Doctors get really excited when they talk about nails. That’s because, like the rings of a tree, the bumps, dents, and ridges on them reveal a lot about your well-being. “Nails provide an amazing time line of a patient’s habits and health history,” says Dana Stern, a dermatologist in New York City. Below are a few of the most common nail markings, their meanings, and what to do about them. Treat your nails now for better health overall—and a prettier manicure down the road.
What You See: White Spots
These imperfections on an otherwise healthy nail signal damage to the cuticle, the thin but durable skin that borders the lower nail plate (which is the hard, translucent part of the nail). The cuticle acts as a seal, keeping in moisture and blocking out bacteria and drying chemicals (like formaldehyde-infused polishes and acetone-based polish removers). When cuticles are trimmed too aggressively, or if you have a habit of pushing, cutting, or picking them, irritants can slip below the surface, compromising the nail-growth process. The result: white accumulations, called punctate leukonychia, within the nail plate.
The solution: These spots can’t be scraped off. Your best bet? “Leave your cuticles alone,” says Chris Guest Adigun, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, in New York City. Also stick to acetone-free polish removers and formaldehyde-free polishes. In a few months, the cuticles will heal, allowing healthy nails to grow out.
What You See: A Deep Groove
This horizontal mark, called a Beau’s line, emerges after a single traumatic event. The more intense the circumstances, the more severe the dent. Illness, fever, pregnancy, and even stress, such as grieving, can cause one. “Cells halt metabolic activity and stop producing smooth, uniform nails,” says Adigun. Two to three months later, the imperfect product of these dysfunctional cells is visible in the form of a groove.
The solution: A Beau’s line takes up to six months to grow out. You can make the dent less noticeable with a ridge-filling base coat that smooths and resurfaces, like Essie Ridge Filling Base Coat ($8.50, nordstrom.com). Do not try to file or buff the line away, as this will only weaken the nail.
What You See: Horizontal Depressions
These dings usually happen when you’ve done something directly harmful to the nail matrix (the half-moon at the base of the nail), such as (ouch) shutting a drawer on your finger. However, a series of dips along the center is often a telltale sign that you’ve been repetitively picking at or pushing back the cuticle. “Most people aren’t even aware of the tic,” says Stern.
The solution: The depressions will grow out. Quitting the picking habit will prevent future grooves from forming.