When it comes to fingernails, lots of rumors make the rounds about what things like white marks or ridges can indicate regarding your health. 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 "long-standing 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 are thin, raised, unpigmented lines that run lengthwise on the nail from cuticle to tip. They can also appear as raised areas that extend across the nail.
According to Dana Stern, M.D., fingernail ridges are akin to wrinkles in the nail (both 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 if 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.
Keep scrolling to learn more about what causes these ridges and what you can do to fix them.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Dana Stern, MD, is one of the only board-certified dermatologists in the country who specializes in nail health, treatment, and diagnosis. She has office locations in Manhattan and Southampton.
- Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist and pediatrician at SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care, specializes in treating skin conditions in adults, teens, and children.
Diet and Exercise
As you get older, your body's natural oil production slows down. 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 potential 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 nails a little extra TLC for a few months or until they grow out to make sure they don't crack.
You can prevent the formation of trauma-induced ridges by simply not picking or shoving your cuticles 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 may benefit, too; the moisture might help prevent hangnails, cracks, and other discomforts. Use a massaging motion to try to increase blood circulation to your nail beds and distribute the oil evenly.
This wallet-friendly vitamin E oil by Sally Hansen will keep both your nails and cuticles healthy and happy.
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 might help prevent future ridges from forming. Similar to how oils may help soothe nail issues by hydrating, moisturizing products may help to not strip nail beds and the surrounding skin. Moisturizing products, daily sunscreen, and avoiding overly drying products, such as alcohol-based gel sanitizer, may all help in preventing ridges from forming.
Look for products like Dr. Dana's Nail Renewal System, a once-weekly, three-step nail system, to provide a new level of care for your nails. The 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," says 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 may 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.
Be careful, though, 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 2 of her Nail Renewal System (see above!) since it's "designed with three perfect grits for safely and effectively removing ridges, discoloration, and peeling and bringing out a lustrous, healthy shine."
This battery-operated nail buffer is also great for pedicures and comes with four interchangeable discs to help smooth, shape, buff, and shine.
Use Strengthening Polish or Ridge Fillers
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 into 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," she adds. While formaldehyde will initially harden the nail, 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.
We recommend this nail-ridge filler because it's void of all the harsh ingredients Stern warns against.
Take a Break From Polish Altogether
Going without nail polish keeps drying chemicals off your nails and prevents the staining that some polishes cause. Plus, you won't need to use acetone-based nail-polish removers, the moisture-sapping enemy of already-parched nails.
"Go natural and healthy with our self-care routines, and 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!) might 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 notes. "Water absorption can weaken the bonds between nail cells, causing peeling, ridging, and breakage."
Take care of your nails and the environment with these reusable and biodegradable household gloves.
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 allows. But these kinds of polish trends might ultimately damage your nail plate.
It's not that gel necessarily makes 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."
Check ingredients: If the product requires removal, it is by definition a polish and not a treatment, and therefore it might exacerbate the issue.
What do ridges in your fingernails say about your health?
While not always the case, sometimes fingernail ridges can be a sign of vitamin deficiencies or chronic conditions such as diabetes. It's always best to check in with your healthcare provider if you're noticing other symptoms.
At what age do you get ridges in your nails?
Some people may notice them in their 30s, while others don't see them until their 50s. It depends on overall nail health and how frequently nail-cell turnover is happening (which slows as you age).
What if my nail ridges are horizontal?
These are called Beau's lines and are typically caused by injury (like slamming your nail in a door) or illness (infection across the bed of the nail). If more than one nail contains these horizontal lines, you should contact your healthcare provider ASAP, as it could indicate a serious underlying problem.
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Cleveland Clinic. 6 things your nails say about your health. Updated February 19, 2019.
Chessa M, Iorizzo M, et al. Pathogenesis, clinical signs and treatment recommendations in brittle nails: a review. 15-27. 2020.
Lazzarini R, Hafner MFS, Lopes ASA, Oliari CB. Allergy to hypoallergenic nail polish: does this exist? An Bras Dermatol. 2017;92(3):421-422. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175889