At the risk of sounding really corny . . .
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then nails are the windows to your health. I know, I know. Totally corny! But it's true! It's amazing how much your nails reveal about your body! Let me explain.
There are 2 kinds of fingernail ridges.
It's easy to tell which one you have.
Vertical ridges run from your cuticle to the tip of your nail.
Horizontal ridges run from 1 side of your nail to the other. They're also called Beau's lines.
It's important to distinguish between the 2 because some fingernail ridges indicate an underlying health condition. Others are completely normal and harmless.
Did I get your attention?
Most people's fingernail ridges are VERTICAL.
To the right is a photo of vertical nail ridges. (The white spots are not related. They're called leukonychia and are usually caused by an injury to your nail matrix.) This kind of fingernail ridge is caused by aging. More specifically, by an aging nail matrix. As the cells in the matrix age, they make a less regular nail - a fingernail with vertical ridges.
- dermatologist, Dr. Paul Kechijian, who specializes in nail disorders.
Dermatologist, Dr. Jessica Krant, says,
"Lengthwise ridges, if they are evenly spaced over the whole nail (like shown above), are common and harmless, and generally associated with normal aging and the nail’s increasing inability to retain moisture. Sometimes it can be a sign of lack of certain vitamins or poor nutrition, but this is rare.”
Sometimes - but not often - vertical ridges can indicate you have a disease.
- Dr. Phoebe Rich, a clinical adjunct professor of dermatology for Oregon Health Science University.
If there’s a single vertical streak, instead of a series of ridges, this could be a sign of a tumor growing at the root of the nail, says Dr. Krant. OR if the ridges have become pronounced very quickly, they could be a sign of lichen planus, a rare condition which often causes a rash.
A little Bit About Nails . . .
- We think that vertical ridges are part of our nail's structure. The nail bed (F on the diagram to the right) is arranged in parallel ridges running in the direction of the nail growth - from cuticle to fingertip. The nail is attached to the nail bed and sits on top of it. And as we age, the ridges become more noticeable.
- The cuticle protects your nail by keeping water, moisture and organisms from entering the nail.
- Dermatologist and nail specialist, Dr. Dana Stern describes how the cuticle and nail matrix (E) work:
"The cuticle overlies the most important part of the nail, the nail matrix. Any trauma to the cuticle area (cutting, biting, picking) can affect the matrix and ultimately will be seen as irregularities in the nail (depressions, ridges, discoloration)."
Anatomy of the basic parts of the human nail. A. Nail plate; B. lunula; C. root; D. sinus; E. matrix; F. nail bed; G. hyponychium; H. free margin.
Illustration courtesy of KDS444 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Fingernails take about 9 months to grow out completely. They grow about one millimeter per week.
- The middle fingernail grows the most rapidly.
- Toenails take longer than fingernails to grow out - about 18 months.
- Eating gelatin won't make your nails grow faster or stronger. Eating a healthy, balanced diet will get the best result.
- Compared to the outer layer of your skin, nails are about 100 times more easily permeated by water. Nails swell when they're wet and shrink as they dry. Too much swelling and shrinking weakens them.
- Physical or emotional trauma and serious illness can slow or stop nail growth, causing horizontal ridges in your nail.
Photo courtesy of Elipongo [CC0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Horizontal ridges are different. Often they mean there's a problem.
Beau's lines are deep indentations across the nail bed. They are a sign that something temporarily injured the nail matrix, causing the nail to stop growing.
The most common cause of Beau's Lines is an injury to the nail from something like slamming your finger in a door OR exposure to severe cold in someone with Raynaud's Disease, which decreases blood flow to the nail matrix.
A new fingernail takes 3 - 6 months to grow, and a toenail takes 1 - 1 1/2 years. Doctors can estimate the time of the illness / injury that caused the lines based on their location in your nail. So if you have a Beau's line about halfway up a toenail, the injury probably occurred 6 - 9 months ago.
What causes Beau's Lines?
Injuries to the nail & nail bed cause Beau's Lines:
- Any injury to your nail matrix will slow cell division in the nail matrix. Long distance runners often get Beau's lines on their toenails from their toes repeatedly hitting the front of their shoe.
2. Trauma to the nail bed can cause bleeding beneath the nail plate leading to a subungual hematoma. So the nail stays in place, while blood collects underneath it. This causes pressure on the nail matrix - which slows matrix nail cell producton. It also causes excruciating pain. Distance runners also get subungual hematomas. (So being a distance runner is really hard on toes!)
3. Eczema causes inflammation in the skin around the nail. This inflammation can prevent normal cell division in the matrix causing Beau's Lines.
4. Repeated & habitual damage to the nail matrix (called Habit-tic deformity / HTD) hurts the nail matrix. People who repeatedly pick, rub, or cut their cuticle get Beau's lines.
5. Inflammation of the tissue next to the nail (often accompanied by infection & pus) called Paronychia can cause Beau's Lines.
6. Inflammation of the nail matrix is called onychia - which often comes with pus formation and loss of the nail.
7. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which is caused by compression of the median nerve in the carpal tunnel of your wrist, can slow nail growth.
Illnesses and a poor diet can cause Beau's Lines:
Any illness that affects your entire body (instead of just one organ) or a congenital disease (which people are born with) can cause Beau's Lines.
Other causes include chemotherapy, a serious illness, major surgery, a blood transfusion, a car accident or any major stress to your system. You can get a series of parallel Beau’s lines if you experience multiple episodes of stress.
Beau's Lines can be caused by a zinc deficiency in your diet. So congenital diseases, like acrodermatitis enteropathica (which causes a zinc deficiency), cause changes in the skin and infections around the nail - which in turn, can cause nail ridges.
The important thing to remember is that while a single horizontal line may be the result of your body's fight against pneumonia - several horizontal lines can mean you have a chronic disease - and that you should see a doctor.
12 Ways to Minimize Nail Ridges
Your nails give your doctor clues to your health. For example, clubbed nails suggest heart and lung disease. Spoon shaped nails may mean anemia. Pitted nails can indicate a connective tissue disorder.
“If nail defects keep occurring as the nail forms, it’s a sign of an ongoing problem with creating the nail which can be a sign of bigger problems like GI (stomach and intestines), kidney, lung, or liver disease,” says Krant. “These can also cause discoloration of nails and make nails look whiter, yellower, or bluer than normal due to discoloration of the underlying nail bed.”
If you're ever concerned about nail ridges - or any other nail condition - ask your dermatologist. It's also a good idea to have your nails examined with your annual skin checkup!
So without further ado, here are the best ways to minimize nail ridges:
- Develop good nail care habits. Keep nails short. Short nails are less likely to crack or tear, says Dr. Kechijian. He also recommends cutting nails after bathing when they're softer and less likely to break.
3. Don't bite nails or hang nails.
4. Throughout the day, use a thick lotion or oil to moisturize your nails and cuticles. I've gotten great results with Foxbrim Argan Oil. See below.
6. Use rubber gloves to keep hands dry and chemical free when cleaning.
7. Take breaks from nail polish and polish remover. Use a non-acetone nail polish remover.
“If you are experiencing excessive peeling, dryness, discoloration, and/or ridging, it is time for a break from nail cosmetics to allow for the repair and regeneration of the nail cells,” says Dr. Stern.
8. Eat a well balanced diet.
“When people come into my office with severe nail changes, I immediately ask them for a dietary history to make sure that they aren’t on some fad diet keeping them from getting their recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals,” says Dr. Dee Anna Glaser, M.D. “If they’re not eating a well-balanced diet, then a proper diet and a vitamin supplement might help the health of their nails.”
9. Take a multivitamin to ensure you get all the vitamins you - and your nails - need.
10. Take it easy with the emory board.
11. Instead of cutting your cuticles, push them back. To do this, Dr. Dana Stern recommends using a wash cloth to gently push them back after bathing. Stay away from cuticle removers because they damage your cuticle's protective seal. Removers also can contain alkaline materials that destroy the keratin in your nail. The most effective cuticle regimen will prevent splits.
12. Try a ridge filler base coat. I've read good things about these:
If you have a nail concern, please see a doctor. Nails truly are a window to our health! Thanks for reading!
You might also be interested in learning more about liquid facelifts and how they compare to surgical facelifts. And be sure to check our our posts on Nail Salon Safety, AND How to Get Longer Stronger Nails! AND Light Spots & Hypopigmentation - 9 Ways to Fix Them!
Amy Takken is a registered nurse with 20+ years of experience helping people improve their health. Her in-depth skincare articles have been featured on Nazarian Plastic Surgery and The Palm Beach Center for Facial Plastic & Laser Surgery. Amy loves research and constantly watches for new products and treatments to help you improve your skin’s health – because healthy skin is beautiful! To reach Amy, visit our contact page.
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The Information provided on our website is not medical advice and should not be viewed as such. By law, only a medical doctor can diagnose or give medical advice. As a registered nurse, my goal is to educate, so I provide information on skin care, skin care products, and skin care treatments. If you have any condition that concerns you, please see a medical doctor. While most skin conditions are benign, some - like melanoma - can be deadly. If there is any doubt, please, please consult your physician. Thank you!
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