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Why are my toenails flaky?

Things to Consider if your Toenails are Flaky

Dr. Kline & Green Team
17 January 2020
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If your toenails are flaky the first culprits to consider are the nail polish and nail polish remover you’ve been using in your pedicures. Formaldehyde, acetone and toluenem are common ingredients in polishes and removers and all may cause drying of both fingernails and toenails. A little patience is required to defeat toenail flakiness with surface or oral medications: You must abandon all lacquer, nail polish, and nail polish remover for the time it takes your nails to grow out and recover. After a healthy nail is fully established over the nail bed, opt for a gentler pedicure by using products made with more natural ingredients.

But wait, there’s more for you to consider:

Some medical advice about your cuticles

Any dermatologist will agree that cutting your cuticles without a defined medical need is a bad idea. The cuticle is one of the body’s best lines of defense against incursions by bacteria and fungi. Cutting your cuticles is like opening a door to infection, irritation and visible nail problems such as ridges, white spots, flakiness, and white lines. From now on, promise to never include cuticle cutting in your pedicure or manicure. Just gently push cuticles back with an orange stick. Give your feet a soak in soapy, warm water for 10 minutes every few days to soften the cuticle, then apply a little cuticle oil or cream to prevent dryness. If cuticles remain dry, inflamed, or discolored, see your medical service provider for advice on effective treatment and care.

Nail discoloration

Flaky toenails are sometimes accompanied by nail discoloration. Your nails may appear white, yellow, or greenish as a result of a variety of infections and easily treatable skin conditions. Fully half the cases of discolored nails result from infections by common fungi found in the air, dust and soil. So don’t be alarmed; these discolorations are common, but symptoms may also serve as warnings about other potentially serious health conditions. Consult your doctor, podiatrist, or dermatologist to determine the source of your nail discoloration and the best course of treatment.


Onychomycosis infects keratin, which is actually the material that makes up hair, nails, feathers, horns, claws, hooves, calluses, and the outer layer of skin among all vertebrates. Also known as tinea unguium, onychomycosis is a common fungal infection, particularly of toenails, though it may appear in fingernails too. Symptoms include white spots or yellow nail discoloration, flakiness or brittleness, thickening of the nail, and noticeable separation of the nail from the nail bed. You may also detect a slightly foul odor caused by a buildup of debris under the nail.

Because keratin is so fundamental, any fungal infection that penetrates it can be particularly stubborn. And be vigilant about preventing or eliminating ingrown toenails, since these can provide a path to the nail bed and beyond for onychomycosis. Note that the nail plate, the hard part of the nail made up of keratin protein, will appear translucent in a healthy toenail.


Onychoschizia is a medical term that describes a dermatology problem most commonly found among women, but it may affect men as well. In this condition horizontal splits in fingernails cause thin layers of fingernails or toenails to peel back. In a variation of this condition, symptoms of white superficial onychomycosis include a white, granular, powdery, and flaky pattern on toenails that may affect the entire nail. You’ll also notice that your nails look thin and feel very uncomfortable or tender to the touch.

Exposure to chemicals, wearing acrylic nails, and even a mild iron deficiency are common causes of onychoschizia and flaky nails. If you wash your hands excessively, wash dishes without gloves, wear gel or acrylic nails, have iron-deficiency anemia, have cut cuticles, or have an underactive thyroid, lung disease, or kidney disease, you’re more likely to develop onychoschizia. Check right away with your dermatologist, podiatrist or medical professional if you observe any of the symptoms here noted.


Biotin is a form of B-vitamin important for your body’s protein formation and new cell growth, and it’s also vital to maintaining good levels of iron and zinc. Biotin in oral form has been shown to improve the strength and appearance of toenails in just a few months, though formal research on this is as yet inconclusive. Keep in mind that biotin deficiency is uncommon and that self-treating your nails with a biotin supplement may not be the most effective course of action if your symptoms are in fact masking an underlying health problem. Note also that this deficiency my be simply a sign of aging. Check with your primary care provider for advice about biotin supplements and long term treatment of your flaky toenails.

Over-the-counter antifungal treatments

Eucalyptus oil, ozonized sunflower oil, baking soda foot soaks, snakeroot extract, mentholated cream, and tea tree oil have all proven to be effective home remedies against toenail fungus, and they have no significant side effects.  After such soothing self care, slip on a pair of clean and dry shoes and socks to ensure the best defense against a multitude of fungus infections and nail problems. Some good advice when walking in public spaces such as swimming pools and locker rooms? Wear shoes. If symptoms of toenail fungal infection persist after a course of surface treatment, consult a medical professional who can determine the source of the problem and if it points to any other health concern.

Surface and oral antifungal treatments such as clotrimazole (Lotrimin) or terbinafine (Lamisil) in antifungal cream, lotion, tablet, or capsule are often effective against toenail infection or athlete’s foot when used as directed. They have few side effects and are considered generally safe. If a toenail fungus infection is stubborn, uncomfortable, or unsightly, don’t hesitate to consult your primary care physician, dermatologist, or podiatrist before taking any medications.

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