Ridges in Nails: The Meaning Behind Onychorrhexis

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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 the nail ridges, I turned to the pros.

Causes of vertical nail ridges

New York dermatologist Hooman Khorasani, MD, says your nails can be a window into your health. Onychoerrhexis—the medical term for vertical ridges in the nails—is most often just a sign of aging and nothing to worry about. Ridges in nails can be a result of “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 and avoiding harsh cleansers such as alcohol-based hand sanitizers can help. However, 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. This presents as ridges. 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. Therefore, 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 cuticle, 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 grooves only affect one nail, it probably means the cause is 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!). 

Causes of horizontal ridges in nails

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. Horizontal ridges are often a sign of an underlying condition that requires diagnosis and professional care. “Visit your dermatologist if you notice changes in your nails and have further questions. There might be an underlying health condition that needs to be addressed.”

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