Why Are My Nails Yellow? 6 Causes + Remedies, From Experts
When it comes to nail care, most of us don't go beyond keeping groomed cuticles and handling a hangnail once in a blue moon (maybe more, if you're prone to picking). But the truth is, nail health goes far beyond cuticle care. Case in point? Let's talk about yellow nails. Yellow nails may look alarming, but don't fret—they can happen for a variety of reasons, and in most cases, the fix isn't as challenging as you'd think.
Sure, you can always schedule a manicure to cover up the appearance of yellow-tinted nails (assuming the hue is cosmetic-related and doesn't signal a health issue), but there's also an easy way to clear the color at home. Here, we tapped experts to get the scoop on what causes yellow nails and how to remedy them.
What causes yellow nails?
According to board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical Rachel Maiman, M.D., the causes of yellow nails can range from cosmetic concerns (like wearing dark nail polish) to underlying nail health issues (like fungal infections). Not to mention, this condition can also be hereditary, although it's pretty rare. Let's break down a few of the most common reasons for yellow nails:
Wearing dark nail polish.
If you're a fan of deep, vampy red or nearly black navy tips, Maiman says the dye in these types of polishes can actually cause yellow discoloration. "The dye interacts with the keratin of the nail and causes it to be yellow," she says. Although, those stains are more than a mere cosmetic concern: "This can also cause the nail plates to become brittle," says Maiman. Especially if you're using traditional polishes that contain formaldehyde, camphor, and toluene, as these harsher ingredients can weaken the nail plate.
"When your nails become weaker and thinner, you might experience discoloration with your nails, where they turn slightly yellow," adds Amy Lin, the founder of sundays—a nail care brand focused on wellness. "This is a physical sign that your nails may need a breather from polish."
Separation of the nail plate.
Otherwise known as onycholysis1, separation of the nail plate and the nail bed can also cause the nails to appear yellow. "This can occur as a result of trauma, chemicals, certain medications and also certain inflammatory conditions like psoriasis," Maiman says. If this is a condition you may be dealing with, it's best to visit a doctor to avoid infection.
Yes, smoking can cause yellow nails. (One of the many reasons we recommend you toss the cigarettes!) According to Maiman, the repeated exposure of fingers to tobacco tar can cause discoloration; not to mention, nails are vulnerable to the same harmful players that cause skin texture to appear dimpled, like smoking, which can result in ridges and discoloration on the nail plate.
There's nothing wrong with a faux-glow, but just like these at-home tanners can cause palms to look yellowish-orange, the same goes for your fingernails. Specifically, if the active ingredient in self-tanners called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) gets on your fingers as you apply, it can give your nails a dark yellow hue, Maiman says. That's because DHA penetrates the naturally occurring dead skin cells on your epidermis and darkens them, mimicking a tan—if it finds its way to the skin on your fingertips, it might give your nails a sunless tan, too.
"This condition, which is an excess of beta-carotene, is most commonly seen in children," Maiman says, and in addition to yellow nails, it can also cause skin-yellowing, too. The condition is benign2, which means no cause for concern, but you might still want to get it checked out by a doctor to make sure there are no other underlying issues.
When a fungal infection, like athlete's foot3 occurs in the nail, it leads to a thickening of the nail plate and accumulation of debris beneath it, both of which can lead to a yellow hue, Maiman says. Although, it's much more prevalent on the toes than the fingers.
"Nails are made of mainly hardened proteins," Lin explains (namely, a protein called keratin). "When we're low in protein, calcium, or other vitamins, that can sometimes show up on your fingernails." Be it ridges, discoloration, or overall brittleness (which can also lead to yellow nails, as we noted above). That's why nail-strengthening antioxidants, like vitamin E, are beloved in nail care. Research even shows vitamin E can help support a healthy, fresh nail color4.
Although: "Some articles claim that deficiencies of vitamin B12 and zinc can cause yellow nails, but it's not common," says Maiman. "In fact, vitamin B12 more commonly causes blue nails, not yellow." Nonetheless, it's still important to tend to the discoloration, no matter the hue. See here for our favorite vitamins for nails.
How to get rid of it.
Thankfully, yellow nails aren't impossible to fix. In fact, once you've landed on the root cause, you can usually tend to the discoloration at home or with the help of a professional. If the cause is cosmetic-related (i.e., nail polish or self-tanner), Maiman recommends taking a break from using the product. Instead, switch to bright or neutral lacquers and use a mitt or glove when applying your self-tanner.
If you have a deep stain, Maiman suggests diluting hydrogen peroxide to fix the color:
- "Combine 3 to 4 tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide and one-half cup of water," she says. Friendly reminder: You never want to apply the antibacterial on your skin without diluting it first.
- Mix the solution well and soak the nails for two minutes.
- "Next gently scrub the surface of the nails with a soft toothbrush and rinse with water," Maiman says. If needed, you can repeat this process two to three times a week.
If your cause isn't cosmetic, Maiman suggests getting to the root of the issue, then addressing whatever the underlying problem may be. Your nails can tell you loads about your health, so you might want to head over to your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. "If there is a medical cause, then professional evaluation and treatment will improve the appearance of the nail," Maiman says. Doctors may even need to prescribe oral and/or topical treatments in some cases, so it's really worth the trip.
Yellow nails can happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from dark nail polishes to fungal treatments. The good news? It likely isn't permanent. Once you pinpoint the cause of your yellow hue, you can create an easy solution to fix it at home or visit a doctor who can get to the root of the issue.
Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor's in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag. When she's not writing, you can find Andrea tackling new recipes in the kitchen or babysitting one of her many nieces and nephews. She currently resides in New Jersey with her husband and cat, Silas.