You’re a nail expert. You know all the different manicure shapes, you’re familiar with the longest-lasting polish formulas, and you even frequent the best nail salons. But what happens when you remove your polish to find that your once strong, bright, and shiny nails are turning a less-than-satisfactory shade of yellow?
Yellow nails are a bona fide beauty concern. That’s probably because, as Emily Splichal, DPM, says, “Most people think of fungus as the only cause of yellowing nails." But that’s not always the case. In fact, it might be as simple as spacing out your manicure appointments—but more on that later.
We get it: The last thing you want is for your hands to be associated with fungus. So we asked Splichal and Mark Kosinski, DPM, FIDSA, a professor with the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, to explain the various causes of and treatments for color-changing nails as well as how we can prevent them.
Keep reading to see what they had to say about getting rid of yellow nails.
Meet the Expert
- Mark A. Kosinski, DPM, is a podiatrist primarily located in New York who also works as a professor with New York College of Podiatric Medicine's Department of Medicine.
- Emily Splichal, DPM, practices at the Center for Functional and Regenerative Podiatric Medicine in New York.
Get to the Root of the Cause
Thick, brittle, yellow toenails are often caused by a fungal infection known as onychomycosis. "The most common culprit is a dermatophyte known as Trichophyton rubrum," says Kosinski.
Other things can be to blame, too. "Repetitive micro-trauma to the nail (hitting the toenail against the inside of the shoe) can cause the nail, over time, to become brittle and give the appearance of fungus," he says. "Injuring the toenail by stubbing the toe or dropping a heavy object on it can permanently damage the nail-producing cells (known as the nail matrix) and cause the nail to grow thick and wavy. In some individuals, nail polish or nail polish remover can also chemically damage the nail plate."
Don't Overuse Nail Polish
Even a humble nail polish could be to blame for yellowed nails—and therefore should be applied only periodically. "Certain nail polishes contain triphenyl phosphate, toluene, formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate," says Splichal, who adds that those are all ingredients that "can weaken and leech the nutrients from the nails." As a result, they become discolored, brittle, and weak. In this case, Splichal says that "keratin or biotin supplements are helpful." We like the biotin supplement from Nature's Bounty, as it bolsters nail health from the inside out. It's formulated with argan oil, hyaluronic acid, and antioxidants to strengthen and nourish.
The good news is that you don't have to give up nail polish altogether. "I recommend patients use nontoxic nail polishes, such as Dr.'s Remedy, and to take nail polish 'holidays.'" In other words, don't keep your nails lacquered 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (We're talking directly to our fellow polish addicts.) Space out your applications to give your nails a break.
Additionally, the color of your nail polish could actually be staining your nails, according to nail expert Evelyn Lim, and is more likely to happen with colors that are very pigmented. She also recommends applying a base coat to act as a barrier between the nail and the pigment.
If you're suffering from toenail fungus or yellowing of the nails, that great new pair of square-toed boots (or a too-small pair of running shoes) you splashed out for could be the culprit. That, or a stubbed toenail.
"The best way to avoid getting fungus in your nail is to avoid trauma—this means avoiding improperly fitted shoes that cause banging into the shoes or excessive pressure," says Splichal. "Trauma is the number-one cause to nail fungus."
Invest in a Nail-Strengthener
If your nails are damaged (and, by default, yellowing significantly), talk to your doctor about other options. "There is a great product I often recommend called Nuvail, which is designed to make the nails stronger," Splichal says. This solution is applied topically to treat nail fragility and dystrophy like splitting, breaking, and peeling. It's available by prescription only, though, so seeing a medical professional is necessary.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Yellow nails can signify an underlying issue not related to polish or shoe size—namely, diabetes. Obviously, this would call for medical intervention and dietary changes—like eating a diet lower in carbohydrates and higher in healthy fats, vegetables, and proteins—would likely be necessary, as well.
Don't Wait to Seek Help
The best way to get rid of yellowing nails is to diagnose and treat the problem before it's spiraled out of control. "It is important to start treatment early while the area of nail involvement is still small," says Kosinski. "The more extensive the involvement, the more difficult the infection is to treat."
Get a Diagnosis
If you're not sure whether or not fungus is the issue, or maybe you took a nail polish break and the yellow color isn't disappearing, go see a doctor. (That's our motto: When in doubt, ask an MD.) This is important because if your yellow nails are due to fungus, you might need special treatment to completely get rid of it.
"Your doctor can take a (painless) scraping of the affected nail and send it to the lab to tell if your nail problem is indeed caused by a fungus," Kosinski says.
Choose a Treatment Plan
Once you meet with a physician to properly diagnose the underlying cause of yellowing nails, you can then move on to remedying the problem. "If it is a fungus, there are many options for treatment, including laser therapy, topical medication, and pills," says Kosinski. "Your doctor can help you decide which treatment is right for you."
Splichal says her typical regimen for patients involves "both topical and oral as a combination," but every patient is different and could require different interventions.
Macura, A. B., Gasińska, T., Pawlik, B., & Obłoza, A. (2007). Podatność paznokci na zakazenie grzybicze u chorych na cukrzyce typu 1 i 2 z długoterminowa zła kontrola glikemii [Nail susceptibility to fungal infection in patients with type 1 and 2 diabetes under long term poor glycaemia control]. Przeglad lekarski, 64(6), 406–409.