This Is What Those White Spots on Your Nails Really Mean

·4 min read

If the eyes are the window to the soul, then consider the nails the window to your general health.

The physical appearance of your natural nails can often offer clues about what's going on inside your body. For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic, nail abnormalities like nail pitting could be a sign of an autoimmune disease, yellow or green discoloration can suggest vitamin deficiencies, and separation of the nails can even be a sign of psoriasis.

Another visible nail sign that shouldn't be ignored? White spots on the nails.

"They can be related to either a health issue you may be having or improper nail care," says Emma Eskander, the salon director of Gilded Ritual, a New York City-based nail salon.

Ahead, learn what you can do about white spots on the nails, including when you should see a doctor.

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Why Do You Get White Spots on Your Nails?
Why Do You Get White Spots on Your Nails?

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What Do White Spots on Nails Really Mean?

White spots on the nails can mean a few things, but the most common cause is the mistreatment of the nails, says Eskander.

"When white spots are located within the nail plate and cannot be scraped or removed easily, they are called punctuate leukonychia and are due to trauma to the nail matrix aka the half-moon area where the nail grows from," explains Dr. Dana Stern, a board-certified dermatologist, and nail specialist. "These white marks will grow out as the nail grows and are especially common in children who are more trauma prone and also have much thinner, less protective nail plates."

Wearing your nail polish for an extended period can also cause white spots on the nails. These are called keratin granulations. The good news is they can be removed easily with DIY techniques.

Another type of white patch on the nail is known as white superficial onychomycosis, says Dr. Stern. "This chalky white appearance at the nail is due to fungus that invades the superficial layers of the nail plate."

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What Causes White Spots on Nails?

There's a big misconception that white spots on the nails are caused by a calcium deficiency. However, Dr. Stern says that's a myth. White spots caused by trauma to the nail are usually due to aggressive manicuring. "Think electric file or aggressive pushing back at the cuticle with a metal tool," says Dr. Stern. "If a manicure technique hurts or is causing a lot of white spots, then it's time to re-evaluate your approach."

Similarly, the keratin granulations happen because the top layers of the nail cells are removed along with nail polish leaving behind white patches on the nail bed.

Finally, the cause of fungus on the nails can be a result of a few risk factors, such as reduced blood flow due to aging, exposure to bacteria, having a weakened immune system, or a nail condition. When dealing with a nail fungus, it's best to visit a dermatologist to discuss the possible causes and treatments for you.

How Can You Get Rid of White Spots on Nails?

When white spots on the nails are due to trauma, there isn't much you can do to remove the discoloration, besides be patient. "Removal of these white spots requires waiting for the nail to grow out because they are located within the nail plate and not just on the surface," explains Dr. Stern.

Eskander emphasizes the importance of taking care of the nails to avoid any trauma or mistreatment. "Making sure you are not being too abrasive to your nails is key in keeping healthy nails," she says. "Your nail technicians should be trained and educated on the correct way to remove hard gel or any nail enhancements so that it does not disturb your nail bed."

To remove white spots caused by prolonged nail polish wear, Dr. Stern recommends gently buffing the nail surface and treating the nail with a hydrating oil or Vaseline. "A nail polish break for several weeks will also help treat keratin granulations," she says.

Opting for nail polishes free of potentially harmful ingredients may help with keratin granulations, as well, says Eskander. She recommends polishes where the formulas are labeled "7-free" or higher. "This means that they are free of seven (or more) of the top toxic chemicals found in most traditional nail polishes."

Another way to prevent keratin granulations, is to make sure to always use a base coat to protect the surface of the nail, says Dr. Stern. "Avoid peeling off polish at all costs as this can lead to keratin granulations as well, and lastly, try to limit the length of time that you keep your polish on as the longer the polish adheres, the more likely you are to develop these white spots."

However, getting rid of white spots caused by fungus will require a visit to the dermatologist to understand the cause and treatment options. To prevent the likelihood of nail fungus happening, though, make sure that you're doing your research when picking a nail salon and that they're using one-time-use tools and disposing of them after each client.

If white spots aren't going away after two to three months, Dr. Stern recommends checking in with a dermatologist for further expert evaluation.