Your fingernails might not be something you give a lot of thought to. Sure, some of us get manicures or paint our nails, but we don't tend to think about the health of our fingernails or how it relates to our well-being in general.
The truth is that for the sake of your hands and overall wellness, it matters whether or not your nails are healthy. But why does it matter, and how can you tell if you have healthy nails? To find out, we asked two board-certified dermatologists. Ahead, learn why nail health is important and how you can tell if your nails are healthy.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Jaimie DeRosa is a Double Board Certified Facial Plastic Surgeon and Founder and Lead Facial Plastic Surgeon of DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa in Boston and Palm Beach.
- Dr. Rina Allawh, MD, FAAD, is a Board-Certified Dermatologist and a founder and co-host of the skincare podcast Skin The Surface, which empowers listeners to take a proactive role in their skin health.
Are Healthy Nails Even Important?
It's important to have healthy nails for a few reasons. "Our nails exist to protect the hands and fingers, and healthy nails are a strong shield to underlying tissues," DeRosa says. "The cuticle is a barrier that prevents environmental elements from entering subcuticular space. Taking proper care of the nails can help prevent infections and other health issues. Moreover, keeping the nails looking good is a great way to enhance your appearance and self-confidence."
Additionally, your nails can help doctors understand more about your entire body's health. "As a dermatologist, I closely examine the nails of my patients as our nails may be a sign of internal health concerns," Allawh explains. "Certain deficiencies in iron, vitamin levels, or other internal conditions may lead to changes in the nail appearance, growth, and even the texture of the nail plate."
How to Tell If Your Nails Are Healthy
The “Half Moon” of the Fingernail Is Opaque but Not Red
"The 'half moon' of the fingernail is called the lunula (Latin for 'little moon'), which normally abuts the proximal nail fold and appears opaque," Allawh explains. "It's a problem if there's redness. A red lunula may be a cause of concern for various autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and dermatomyositis. A bright red lunula can also be seen in internal diseases like liver failure or cirrhosis, carbon monoxide poisoning, heart failure, and COPD."
They Are Smooth and Ridge-Free
Your fingernails should feel like a single surface, not one with raised areas. "Vertical ridges are harmless lines that run from the cuticle to the tip of the nail and generally become more prominent with age," DeRosa says. "However, they may also appear at a younger age due to dehydration of the nail plate from frequent manicures and constant exposure to water. Horizontal ridges present when there is a disruption in nail growth, so these are signs of something negatively impacting the health of the nail, such as psoriasis."
Allawh adds that "ridging of the nails or 'rough,' sandpaper nails may be a sign of damage from friction, UV damage, frequent hand washing."
They Are a Uniform Color
Your nail beds should have a healthy, natural pinkness to them. "They should not have white spots, also known as leukonychia," DeRosa notes. "Although it is usually harmless and is most often due to repeated mechanical trauma to the nails, other conditions may be implicated, such as iron deficiency anemia and deficiency of some minerals such as calcium, selenium, and zinc. This is rare though due to an adequate supply of them in a typical diet."
DeRosa also cautions that pale nails may indicate inadequate nutrition, anemia, liver disease, or heart failure. "It is a good idea to get checked by a doctor if your nails appear pale," she says.
Yellow nails may also be cause for concern. "Frequent use of nail polish may lead to a yellow staining of the nail plate," Allawh explains. "The nail lacquer dye interacts with the nail plate's keratin, causing yellow discoloration and brittleness. Polish remover can further induce nail yellowing by allowing the dissolved nail polish to adhere to the nail plate closely."
Additionally, she says that yellowness can be caused by smoking or certain foods. "Heavy smokers may develop yellow nail staining due to nicotine deposit," Allawh adds. "Yellowing of the nails and skin may be due a result of high levels of beta-carotene in the blood."
They Aren't Excessively Curved
You might notice that sometimes nails curve strongly up or down. Ideally, you don't want either. "The curvature of the nail may be an important clue to nail health," Allawh says. "A nail that is excessively curved downwards or upwards (i.e. resembles a spoon) may be of concern for an underlying pulmonary disease or iron deficiency, respectively."
They Are Fungus-Free
It may seem obvious, but healthy nails do not have fungus. "Nail fungus is a quite common but difficult to treat infection," DeRosa notes. "To minimize the chance of getting infected with fungus, keep your nails and surrounding skin free of cracks that may facilitate entry of infection."
They Have No Dark Lines
If you have dark lines on your nails, it's worth investigating the cause. "Dark lines may indicate a range of problems—ranging from harmless to more serious conditions," DeRosa tells us. "Sometimes those lines do not require treatment and will disappear on their own. In other cases, an underlying problem such as vitamin deficiency needs to be addressed and treated accordingly."
How to Keep Your Nails Healthy
Even if your nails aren't in a perfect state at the moment, you shouldn't feel stressed. There are numerous ways to improve the health of your nails. "Keep your nails clean and dry and avoid frequent manicures," DeRosa suggests. Allawh recommends getting adequate "vitamin D, calcium, iron, vitamin C, biotin, zinc, among other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to strengthen nail integrity."
If you plan to give yourself a manicure, both experts have tips that will help preserve the integrity of your nails. "Cut nails straight across using sharp scissors and round the nails slightly at the tips," DeRosa says. "Do not remove the cuticle or bite the nails."
It's also important to pay attention to the types of products you're using on your nails. "Applying a clear base coat and avoiding consistent use of dark colors can help prevent yellow nail discoloration," Allawh says. "If you experience brittle nails, taking a break from frequent nail polish, acrylic nails, or gel nail polish may help prevent further nail damage."
Allawh says brittleness can also be soothed with the right moisturizers. "Coconut oil, Vaseline, or Aquaphor can help strengthen the nail plate and create a barrier against potential irritants," she says.
The Final Takeaway
Paying attention to the health of our nails is important. Not only do they protect our hands, but they can also be indicators of various health issues. You can tell if you have healthy nails by whether they are free of fungus, have a light and opaque half-moon, aren't yellowed, contain no ridges or dark lines, and don't have excessive curvature.
There are many ways to enhance the health of your nails, from cutting them properly to ensuring you have a balanced dietary intake of numerous vitamins and minerals. With this information and our dermatologist tips, you can soon be on your way to having your healthiest nails yet.