The Worlds Biggest (and Best!) Nail Knowledge Centre

Science Behind Dry and Split Nail Plates

The Science Behind Dry and Split Nail Plates in Detail


First and foremost, let’s delve into the intricate science behind dry and split nail plates. Let’s understand the balance of oil and water within the nail plate and how it influences the health and strength of your nails.

A normal natural nail contains about 18% water and 5% oil. Optimal flexibility occurs when the nail plate holds around 25% moisture.

Natural Nails
Perfect Natural Nails
Water and oil percentage of the natural nail
Water & Oil Ratio in the Natural Nail

However, excessive water can weaken and damage the nail plate, similar to how a sponge shrinks as it dries out, leaving behind a dry and brittle nail plate. This process starts a vicious cycle that will only be stopped if we continue to add more moisture. It can take quite some time to recover the nail plate but as long as nail plate cells are being produced we will be successful.

before and after nail plate
Nail plate recovery – the lateral nail folds and the existence of the onychodermal band & hyponychium are now recovered and the difference is obvious, the proximal nail fold needs a little more time.

The Balancing Act: How Moisture Keeps Nail Plates Strong and Flexible

Nail plates that are consistently exposed to water, especially with soap, become soft and weak due to this ongoing process. Remember, soap dissolves oil. It takes a few hours for the nail plate to fully recover its normal ‘oil & water’ levels

Without a doubt, maintaining a proper moisture balance is essential for healthy natural nails. When the moisture balance is right, your natural nails can better withstand trauma due to their flexibility. Think of it like shock absorbers in a car or on a bicycle—they absorb the bumps in the road, ensuring you arrive without any bruises. Flexibility in the nail plate serves a similar purpose.

The Essential Oils: How They Nourish and Protect Nail Plates

5% Oil – Where Does It Come From?

These oils are produced in the nail bed and slowly penetrate through the nail plate from bottom to top, where they may eventually be washed away. These oils keep both the nail plate and the bed epithelium flexible. These oils are composed of ‘lipids,’ including squaleen and cholesterol.

Oil and water don’t naturally mix, so how can both penetrate the nail plate? It doesn’t seem logical for both to use the same channel, so could it be that they each take a different route? The scientific community hasn’t reached a definitive conclusion, but it’s suspected that they indeed take different paths. Here’s one possible explanation:

– Water enters the nail plate cell directly through the cell wall.

– Oil cannot penetrate the cell wall and instead seeps through the remaining spaces between the nail plate cells.

The Protective Power of Oils: How They Strengthen Your Dry and Split Nails

Oils plasticize the nail plate; they move much more slowly and evaporate less quickly. As a result, oil blocks both the entry and exit routes for water.

The outcome is less brittle, more flexible nails—stronger, in essence. Because the oil remains in the nail plate for a longer period, it has a significant effect on the overall condition of the nail plate.

But what if this balance is disrupted by trauma or conditions like eczema, psoriasis, lichen planus, or even a fungal infection? The nail plate and nail bed may become dehydrated. But what if everything seems normal otherwise?

Unraveling the Matrix: How Nail Plate Cells Are Formed and Why Imperfections Matter

For this, we need to examine the matrix where the nail plate cells are produced.

The matrix produces nail plate cells 24/7. When we are 21 its working to full capacity, after that it slows down.

Think of a tennis ball machine continuously spitting out tennis balls—this is how the matrix works. If something isn’t quite right there, cells may still be produced but not as perfectly as they should be. This creates weaker nail plate cells that may appear normal but lack the strength of perfectly formed nail plate cells.

There are of course exceptions. You don’t have to be old to have abnormal nail plate cells—it can happen to young people too if they are suffering from psoriasis, lichen planus, Alopecia or Eczema. Babies are sometimes born with nail matrix’ that are not yet fully formed although these catch up quickly after birth.

Nail Plate Pressure: How Imperfections Create Grooves and Valleys

Once on the nail bed, the nail plate is under pressure from all sides—the lateral side walls, the nail bed, and the proximal nail fold all stabilize the nail plate as it moves along the nail bed. This pressure is significant, and if a cell isn’t perfect, it collapses, creating grooves in the nail plate, with the weakest cells in the valley and the strongest cells on top of the hill, this is why buffing or filing the nail plate to make it even & shiny creates even more damage, you unwittingly remove the strongest links.

Sometimes little bead like structures are formed causing the nail plate to unravel.

Nail Grooves and Valleys
 Nail plate with groves 
Nail beads in the nail plate
Beaded Ridge nail plate (the ‘beads’ are visible at the top of the ridge as well as the groves)

The Domino Effect: How Neglect and Abnormal Cells Can Lead to Dry and Split Nails

Imagine that the nail plate doesn’t receive extra care from external oils, and suppose truly abnormal cells are produced that are under the same pressure from the side walls, etc., then, just like anything that dries out, the nail plate cells start to separate— its pure stress from dryness (think of paint on a wooden window, for example—if the seal is broken, it’s a downhill slide). If water then penetrates and that water evaporates, it causes more dehydration, and the puzzle pieces that make up our nail plate cells simply come apart—resulting in a horizontal split in the nail plate.

Figure 6
Figure 7

Figure 6. 28-01-2023 – you can see here how the nail plate crumbles at its weakest point. After about 5 months of intensive nail care on the 10-5-2023 the nail plates still have groves (that’s the defect in the nail matrix that we can do nothing about) but the nail plate is whole again, its in good condition and now flexibility keeps the nail plate cells together.

Figure 7. On the left, the nail groves are dry and cause the nail plate cells to spit verticaly and the nail plate is not sitting in the paronichium cup as it should. After intensive nail care, the nail plate is now in the paronichium cup, the lateral nail folds can do their job and the onychodermal band is visibly doing its job and the nail plate is no longer fractured.

Understand how this happens and what is needed to solve the problem will make your salon one of the busiest in the region and you will have salon clients for life.

It is however important to realize that non of these solutions are immediate – but – with time and goed nail unit care and maintenance you will achieve them.

Pictures: Tracy Anne Shelverton, Jozephine Frijters & Xuan Chu

Shopping Cart