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How to Get Rid of Yellow Nails so You Can Actually Go Polish-Free

Confessions of a nail polish addict: When I take off my beloved OPI Lincoln Park After Dark, my nails are a hot stained mess. Acetone remover can literally peel paint off the walls and put hair on my chest, but it ain’t doin’ nothin’ for my nails after they’ve been baked with a dark polish for a couple of months.

Something tells me you’ve faced the same problem. Before we resign ourselves to a lifetime of acrylics, there are a couple of tricks to get our poor stained nails all bright and shiny again.

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In preparation for our at-home hacks, let’s talk about some other things that can cause yellow, discolored nails.

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So what causes yellow nails?

Most commonly, yellow nails are caused by our beloved nail polish. The darker polishes especially take a toll on your nails, leaving them stained with leftover dyes. The easiest way to prevent this from happening is by always using a clear base coat. Not only does a base coat increase the life of your nail polish, but it also seals and protects the nail plates from staining. We love Essie’s Smooth-e Base Coat.

Holly L. Schippers, CND Education Ambassador and Empower Nail Art Lead Educator at FingerNailFixer®, agrees that the best anti-yellowing tip by far is prevention, saying, “Using a base coat with polishes that need them and the daily application of a high-quality nail oil containing jojoba or squalene will protect the nails from staining.”

The next biggest cause of yellow nails is the tar and nicotine from cigarettes. If you are a smoker, the best way to stop the yellowing of your nails is to stop smoking! OK, we know quitting is difficult, but we can’t change the facts.

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If none of these shoes fit, there could be a medical factor at play, meaning that you may need to get yourself to a dermatologist posthaste. RealSelf Contributor Dr. Joel Schlessinger explains, “Fungal infection is one of the most common causes of yellow nails. Other symptoms include flaking and peeling of the nail, along with an unpleasant odor. As the infection worsens, the nail bed could retract, causing nails to thicken and crumble.” He adds, “A change in the color of your nails can also be a sign of something more serious. Thyroid, liver and lung diseases can all cause yellowing of the nails, as well as nutritional deficiencies like low iron or zinc.”

While there are over-the-counter treatments for yellow nails caused by fungal infection, Dr. Schlessinger recommends visiting your dermatologist first of all. Prescriptions are far more effective than OTC, he says, “Plus, by seeing a medical professional, you’ll get a proper diagnosis and the best treatment for your needs.”

How to fix your yellow nail problem

Besides ditching cigarettes and using a base coat, use these tricks & tips to get rid of yellow nails:

  • Lemon juice: Soaking your nails in lemon juice will get rid of those yellow stains. Soak your nails for 10 to 15 minutes each day until you are happy with the results.
  • Peroxide and baking soda: Mix 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide with 2-1/2 tablespoons of baking soda in a small bowl. Using a cotton swab, cover your entire fingernail with the paste. Leave this mixture on for three minutes, then rinse. This treatment should be repeated every six to eight weeks. If you don’t have baking soda on hand, Dr. Schlessinger says water can work just as well: “You can try mixing one part hydrogen peroxide in three parts water to whiten nails. Place the mixture in a small bowl and soak your nails for 10 minutes. Be sure to rinse your nails really well afterward and apply hand cream or cuticle oil.”
  • Whitening toothpaste: In order to get rid of immediate nail stains such as pink nails from wearing red nail polish, try scrubbing a whitening toothpaste on your nails using a nail brush. Remember, this is not for long-term stains.
  • Light buffing: The top layer of your nails is where the yellow stains are. By buffing your nails you will get rid of the top layers, removing some of the stains. While this method may work, buffing your nails is not recommended because it can lead to weaker nails. “This removes layers of the nail plate and can lead to splitting and peeling,” says Schippers. If you choose to buff your nails, try using a clear strengthening polish after. We recommend OPI’s Nail Envy Nail Strengthener Original Formula (Ulta, $18).
And when all else fails and you can’t get those yellow stains to budge, consider this the perfect excuse to get a professional salon manicure (as if you needed a reason to treat yo’ self). Schippers says, “Usually, there’s a thin film of transparent tissue covering the nail plate, this is the cuticle. Most times, simply having a great salon manicure in which the tech knows the difference between cuticle and eponychium can solve the problem, as when they remove the cuticle the stain goes with it.” She advises, “For at home, a soft manicure brush or old worn toothbrush with some soap and water can lighten the stain.”

Updated by Sarah Long on 8/4/2017.

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