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. Fingernail ridges are very common in people of all ages, but they tend to appear more often with age.
To get more (AKA correct) information about our nails, we spoke to two dermatologists about these odd little lines, and what they mean. Dermatologist Dana Stern says ridges are akin to wrinkles in the nail, and things like aging, genetics, compromised circulation, and excessive exposure to chemicals and water can cause these ridges to appear.
Nail ridges are very common and can usually be attributed to normal, non-medical reasons, as it is generally how nails age over time. Dermatologist Tsippora Shainhouse. "The skin under the nail plate actually loses some structural integrity and becomes wrinkled, like other areas of sun-exposed skin," she says, noting, "It can be managed with moisturizers and daily sunscreen, and avoiding overly drying products, such as alcohol-based gel sanitizer."
Meet the Expert
Meet the Expert
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.
Don't worry too much. Dr. Stern says you don't need to rush to a doctor as nail ridges are not usually a major cause for concern (as long as it's not a sudden onset, AKA ridging appears rapidly and severely out of nowhere). There are effective at-home remedies and preventative measures you can try, which we'll get more into below. With that being said, if the spots are at all powdery, a fungal infection might be to blame, but that isn't really a cause for concern, either—an anti-fungal treatment will clear it right up.
In the interest of curtailing all your nail-related WebMD searches, note that vertical ridges you see likely don't indicate any horrific, underlying disease, but the bumps are rather complex. Keep scrolling to learn more about what causes these ridges, and what you can do to fix them.
Know Your Facts
Ridges happen for many reasons. And they aren't limited to your fingernails, either; they also can pop on your toenails. If they run vertically from your cuticles to the tips of your nails, you likely have nothing to worry about. These are very common and don't usually indicate any problems.
One possible cause of vertical nail ridges is aging, which we briefly mentioned above. As you get older, your body's natural oil production slows down. In turn, this lack of moisture can cause your nails to become brittle, thin, and prone to peeling—and cause rides to form. This increase in dryness can also show up in your skin and hair, too. 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. Plus, "Regular cardiovascular activity will help with peripheral perfusion to the digits (blood flow) and help with ridging as well." Dr. Stern says.
If you find a brown line along the length of the nail or dark pigmentation that's not related to bruising, these issues could be indicators of illness or medical conditions, so do consult your doctor in these instances.
"Certain stresses to the body like high fever or some infections can suddenly make the nails stop growing for a short time." Dr. Shainhouse says. This sudden halt in production, called Beau's lines, can cause a ridge to form in the growing nail plate. Luckily, it's not permanent, and once your nail grows out, the ridge is gone for good.
There's no scientific evidence that supplements will help strengthen nails or speed nail growth, but there is anecdotal reporting of biotin and gelatin strengthening the nails for some people.
Use Hydrating Oils to Prevent Trauma
Nail ridges that arise from a lack of the body's natural oils are easy to treat. Your first line of defense: moisture. 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, Dr. 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 keeping 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.
Look Into Moisturizing Products
Use a moisturizing hand soap, a protective hand moisturizer and consider applying a layer of nail hardener once a week, Dr. Shainhouse says. When it comes to moisturizing, you can't really overdo it. Plus, these measures help prevent future ridges from forming. Similarly to now 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 the Dr. Dana Nail Renewal System ($49) a once-weekly, 3-step nail system work to provide a new level of care to nails. The formulation is based upon proven science, and in other words, Dr. Stern says there is verifiable medical evidence in the literature as to why the ingredients in this system work. "The concept of exfoliation followed by hydration is nothing new for skin but it is a breakthrough concept for nails," she says.
This system is said to immediately reveal a healthy, hydrated, youthful shine. She says the product is very effective for ridging, and creates a glossy, natural, glowy nail 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," she says.
Buff to Smooth the Ridges—But Not Too Much
You can buff your nails‚ but only 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," Dr. Stern says.
The Step 02 part of Dr. Dana Nail Renewal System is a buffer they like to call the perfect grit priming wand. After studying grit strengths extensively, they discovered that many of the devices on the market are too abrasive for natural nails. The Dr. Dana Nail Renewal System Priming Wand is "designed with 3 perfect grits for safely and effectively removing ridges, discoloration, and peeling and bringing out a lustrous, healthy shine," she says.
Or, a battery-operated nail buffer, like E-Essence's Finishing Touch Electronic Nail Care System ($10) which files, buffs, and shines your nails in seconds can save you lots of time. It's also great for pedicures.
Hide Ridges with Strengthening Polish
A variety of nail-strengthening serums and polishes can help prevent lines while regular polish formulas won't actually hide ridges, and reflect light, which can end up calling more attention to ridges instead. Many nail care companies make special polishes specifically for hiding ridges. Typically marketed as "ridge fillers," these 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. Dr. Shainhouse notes that using ridge fillers, followed by nail polish can help smooth out the look of the nail.
Though, the effectiveness of these nail strengtheners depends on the product and its ingredients. Many nail “strengthening” “treatments” or “hardeners” contain formaldehyde or formalin, Dr. Stern says, noting, "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 of 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 then it is by definition a polish and not a treatment," she says, and the use of polish remover will only exacerbate the issue.
Take a Break from Nail Polish All-Together
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.
Acetone is known to dry out nails, cuticles, and the surrounding skin. It also contains harsh chemicals that while effective in removing polish, actually end up stripping natural oils from your skin. Plus, it isn't exactly great to breathe in.
"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," Dr. 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," Dr. 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, however, Dr. Shainhouse says, 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," Dr. Stern says, "Other methods of removal such as aggressive scraping or filing can also damage the nail but in other ways."
If you prefer to get manicures at a salon, ask your manicurist to incorporate ridge fillers, like OPI Nail Lacquer Treatment Ridge Filler ($11), into your service. Some salons include them as a matter of course. For at-home treatment, look for a keratin-infused nail strengthener to use in between manicures.