Visible Signs of Unhealthy Nails You Shouldn't Ignore

Plus, when to see a dermatologist.

In a world where so many fake nail enhancements exist—like acrylic, gel, polygel, and dip powder—it can be easy to forget about taking care of your natural nails. After all, one appointment with your nail tech and unkempt nails can be instantly covered and transformed into a beautiful-looking manicure that lasts for weeks.

However, you shouldn't forget about the state of your natural nails. The look and feel of your natural nails can often be a telltale sign of your general health. For instance, certain nail concerns can point to vitamin deficiencies; others can hint at more serious health conditions that might require a doctor's visit.

In any case, it's important to know what to look for if you suspect you have unhealthy nails. We spoke with a dermatologist and professional nail experts to learn what to look out for.

What causes unhealthy nails?

According to Dana Stern, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and nail specialist, unhealthy nails can be caused by using harmful ingredients, like formaldehyde. "Nail strengtheners that contain formaldehyde can cause the nail to become paradoxically brittle and can lead to onycholysis, aka separation," she says.

Additionally, excessive exposure to acetone can significantly dehydrate the nail leading to fragility, peeling, splits, and breakage. "Avoid products that tout themselves as treatments, but require polish remover to remove them," warns Dr. Stern. "These are often glorified clear polishes and may make nail damage worse."

Other causes of unhealthy nails include damage caused by injuries, such as aggressively buffing the nails or removing cuticles. Genetic predispositions can also play a role in nail health. "There is a genetic component to brittle nails and a direct correlation with aging," says Dr. Stern. Nails derive their nutrients and oxygen from the bloodstream. However, if you're predisposed to poor peripheral circulation, Dr. Stern says your nails may not be able to get the nutrients they need to be healthy.

The overuse of artificial products like nail polish, gel, or acrylic, on nails make nails brittle and dehydrated, says Michelle Saunders, a celebrity nail artist. The process of getting and removing these nail enhancements can also remove layers of your natural nails.

What are the signs of unhealthy nails?

"Visible signs that your nails are not healthy include ridges in your nails, nails that easily break, and discoloration," says Syreeta Aaron, a professional nail artist and LeChat Nails educator. According to the American Association of Dermatology (AAD), yellow discoloration can be a result of nail polish or smoking. However, yellow nails that are thick and stopped growing may be due to lung disease or rheumatoid arthritis in severe cases.

If you notice green-ish black discoloration, this may be a sign of a bacterial infection. However, a dark black streak on the nail can be a sign of skin cancer. The AAD recommends booking an appointment with a dermatologist at the sight of any discoloration on the nails to fully understand the cause and the right treatment.

Other visible signs of unhealthy nails include grooves, pitting, and nail clubbing. Deep grooves are divots in the nail bed, and nail pitting looks like someone stuck a toothpick in your nails. Nail clubbing is the appearance of curved nails that can also make the fingertips larger and sometimes suggest issues in the lungs. Grooves in the nails aren't typically a cause for concern, but can be a sign that something slowed (or stopped) your nails from growing for a while, says AAD. That said, nail pitting is common in people with psoriasis, which can also cause nail splitting (another sign of unhealthy nails).

"Nails that are becoming thicker or thinner are also signs of them not being healthy," says Aaron. When the nails become so thin, they can begin to dip in the middle and appear spoon-shaped, which might be due to an iron deficiency.

What to do if you suspect you have unhealthy nails?

"​​Healthy nails have a natural sheen to them, and they are flexible," says Saunders. They also have an even nail plate, a pink nail bed with a clean white tip, and intact cuticles, adds Dr. Stern. If your nails don't check off these boxes, it's best to see a dermatologist for a professional opinion and next steps.

To maintain healthy nails, Dr. Stern recommends taking a break from over-processed products like gels, acrylics, and polish. If you can't, make sure you're being gentle when removing nail enhancements and searching for products that have skin-benefiting ingredients. "Look for nail treatments that have scientific validity and are formulated with natural ingredients," says Dr. Stern.

Additionally, moisturizing your nails with cuticle oil can go a long way. "Nails love oil and conditioner," says Saunders. "Remember, nails are made of keratin protein, so you want to treat nails as gently as you treat hair and condition often."

Aaron also recommends staying on top of your daily supplements, such as vitamin C, biotin, zinc, iron, and magnesium, to ensure your nails are getting the necessary nutrients to remain healthy and strong.

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