What It Really Means When You Have Ridges on Your Nails

As someone who constantly picks off her nail polish (sometimes to the point that my nail beds feel sore), I've always wondered if I might be damaging my nails in the process. I noticed that on one nail in particular, I have a pretty noticeable ridge right down the center, which is visible even under dark shades of polish. I heard somewhere years ago that ridges on your nails meant you had a vitamin deficiency, but I wasn't totally sure that was the whole story. To finally get to the bottom of it, I turned to the pros.

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New York dermatologist Hooman Khorasani, MD, says your nails can be a window into your health. "Onychorhexis—the medical term for vertical ridges in the nails—is most often attributed to aging, but is also seen with repeated exposure to water, harsh cleansers or solvents (i.e. acetone), medications (i.e. oral retinoids for acne) and medical conditions (i.e. anemia and thyroid disease)," he explains. "Using hand soaps that contain moisturizers while avoiding harsh cleansers such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help, but these types of lifestyle modifications typically take months before you see results. Just stick with it and be patient."

Alpharetta, GA, dermatologist Chynna Steele, MD, adds, "As we get older, our nails tend to have less water/hydration, which presents as ridging. It can also be associated with dietary vitamin deficiencies if it happens in younger people. If you suspect dietary vitamin deficiencies, I recommend taking a multivitamin to make them better. While biotin is helpful for nails, so are a lot of other vitamins necessary for general nutrition, so a good multivitamin may be better than biotin alone."

If your doctor says the ridges are just part of aging in general, Dr. Steele suggests using a good moisturizer around your cuticles, like Aquaphor, and a nail polish designed to help even out the surface of your nails (we like Essie Ridge Filling Base Coat, $8.50). "It won't fix the problem, but it will make your nails look better," she says.

When the ridging or uneven texture only affects one nail, it probably means there has been some damage to that nail in particular. "It could be trauma to the nail, like something falling on the nail or it being slammed in a door," says Dr. Steele. Dr. Khorsani adds that another very common cause of damage to the nail is picking at it as part of a habit or tic (exactly my problem!). 

But what if the ridges are horizontal? Dr. Khorasani says these types of ridges, or Beau’s lines, can develop as a result of systemic illness, poor nutrition, medications such as chemotherapy, or medical issues like electrolyte abnormalities such as hypocalcemia, Raynaud’s disease and many others. "Visit your dermatologist if you notice changes in your nails and have further questions, as there might be an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed."