My nails are wearing nail polish about 99.5 percent of time. The other 0.5 percent is that 20-minute-ish period between removing my polish and deciding what color to paint on next. I'll weigh the pros and cons of dark vs. light and Deborah Lipmann vs. Essie, all while cringing at my bare nails. Whether it's the creepy red tint that comes after wearing OPI's Fire Engine Red for a week, or that sickly yellow tint of nails that haven't seen the light of day in weeks, it's just, blegh — I can't wait to cover it all up a fresh coat of polish.
But recently, I had a groundbreaking three-day stint of going naked — all-natural nails for a full 72 hours. And that's when I really had time to stop and think about it: Wait — is that yellow tint normal? Or am I just rationalizing my polish addiction? Can continuously suffocating my nails with a chemical substance, which also suffocates my boyfriend (or so he complains), really be OK? Is my nail polish covering up signs of cancer?! Is it giving me cancer?!
I had two choices: have a panic attack every time I pull out the nail polish remover, or talk to dermatologist (and nail whisperer) Dr. Chynna Steele, a dermatologist in the Atlanta area. I went with the latter.
Steele told me the shape, texture and tint of your natural nails all offer important clues to what's happening in your body, including serious, sometimes even deadly underlying health issues...and yes, your nail polish may be covering those warning signs up. So, should we give our nails a breather? Remove your polish and click ahead to see if your natural nails are trying to tell you something.
TEXTURE: Pitted Nails
If you notice pitting, or small depressions and dents on the surface on your nails, it might point to another skin disorder, Steele says. "Pitting on the nails is usually a sign of psoriasis," an inflammatory skin disease that typically causes scaly, itchy, red patches on the body. But if your body isn't tipping you off, pitting is another way those skin lesions show up, says Steele. "But it's also possible to have nail-only psoriasis," Steele adds. Your doctor can usually diagnose psoriasis with a straightforward physical exam and may recommend a topical treatment, oral or injected medication, or light therapy.
TEXTURE: Split, cracked, brittle nails
Brittle, cracked nails can ruin a good manicure, but there are bigger issues at stake here — namely, your thyroid gland. Your thyroid gland produces hormones and plays a major role in regulating your metabolism and energy. If it's underactive and hormone levels are low, it usually manifests as dry skin, hair that falls out, and very brittle nails that struggle to grow. If this is the case, ask your doctor for a quick blood test to find out if your hormone levels and thyroid are normal. On a less scary but still depressing note, brittle nails are also a classic sign of getting old, says Steele. "This is especially true of ridging and brittleness. The intrinsic moisture in the nail tends to decline with age, as it does the moisture in our skin."
TEXTURE: Beau's Lines
If you have linear ridges, known in the medical world as Beau's Lines, your nails are trying to tell you something. You may be vitamin or mineral deficient (lack of zinc can cause the ridges), it could be a bad allergic reaction to a new polish, or something more serious, like diabetes. "Beau's Lines can be associated with anything that stresses the body and requires it to divert resources away from nail growth," says Steele. "This could be anything from a surgery, to severe illness, or a reaction to certain medications." Don't rush to WebMD to diagnose yourself; make an appointment with your doctor to find out of this is a minor reaction or a major health concern.
TEXTURE: Puffy nail folds
If your nail folds are red, swollen, and tender, chances are you have an infection, According to Steele, puffy nail folds tend to occur with a condition called paronychia, but don't let the big name scare you. Paronychia is a skin infection that occurs around the nails and is fairly common. It can be caused by a bacterial or fungal infection from everyday trauma and inflammation — think: nervously gnawing your cuticles, picking a hangnail, or simply over-washing your hands.