Fingernails: You don’t likely think much about ‘em unless you're picking out a polish color. But at some point or another, we’ve probably all seen some strange things happen to our nails, like the appearance of white spots, brittleness, or funky tints.
What do changes at the tips of your fingers mean? We asked top dermatologists to explain eight weird things that can happen—and what each could signal about your health.
1. White Spots
Mom ever tell you those little white clouds on your nails were there because you didn’t drink enough milk? “People tend to think white spots are due to a systemic cause, like calcium deficiency,” says Chris Adigun, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and nail specialist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In reality, there are several causes for the pesky dots—but few of them are problematic (and none point to a deficiency), she notes. The most common cause: trauma to the nail or to the end of your finger right before your nail. The matrix—a layer of cells at the base of your fingernail—is in charge of building the nail. If it’s damaged, the spots can pop up. Another culprit? Prolonged polish wear, which can partially break down the surface of the nail plate, she says.
Notice white spots that are powdery in consistency? An infection with a fungus (lovely!) could be to blame. Depending on what’s at play, your best bet will be an antifungal treatment like Kerasal Nail Fungal Nail Renewal Treatment ($22, amazon.com) or simply waiting it out—if the white spot is from trauma, it’ll grow out with the nail.
2. Brittle Nails (Onychoschizia)
Blame brittleness on a dry nail plate, says Debra Jaliman M.D., an assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and author of Skin Rules. Overdoing it with nail polish remover can cause this, but so can frequent dishwashing (sans gloves) or swimming, she says. “People who have professions with their hands constantly in chemicals, like photographic developers, can also get this.” If you suffer from hypothyroidism—when your thyroid is working too slow—it’s possible to see brittleness, too. The weather could also be to blame. Fall and wintry weather (and drying indoor heating systems) can bring about more dry air, says Adigun. The good news: The solution may be as simple as adding moisture back in. Adigun likes REJUVENAIL Fortifying Nail & Cuticle Treatment ($16, ulta.com).
3. Yellow Nails
Before you freak, know this: Yellow nails could just be staining from polish, says Adigun. (So think: How many manicures have you had recently?) But this change in color could also signal diseases like diabetes, says Jaliman, which need to be treated by prescription or insulin. Yellow Nail Syndrome—where the nail thickens, turns yellow, and growth slows—is often a sign of a respiratory disease like bronchitis, too, says Jaliman.
4. “Lifting” Nails (Onycholysis)
Chefs, bartenders, or health-care workers may notice their fingernails separate from their nail bed. It seems scary, but often, it’s due to irritation from excessive water exposure, says Adigun. A too-aggressive manicure, nail hardeners, or glues could also cause the damage. Notice changes in color—to opaque white, green, or yellow? That could point to everything from a thyroid disease or psoriasis to injury and infection, says Jaliman. See your doc if you think something more serious could be the cause—and try to keep your hands dry whenever possible.
5. Vertical Ridges
Those thin lines that run vertically up your nail are likely totally normal: “Vertical nail ridges are from aging,” says Jaliman. Think about them like the wrinkles of your nails, she says. Your best bet is keeping your nails (and cuticles) moisturized.
6. “Spoon” Nails (Koilonychia)
Nails curving up? Time to have some bloodwork done: “A very thin nail which becomes concave in shape is usually a sign of iron deficiency or anemia,” says Jaliman. If you’re deficient, a supplement will likely fix the problem. But ask your doctor about other issues that could be involved, too. Liver disease, heart disease, and hypothyroidism are also linked to spoon nails.
7. Pitting Nails
Little indents that look like they were made from a mini ice pick occur in up to 50 percent of people with the skin condition psoriasis, says Jaliman. It can also happen to people with alopecia areata—an autoimmune disease in which you lose patches of hair, she says. Creams with vitamin A and vitamin D can help—and in some cases, steroid creams can be used. If you have psoriasis, ask your dermatologist about the right treatment for you.
If your nails seem softer and the tips of your fingers appear larger or bulging, you might have something more serious on your hands. An increase in the tissue around the ends of your fingers (right where the nail curves) can indicate lung disease, says Jaliman. “It is caused by low oxygen in the blood,” she says. But clubbing nails are also associated with inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, AIDS, and liver disease, she says. And Adigun notes that chronic respiratory disease or cardiothoracic disease could also be contributors. So if you notice these sorts of changes, make an appointment with your physician to be safe.