There's a lot more to your nails than meets the eye. In fact, what you see on the surface has been in the works for a while, growing out from the nail matrix (the living tissue below your cuticle responsible for the healthy growth of your nails) that's deep in your fingers. It's a complicated system, and when your nails start looking not-so-hot, any number of things could be to blame—here are 8 leading contenders.
1. You're low on iron
Concave or depressed nails (like the inside of a spoon) can be caused by low iron levels, or anemia. Iron helps form hemoglobin, a molecule that shuttles red blood cells loaded with fresh oxygen to your nail matrix, explains Ella Toombs, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington, DC. Without it, you get stunted nail growth.
The fix: If you see depressions in your nails, that's your cue to head to the doc for a blood test.
2. You text and type nonstop
You know that clickety-clack sound your nails make when you're firing off emails and texts? Well, you're damaging more than just the patience of the people around you. "If your nail is making contact with your keyboard or smartphone screen over and over, it could cause it to split, fracture, or fray at the edges," says Toombs.
The fix: File or trim nails so that just a bit of white tip is left (but still below than the fleshy top of your finger). That will make it possible to text and type with just the pad of your finger.
3. You only apply hand lotion in the morning
Time for a dose of reality—you have to reapply hand lotion every time you wash your hands. Water dries your skin out, and if the skin at and below your cuticles is dry, then the underlying nail matrix is, too. That means the nail it forms will be prone to splitting, breaking, and cracking, says Ellen Marmur, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai in New York City.
The fix: Find a fast-absorbing lotion like Essie Spa Manicure Many Many Mani Intensive Hand Lotion ($9; target.com) and apply it throughout the day, paying special attention to the area above your matrix: from the cuticles all the way down to the second knuckle of your finger.
4. You leave polish on for way too long
All nail polishes contain drying ingredients that sap moisture from the nail plate and weaken it, and that drying effect doesn't stop once the polish has hardened, Marmur says. Even five-free nail polishes, which skip the solvent toluene and the plasticizer dibutyl phthalate, along with other potentially irritating ingredients, can still leave nails high and dry (something has to make the polish dry once it's on your nail, right?).
The fix: Toombs recommends taking polish off after five days—when most formulas will start wearing down anyway. Then give nails a few days of downtime before hitting the paint again.