How to Get Rid of Yellow Nails, According to a Doctor

brunette woman with healthy nails

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,” even though that’s not always accurate. (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.
  • Dr. Emily Spilchal is a doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, with a special interest in movement dysfunction and neuromuscular control during gait.
01 of 04

Get to the Root of the Cause

According to Kosinski, the most common cause of thick, brittle, yellow toenails is a fungal infection commonly known as onychomycosis. "The most common culprit is a dermatophyte known as Trichophyton rubrum," he says.

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."

02 of 04

Don't Overuse Nail Polish

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Dr.'s Remedy Enriched Nail Polish $17

Both Splichal and Kosinski note that 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 let your nails breathe. Seriously, it could be as simple as that.

03 of 04

Invest in a Nail-Strengthener

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OPI Nail Envy $12

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.

04 of 04

Seek Professional Help

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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," says Kosinski. "If it is a fungus, there are many options for treatment, including laser therapy, topical medication, and pills. Your doctor can help you decide which treatment is right for you."

"My typical regimen for patients with fungus is to do both topical and oral as a combination," says Splichal. "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. Trauma is the number one cause to nail fungus."

Both experts agree that the best remedy is to treat the problem early. "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."

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