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Why Do My Nails Turn Yellow?

If you refuse to step foot out of the house without polish on your fingers and toes, we understand. What you may not realize, though, is that under those glossy layers of lacquer, your nails could be turning yellow. What brings about this unsightly color? The root cause could be a number of things, from what you wear to a more serious health issue. Here, a look into what casts a yellow tint on your fingernails.

Your yellow nails could be a result of… your nail polish.

Yes, your beloved nail polish could be to blame for that yellow cast. Darker nail lacquers’ pigments can stain your natural nails, especially if you don’t wear a base coat. The good news: If you take a break from wearing nail polish, your nail will grow out — taking with it that ugly yellow stain.

Depending on how fast your nails grow (typically 0.1 millimeters per day for the average adult), you may have to put polish on hold until the new, healthy nail growth is completed. Typically, a whole fingernail will grow out in 4-6 months, while a whole toenail takes a year to grow out. In the meantime, you can use nail brighteners that work much like color correcting makeup: Their slight purple tint helps to cancel out any visible yellow on the nail.

Your yellow nails could be a result of … smoking.

This bad habit certainly racks up a ton of negatives and yellow nails are one of them. Because your fingertips are in such close proximation to the toxins and smoke in the cigarette, they tend to absorb them. The best way to return your nails to health: quit smoking. If that’s not in the cards, natural bleaching agents, like lemons, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda, can help restore your nails’ luster.

Your yellow nails could be a result of … a fungal infection.

Gross, we know, but fungal infections can creep into your fingernails rather easily — especially if you visit a spa or nail salon with unsanitary conditions. Yellowing is only one sign of a fungal infection; your nail beds may also retract, thicken or crumble.

Using over-the-counter topical treatments — such as athlete’s foot antifungal cream — and rubbing it into your cuticles every day may help clear up the infection. Alternatively, you may also try natural remedies that contain tea tree or oregano oil, since both are natural antimicrobials. Keep in mind that these treatments won’t clear up what’s already yellow, but they will help the new nail as it grows in. If this new growth is clear and healthy, then the treatments are working and can be continued until the whole nail grows out.

If you don’t see improvement within two weeks of regular use, it’s best to visit your doctor to figure out exactly what the cause is. It’s likely fungus, yeast, or bacteria but it could also be something more serious, and your doc can determine the proper treatment. She may prescribe oral antifungal prescriptions such as terbinafine (Lamisil) or itraconazole (Sporanox), or a prescription topical antifungal, applied just like nail polish, such as efinaconazole (Jublia) or ciclopirox (Penlac). Prescription treatments tend to take months to be effective, but know that no antifungal — oral or topical — is 100% effective in quashing fungal infections forever.

Your yellow nails could be a result of … a more serious medical issue.

In those rare cases where lifestyle habits or infections aren’t the culprit, your yellow nails could be an indicator of a more serious condition, such as psoriasis, diabetes, lung disease, rheumatoid arthritis, or severe thyroid disease. Your doctor will be able to help you determine the root cause and put you on the correct treatment path.

Dr. Betty Yan, a dermatology resident at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine (SIU), helped contribute to the accuracy of this story.

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