occurs with repeated exposure to moisture and can be exacerbated by low atmospheric humidity. This is because your nails expand when they come into contact with water, and then contract when they dry out. Unfortunately, this constant back and forth between expansion and contract eventually takes a toll on your nails and makes them brittle.

Medically known as onychorrhexis, brittle toenails are visually unappealing as it causes the nails become rigid and split.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Nails that break or peel easily
  • Flaking at the base of the nail
  • Your nails have a series of longitudinal ridges
  • The protein layers of your nails break down or separate

There is often not one single cause for brittle toenail syndrome, but rather a number of factors working together.

At Delray Beach Podiatry, Dr. Ian S. Goldbaum, a podiatric physician and surgeon with over 30 years of experience, has found that there are several possible causes of of brittle toenail syndrome that include, but are not limited to the following:

Nutritional Deficiency: Although an uncommon cause, according to Dr. Goldbaum, certain nutritional deficiencies can lead to brittle toenails. In particular, a deficiency of iron or biotin, one of the B-complex vitamins. The hair and nails are typically both good places to look for signs of vitamin deficiency and you need to ensure that you are getting an adequate supply of protein, folic acid, vitamin C, biotin and pantothenic acid to keep them healthy.

Soap: A compulsive desire to wash your feet can lead to brittle toenail syndrome as an excessive amount of exposure to strong soaps can often bring about the condition.

“Regular washing is acceptable, it’s when people go overboard that a problem could potentially arise,” said Dr. Goldbaum.

Fungal Infection: If your nails have become brittle, are changing color or are becoming thick you may have a fungal infection. These infections are typically caused by a dermatophyte fungus, which requires keratin for growth and spreads by direct contact, but can also manifest from yeasts and molds. If your nail bed becomes infected, it can sometimes cause the nail plate to separate from the rest of your toe. Unfortunately, because fungal toenail infections are relatively common, signs of toenail fungus are often confused with athlete’s foot – a condition with a similar fungal pattern.

At Delray Beach Podiatry, Dr. Goldbaum uses laser therapy to treat fungal infections in order to vastly improve the appearance of patient’s nails.

“We have a whole treatment protocol,” said Dr. Goldbuam. “We utilize the laser, but we also utilize other things to make sure. We want to make sure the patient has the best chance of getting rid of fungus that we can.”

Thyroid Disorders: An underperforming thyroid can sometimes lead to brittle toenail syndrome. Other symptoms that may signal a thyroid-related problem include yellowed skin and weakened hair.

Health Conditions: If your nails are brittle it may be a sign that you are getting an inadequate amount of oxygen to the feet, which can signal a respiratory issue such as asthma.

Aging: As you get older, your body become less able to retain moisture, which eventually causes our hair and nails to become brittle and easily damaged.

Nail Polish Remover: Love painting your nails? That’s great! Dr. Goldbaum recommends, however, that you not to change colors too often as people who use too much nail polish remover are more likely to be affected by brittle nail syndrome.

Important: Brittle toenail syndrome may be an indicator of an underlying medical problem. See your doctor for an accurate diagnosis of the cause of your brittle toenails.

Follow Delray Beach Podiatry on Twitter @Delray_Podiatry

The content on this website is for informational purposes only. Do not rely or act upon information from without seeking professional medical advice. If you live in South Florida and would like a consultation with Dr. Ian Goldbaum, a podiatric physician and surgeon with over 30 years of experience, please see our contact information below:


16244 S. Military Trail #290, Delray Beach, FL 33445



8198 Jog Road #100, Boynton Beach, FL 33472



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