When it comes to fingernails, lots of rumors make the rounds about what things like white marks or ridges can indicate regarding your health. It's easy to get caught up in. Remember being told at a young age that the little white spots on your nails meant that you weren't drinking enough milk? File that under "longstanding beauty myths debunked" because it turns out those marks actually have nothing to do with a lack of calcium.
What Are Fingernail Ridges?
Fingernail ridges (also known as white spots) are thin, raised, unpigmented lines that run lengthwise on the nail. Existing from cuticle to tip, they can also appear on raised areas that extend across the nail.
Dana Stern, MD, says ridges are akin to wrinkles in the nail (fingernails and toenails), and things like aging, genetics, compromised circulation, and excessive exposure to chemicals and water can cause these ridges to appear. In fact, these odd little lines are quite common and normally, are nothing to be alarmed about. Just be aware in case you experience a sudden onset of ridges or observe discoloration that's not related to bruising. These issues could be indicators of illness or medical conditions, so it's best to consult your doctor. However, for most nail ridges, there are effective at-home remedies and preventative measures you can try.
Meet the Expert
- Dana Stern, MD is one of the only board-certified dermatologists in the country that specializes in nail health, treatment, and diagnosis. She has office locations in Manhattan and South Hampton.
- Tsippora Shainhouse MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and pediatrician at Stay Safe Dermatology and Skincare, specializing in treating skin conditions in adults, teens, and children.
To get more (AKA correct) information about these treatments and our nails, we spoke to Stern and Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, who are experts on the subject matter.
Keep scrolling to learn more about what causes these ridges, and what you can do to fix them.
"Diet" and Exercise
As you get older, your body's natural oil production slows down, and this lack of moisture can cause your nails to become brittle, thin, and prone to peeling—and cause ridges to form. Although annoying, this is nothing to worry about. Your best defense is eating a healthy diet, drinking enough water, and exercising to keep your circulatory system healthy.
"Regular cardiovascular activity will help with peripheral perfusion to the digits (blood flow) and help with ridging as well," says Stern.
Hydrate With Oils
Nail ridges that arise from a lack of the body's natural oils are easy to treat. Your first line of defense: hydration. Try applying nail oil, vitamin E oil, coconut oil, or olive oil to your nails to help prevent ridges from forming in the first place. If you do notice horizontal ridges on your nails, especially after an illness, Shainhouse recommends giving your fingers and nails a little extra TLC for a few months or until they grow out to make sure the nail doesn’t crack.
You can prevent the formation of trauma-induced rides by simply not picking or shoving your cuticle back. "The cuticle is the only barrier the fingers have to keep dirt and infection out of the tissues of the fingers," she says. "Not only can infection cause damage to the nail matrix, but the actual pushing can bang it up, creating a permanent ridge template for all future nail growth." Instead, turn to oils to soothe nail issues. Your cuticles will benefit, too; the moisture will help prevent hangnails, cracks, and other discomforts. Use a massaging motion to increase blood circulation to your nail beds and distribute the oil evenly.
Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize
Use a moisturizing hand soap, a protective hand moisturizer and consider applying a layer of nail hardener once a week, Shainhouse says. When it comes to moisturizing, you can't really overdo it. Plus, these measures help prevent future ridges from forming. Similar to how oils help soothe nail issues by hydrating, moisturizing products help to not strip nail beds and surrounding skin. Moisturizing products, daily sunscreen, and avoiding overly drying products, such as alcohol-based gel sanitizer are all key to preventing ridges from forming.
Products like Dr. Dana Nail Renewal System ($30) a once-weekly, three-step nail system work to provide a new level of care to nails. The science-backed formula is said to immediately reveal a healthy, hydrated, youthful shine in 10 minutes sans polish. "You can use this manicure-in-a-box to treat or prevent brittle nails or to simply create a chic, long-lasting lustrous shine without the use of polish or harmful chemicals," comments Stern.
Buff—But Not Too Much
You can buff your nails‚ just keep it to once a month. Both experts caution against harsh buffing and say it can cause your nail plate to thin. Try using a four-way nail file to smooth away ridges, file in one direction only, and don't use too much force so you don't cause trauma to the nail and nail bed. Buffing does produce a healthy-looking glow and beautiful shine, so if you're a fan of clear or natural-colored nail polish but are staying away from such items, you might find that buffing gets your nails just as shiny.
Though, be careful because buffers are highly variable when it comes to their level of abrasiveness. "Many of the buffers used in the salon setting and sold at beauty supplies shops are designed for acrylic nails and so they can be very damaging to a natural nail," Stern says. She recommends Step 02 of her Nail Renewal System since it's "designed with three perfect grits for safely and effectively removing ridges, discoloration, and peeling and bringing out a lustrous, healthy shine." You could also try a battery-operated nail buffer, like E-Essence's Finishing Touch Electronic Nail Care System. It's also great for pedicures.
Use Strengthening Polish
Many nail care companies make special polishes specifically for hiding ridges. These "ridge fillers" look like regular polishes and function much like base coats. The difference is that they settle and fill in the ridges to help make your nails look smooth and even. Shainhouse notes that using ridge fillers, followed by nail polish can help smooth out the look of the nail.
However, the effectiveness of these nail strengtheners depends on the product and its ingredients. Many nail “strengthening” “treatments” or “hardeners” contain formaldehyde or formalin, says Stern. "These ingredients are very damaging to the nail." While formaldehyde will initially harden the nail, she says that over time the nail becomes paradoxically brittle and is at risk for lifting or separating off the nail bed (also called onycholysis). Formaldehyde can also cause severe allergic reactions at the surrounding nail folds—the skin becomes extremely irritated, swollen, and painful. There is also significant concern that these ingredients are carcinogenic.
Check ingredients: If the product requires removal, it is by definition a polish and not a treatment, something that will exacerbate the issue.
Take a Break from Polish Altogether
Going without nail polish keeps drying chemicals off your nails, prevents the staining that some polishes cause, and allows sunlight to reach your nails—which, research indicates, can improve their overall health. Plus, you won't need to use acetone-based nail polish removers, the moisture-sapping enemy of already parched nails.
"The good news is, that even though we can’t hit the salon right now to camouflage ridging, this is the ultimate opportunity to go natural and healthy with our self-care routines and to take a break from the salon, chemicals and all of that time and expense," Stern says.
Wear Gloves When Doing Housework
This might not be something you'd think about on an everyday basis, so to speak, but excessive exposure to water and harsh chemicals (like those found in cleaning supplies or sometimes—ugh—hand soaps or hand sanitizers!) can wreak havoc on your nails and worsen already ridged nails. Plus, think about how often you wash your hands.
"Wearing gloves with housework or any wet work will prevent excessive influx and effluent of water into the nail," Stern says, noting, "Water absorption can weaken the bonds between nail cells causing peeling, ridging, and breakage."
Stay Away from Gel/Dip
Be judicious with gel and powder dip nail trends. Sure, the polish lasts for weeks, and it seems to make nails harder and less prone to breakage while you are wearing it, Shainhouse says. But these kinds of polish trends will ultimately desiccate and thin out your nail plate.
It’s not that gel is necessarily making ridges worse; it's really the damage nails undergo during the removal process that strips nails of oils and keratin. "Usually, a long soak in acetone is required for a soak-off gel to be removed, and that amount of acetone exposure will exacerbate brittle nails," Stern says, "Other methods of removal, such as aggressive scraping or filing, can also damage the nail but in other ways."