They say that your eyes are the window to your soul, but have you heard that your fingernails are the window to your … health? Yep, surprisingly, simply taking a glance down at your hands can give you some useful information about what’s going on inside your body. And sometimes, your nails might be alerting you to a potential problem. So the next time you go in for a manicure, take a look at your nails before the polish is swiped on to see if there is anything you should be concerned about.
Here are four common nail problems—and information about what they might tell you about your health.
1. Super-Short Nails
A lot of people have trouble growing their nails. I’ve always envied people with long, strong nails that never seem to chip or peel. You certainly don’t need to grow Guinness record-breaking nails, but if your nails never need a trim, that could signal a problem.
Why? Because chances are that you’re biting them down to the quick, which can be a sign of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. If you’re always chewing on your nails, there are proven methods to help you stop once and for all. For example, try keeping your hands busy with something else, like knitting or playing with silly putty. Alternatively, make your mouth the body part that’s occupied by popping in a piece of chewing gum. You’ll have long, healthy nails before you know it.
2. Brittle Nails
The official term for nails that are splitting, brittle, soft or thin is onychoschizia. Don’t worry—it only sounds scary. The condition is more common in women, and usually doesn’t actually indicate anything super-serious. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, only rarely are brittle nails the result of a vitamin and mineral deficiency. And if they are, it’s usually because of a lack of iron. If you suspect this is the case, you can get your levels checked, and if you’re deficient, take an iron supplement and/or up your intake from iron-rich food sources, including beef, chicken, liver, spinach, lentils and beans. Iron is essential for transporting oxygen throughout the body, and a lack of it can lead to anemia. And yep, it’s responsible for keeping hair, skin and nails healthy as well.
But if a lack of iron is not to blame for your weak nails (and it probably isn’t), you’re most likely dealing with an easy to correct problem: too much (or too little) water. If you repeatedly wash and dry your nails, all that wear and tear begins to show. This problem is worse in low humidity and dry heat conditions. To avoid it in the first place, don’t over-wash your hands, and consider wearing gloves when doing the dishes or other tasks that will get your nails wet. The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology also recommends applying lotions containing alpha-hydroxy acids or lanolin containing lotions after first soaking nails in water for five minutes.
3. Yellow Or White Nails
While you may think discolored nails spell trouble for your health, turns out neither of them are (usually) a big deal. Unfortunately, yellow nails are just part of the aging process. This can be exacerbated by smoking. If you smoke, you should definitely kick the habit (and not just for better-looking nails). Another reason for yellow nails? Polish or acrylics. If you’ve been dedicated to a weekly mani, take a break to see if things improve. If you have white spots on your nails, you may have heard that this is due to a calcium deficiency. But that’s actually a myth.
“Usually, those white spots are not very significant,” Dr. John Anthony, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health. “They’re often the result of minor trauma, such as if you whack your finger against something, and aren’t generally to do with calcium.”
4. Nails With Ridges
This one depends on which way the ridges are running. If you’re ridges are vertical, sorry, but that’s just Father Time rearing his ugly head again. Much like the lines that appear on our faces as we age, line can also how up on our nails. We know—so unfair. If, however, you’re noticing horizontal lines, that could indicate a more serious problem.
“I sometimes see transverse (side to side) ridges on nails,” Anthony told Health. “This is typically the result of direct trauma to the nail or a more serious illness, in which case you’ll see it on more than one nail at a time.”
This is because your body de-prioritizes making your nails look pretty when fighting an illness. When in doubt, ask your doc to check it out.