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  • Scripps Health

What your nails say about your health

Nail down the causes of fingernail changes

Fingernails help protect the delicate tops of fingers from injury -- and come in handy when you want to peel an orange or scratch an itch. Healthy nails are strong with pink nailbeds, but problems such as white spots, ridges, thickening and other changes to the color or texture of your nails are common.

“Most of the time, these are harmless changes often due to lifestyle or to a nail injury,” says Midori Rivera, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Escondido. “However, in some cases they may be a sign of health issues such as nutritional imbalances or thyroid problems.”

Here’s an overview of the most common nail changes, what may be causing them, and when to see a doctor.


Thin or soft nails

Thin or soft nails break or tear easily or may bend before breaking. Often, these changes are due to exposure to chemicals such as detergents or nail polish remover. Low levels of B vitamins, calcium or iron also may be to blame.

Cracked or split nails

Usually, nails split or crack because they are dry or brittle. Surprisingly, dry nails can result from frequently soaking your nails in water while washing dishes, bathing kids or swimming. Nail polish, nail polish remover, and alcohol-based hand sanitizers may also contribute. Dry, cracked nails may be linked to thyroid disease; if the problem persists, contact your doctor.

Peeling nails

Nails may peel off in layers in response to trauma, such as using your nails as tools to open packages, scrape hard surfaces or pick at old nail polish. Oversoaking nails also can lead to peeling.

Pitted nails