Dark nail polish and discolored nails dilemma

Originally Published: December 4, 1998 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: September 7, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I was wondering what causes fingernails to turn yellow if you leave nail polish on for a long time. Is it bad? And what can you do about it?

Dear Reader,

Now that nail polish comes in all colors and hues, from crystal clear to brilliant black, and electric green to sapphire sparkle, nail colors are as hip and fun as trendy accessories. But for some people who use darker shades of nail polish on their fingers and toes, removing the color may reveal yellowed, discolored nails. Yuck, you may say, and resort to (yet again) colored nail polish to cover-up the problem. Will you ever be able to go au naturel again? What can be done about this?

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, darker colored polish, in various tints of blue, brown, burgundy, black, and what have you, can cause a chemical reaction between the polish's coloring agent and the nail plate, leading to discolored nails. Depending on the person, this reaction can take place within days to weeks while wearing the nail color. This is neither bad nor harmful for your nails because it is superficial. To deal with discolored nails, you can try the following tips:

  • Next time you paint your nails, apply an extra layer of base coat first before you spread on a dark nail color.
  • After removing polish, scrub your nails with a toothbrush after soaking them in a hydrogen peroxide and water mixture or after massaging lavender oil into your nails.
  • Use an emery board (nail file) to file off some of the surface discoloration.
  • Go polish free and allow your nails to grow out until new nail color emerges. This usually takes about four to six months.

Remember, a little nail discoloration is not a huge issue to deal with — this is especially true if you're about to wear gloves and mittens and pack away those open toe shoes for the winter.

Though discolored nails can easily result from polish use, in certain cases, discolored nails can be an indication of more serious issues. For example, chemotherapy, arthritis medications, psoriasis, lung disease, and continued exposure to paints, rust, and fungus may cause yellowed nails. In addition, nail discoloration is commonly caused by nicotine use. If you are a smoker, Columbia University has a Tobacco Cessation Program that you may find helpful to remedy this issue. You can also reach out to Medical Services if you have an inkling that your nail discoloration is caused by something other than dark nail polish use (especially if yellowing is accompanied by nail texture or shape changes). Cheers to healthy nails,