Plus, when it could mean something serious.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
Advertisement

Like your hair and skin, nails change over time. Fun fact: Nails are made of a protein known as alpha-keratin that works as a polymer to provide a protective coat for the skin underneath. Just like your hair (which is made with that same protein), the nails can serve as an extension of your overall health, meaning it's important to take care of them and be on the lookout for key changes. 

If one of those changes happens to be white spots, it could be a sign that you need to slow down, fuel up, or take a break from those fancy gel manicures. But where exactly do they come from—and at what point should you visit a medical professional? Read on as one expert helps us break down everything you need to know and when to go.

What are white spots on nails?  

"White spots (technically referred to as punctate leukonychia) are defined by keratin deposits of the nail plate," explains Paul Jarrod Frank, MD, a celebrity cosmetic dermatologist in New York City and author of The Pro-Aging Playbook. He points out that leukonychia can also present as white lines across (transverse or striate leukonychia) or down (longitudinal leukonychia) the nail. 

What causes white spots on nails?

Contrary to popular opinion, it's probably not a calcium deficiency. "White spots on the nails are typically a sign of nail bed damage related to dryness or trauma," says Dr. Frank. People who bite their nails are prone to getting these white marks, along with those who frequently get gel manicures that damage the nail beds. Very rarely will it be a deficiency in certain minerals like zinc and calcium.

He adds some white spots can be caused by an autosomal gene that is inherited (the condition is called Total Congenital Hereditary Leukonychia), while others can indicate a fungal infection or an allergic reaction from acrylic or gel manicure ingredients. The latter will likely look like scattered white spots, while trauma should be one concentrated spot. 

"Nail fungus can occur anytime you're exposing your nails to a warm, moist environment and both bacteria and fungus can enter during the clipping or trimming of nails, especially if instruments aren't sterile," says Dr. Frank. 

And while it's not likely, they can also be a sign of more serious health conditions, such as heart disease, kidney failure, or pneumonia. If you suspect this is the case, consult your doctor immediately.

How can you prevent white spots on nails? 

To keep nails in the clear, Dr. Frank suggests keeping them hydrated (cuticle oil works wonders), avoiding biting and other damaging behaviors, and taking a break between manicures, particularly those that involve scraping, gels, and acrylics. "Try two weeks on, one week off if you're prone, and stick to nail salons that use sterilized tools. If you suspect the spots are the result of an allergy, you may also want to avoid nail polish or glue, depending on what you're allergic to."

How do you get rid of white spots on nails? 

If the result of trauma, Dr. Frank says you will typically have to let your nails grow out. "If it's an allergic reaction, avoid the allergen," he says. "If you believe it could be a fungus (in which case you may also notice thickening of the nail), you'll want to see your dermatologist for an antifungal medication."

It's also always a good idea to eat foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids in order to benefit overall nail health. This includes salmon, eggs, lean meats, and greens.

When should you seek medical attention?

If your white spots are infrequent and related to an injury to the nail, there's no need to see a doctor. However, if the cause is unknown and white spots are getting worse, Dr. Frank suggests visiting a reputable dermatologist who can help you assess whether it could be the result of a genetic or other condition and prescribe you with a personalized treatment plan.