When you think of skin cancer, you probably think of checking for moles. But did you know your nails can also reveal a sign of melanoma?
Manicurist Jean Skinner had first-hand experience catching this stealthy symptom. “I had a walk-in nail client a couple weeks ago,” she wrote in an August 2017 Facebook post. “She had a straight dark vertical stripe down her nail. She said as soon as she sat down—I need a color dark enough to cover this stripe.”
Other salons had speculated that the woman’s mysterious line could be due to a calcium deficiency, a blood blister, or a strange hereditary mark. Yet Skinner knew better than that. She immediately told her customer that the dark line was likely a little-known symptom of melanoma. Don’t miss these other 15 cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore, either.
RELATED: What your nails reveal about your health
7 Things Your Nails Tell You
7 Things Your Nails Tell You
1. Pale Nails
The problem isn’t so black and white when it comes to white nails. If your fingernail beds are looking a little ghostly, you may have anemia, a blood disorder characterized by a low red blood cell count. “Anemia resulting from low levels of iron can lead to inadequate oxygen in the blood, which causes the skin and tissues to become pale, particularly the tissues under the nails,” says Shilpi Agarwal, M.D., a board-certified family medicine and integrative and holistic medicine physician in Los Angeles. Be sure you’re consuming good sources of iron, including green leafy vegetables, beans, and red meat, to boost your levels.
More seriously, pale nails could also be a sign of early diabetes or liver disease, both of which can lead to impaired blood flow. “When diagnosed early, diabetes can often be controlled with dietary changes,” Dr. Agarwal says. Avoid processed foods with refined sugars and carbs, and eat more fiber, vegetables, and whole grains. “These will help stabilize blood sugar levels and limit circulatory damage caused by uncontrolled sugar levels,” she says. For liver disease, a trip to the doc for testing is a must-do for accurate diagnosis.
2. Yellowing or Thickening
Yellow nails certainly don’t look pretty, and what causes the hue is even grosser: “Thickened nails, with or without a yellow-ish tone, are characteristic of fungal infections that generally traverse the entire nail bed,” Dr. Agarwal says. She adds that topical medication is often no help since the infection is in the nail bed and underlying nail plate. Your doctor can prescribe an oral med, which will reach the entire breadth of the infected nail.
Even if you diligently check your skin for questionable moles monthly, you likely overlook your nails, a place where dangerous melanoma often goes unnoticed. “Dark brown or black vertical lines on the nail bed should never be ignored,” Dr. Agarwal warns. “These can be a hallmark sign of melanoma, which requires early detection and treatment.”
Leave your nails bare periodically so you can examine them, then go get a mani. “Sunlight is unable to penetrate through polish, so any shade other than a clear coat will provide an adequate barrier from the sun,” Dr. Agarwal says. Smart idea since your nails’ smooth surface makes it hard for sunscreen to be absorbed into the nail.
4. Pitting and Grooving
Depressions and small cracks in your nails are known as “pitting” of the nail bed and are often associated with psoriasis, an inflammatory disease that leads to scaly or red patches all over the body. “Individuals who suffer from psoriasis develop clusters of cells along the nail bed that accumulate and disrupt the linear, smooth growth of a normal nail,” Dr. Agarwal explains. “As these cells are sloughed off, grooves or depressed areas are left behind on the surface.” A physical exam is often all you need for a diagnosis, after which your doctor may recommend topical, oral, or injected medications or light therapy.
5. Brittle, Thin or Lifted Nails
Breaking a nail can be a bummer, but if your tips seem to crack at the slightest touch, it could mean your thyroid is amiss. This gland in your neck regulates metabolism, energy, and growth, and too little thyroid hormone often leads to hair loss, brittle and thin nails, and nails that grow slowly, Dr. Agarwal says.
Thyroid disorder also manifests itself by causing your nail plate to separate from the nail bed in a noticeable way. “Lifted nails are thought to occur because the increase in thyroid hormone can accelerate cell turnover and separate the nail from its natural linear growth pattern,” Dr. Agarwal explains.
Brittle, thin, slow-growing, or lifted, see your physician ASAP for a simple blood test that can check for thyroid disorder, which can be treated with medications.
Stripes on your nails are only a good thing if they are painted on. Horizontal white lines that span the entire nail, are paired, and appear on more than one nail are called Muehrcke’s lines. These could be an indication of kidney disease, liver abnormalities, or a lack of protein and other nutrients, Dr. Agarwal says. “They are thought to be caused by a disruption in blood supply to the nail bed because of underlying disease,” she explains.
Shorter horizontal white marks or streaks, however, are likely just the result of trauma to the base of your nail. These may last from weeks to months and usually will disappear on their own.
7. Blue Nails
A blue face is a clear indication that someone’s lacking airflow, and blue nails mean the same thing—you’re not getting enough oxygen to your fingertips. This could be caused by respiratory disease or a vascular problem called Raynaud’s Disease, which is a rare disorder of the blood vessels, according to Dr. Agarwal. Some people just have slower blood circulation, especially when exposed to cold temperatures, she says, but have a physician check your blood and oxygenation levels if your nails are persistently blue.
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
Subungual melanoma (aka nail melanoma) is, as its nickname suggests, a skin cancer that occurs under the nail. It affects 0.7 to 3.5 percent of people with melanoma. Rare as it is, it’s important to know about its telltale sign: a dark black or brown line across a finger- or toenail, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
A black band isn’t the only skin cancer symptom that could be hiding under your nail polish. Other signs of nail melanoma include darkened skin around the nail, blood, pus, and splits in the nail, according to the AAD. Early diagnosis could be crucial, so see your doctor right away if you happen to notice a dark mark under your fingernail or any other suspicious symptoms. Now that you’re looking at your own hand, check for these 10 surprising diseases your hands might predict.
RELATED: Things in your home thought to cause cancer
Wear gloves when working in the garden, and always wash up before heading inside. Additionally, avoid backyard burning of household trash.
Your big, comfy couch
Your favorite sofa could be killing you, and not just because it lures you away from activity: Many sofas, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture are treated with TDCIPP, a flame retardant known to cause cancer (i.e., a carcinogen). TDCIPP was used so frequently prior to 2013 that a study out of Duke University found it in the blood of everyone they tested. It's also one of ten chemicals most frequently found in household dust, according to this study.
Cadmium is a carcinogenic byproduct of cigarette smoke. If you smoke in your house, cadmium and other cigarette smoke by-products may be lurking, especially on soft surfaces such as curtains and carpet—even long after the smell of smoke is gone. There's even such a thing as third-hand smoke and it's resistant to even the strongest cleaning products. Here's where you can learn more about third-hand smoke and its dangers.
Chromium (VI) is a known carcinogen found in tanned leather, wood furniture, certain dyes and pigments used in textiles, and cement. To give you an idea of the prevalence of chromium VI, one study out of Denmark found that almost half of imported leather shoes and sandals contained some level of the carcinogen.
What can you do?
As with TCIPP, pay attention to labeling. And don't be shy about asking questions of your furniture salesperson.
Your old fridge
According to cancer.org, carcinogenic PCBs can turn up in old appliances, fluorescent lighting fixtures, and electrical transformers. While no longer commercially produced in the United States, PCBs are still manufactured and used in developing countries, and of all PCBs ever produced, up to 70 percent are still in the environment. Diet is another major source of exposure, according to Gushée.
What can you do?
Get rid of those old appliances and fluorescent light fixtures. Pay attention to advisories regarding PCB-contaminated fish and fish-eating wildlife.
Your cleaning products
Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen found at home in food, cosmetics, a variety of cleaning products (such as dishwashing liquids, fabric softeners, and carpet cleaners), paint, foam insulation, and on permanent press fabrics. In addition, you can be exposed by breathing smoke from gas cookers and open fireplaces.
The dry-cleaning chemical perchloroethylene (tetrachloroethylene or "perc") is a carcinogen that can build up wherever you store your dry-cleaned clothes. It's also found in spot removers, shoe polish, and wood cleaners.
Phthalates are suspected of causing cancer and may adversely affect human reproduction or development. They're found in vinyl flooring, shower curtains, synthetic leather, miniblinds, wallpaper, and anything made with PVC vinyl. They're also found in food packaged in plastic.
Everyone knows arsenic is poisonous, but in smaller doses, it's also carcinogenic. Yet you can find it in foods you probably eat regularly—including chicken, rice, and certain fruit juices, as well as in degreasing products, dyes, furniture wax, glues, lubricants, nylon, and paints.
Asbestos has been out of favor for decades, thankfully, but you can still find it in the insulation of older homes. As the insulation eventually deteriorates, asbestos fibers become airborne. Since asbestos fibers stick to clothing and shoes, workers exposed to asbestos on the job can also bring asbestos into their homes.
Styrene is a known carcinogen widely used in the manufacturing of polystyrene plastics, which can be made into foam and rigid plastic products such as cups, plates, trays, utensils, packaging, and packing peanuts. Styrene may leach into your hot coffee or soup if you're using styrofoam containers. It's also present in cigarette smoke and in all of these home maintenance, automotive, and crafting products. What can you do? Avoid using styrofoam to hold hot foods and liquids, and read your product labels carefully. Find out the 12 foods you should never microwave.
Pantry pests and other creepy crawlies can carry disease. But if you eliminate them using chemical pesticides, you're increasing your risk of cancer. Chemical pesticides include those that you use on your pets, such as flea collars and tick-repellant.
Radon is formed naturally from the radioactive decay of uranium in rocks and soil. It raises the risk of lung cancer—especially if you also smoke, says Ashley Sumrall, MD, FACP, a Charlotte-based oncologist. If you live in an area where the amount of uranium and radium in rocks is high, you can be exposed to radon through cracks in your foundation. You can also be exposed to radon if you have a granite countertops.