When we talk about nails, it’s usually in reference to a favorite polish color or the nail art trend we can’t wait to try once salons are a thing again. And unless they’re constantly breaking off, the health of our nails typically takes a back seat in consideration. It makes sense: Nail health isn’t exactly sexy — and it’s easy to forget that our hands can tell us a lot about what’s going on inside our bodies.
But one thing that’ll get you paying attention is when your nails change. If you start to notice that your manicure isn’t as smooth as it used to be, or you see little white spots or lines — which are also called nail ridges — slowly show up and stick around, you might be wondering what it means.
What is a nail ridge?
A nail ridge is, at its most simple, a depression in the nail. This valley, which is often accompanied by white spots or lines, can feel uneven, bumpy, or raised to the touch — and it can happen to both your finger- and toenails. The good news is that nail ridges aren’t painful, and they’re not usually a reason to worry.
What causes nail ridges?
Turns out they’re not actually calcium deposits — or a lack thereof. Instead, Mona Gohara, a dermatologist and Yale associate clinical professor, likens nail ridges to wrinkles in the skin: Most of the time, it’s just something that happens with age. Longitudinal ridges, the lines that run from your cuticle to the tip of your nail are the most common, usually don’t mean much. “For the most part, [they just] mean time has passed and your nails are changing,” Gohara says.
So why do they happen? Some people are genetically predisposed to weak, brittle nails that are susceptible to ridging, and as you get older, circulation to your extremities can slow down, says Dana Stern, a NYC-based dermatologist who specializes in nail health. “This compromise of oxygenated rich blood and nutrients is why the nails largely become brittle,” and possibly ridge, she says.
In rare cases, a nail ridge can be the sign of a larger health issue. “Other less likely causes of vertical ridges are anemia or arthritis, but in those cases, [there are usually] other systemic or accompanying nail signs, like nail bed discoloration,” Gohara says. “Horizontal nail ridges, or Beau’s lines, may be as a result of a physiologic stressor, or something systemic such as diabetes, thyroid abnormalities, or kidney disease,” Gohara says, adding that sometimes, physical trauma like hitting your hand or fingers against something, as well as a lack of nutrients from a gastrointestinal disorder, can also cause a nail to ridge.
How do you prevent and treat nail ridges?
It’s not always possible to prevent nail ridges, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try: Everyday environmental factors like hand washing or sanitizing, as well as pure acetone nail polish remover can exacerbate nail ridging, making them more pronounced.