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  • Writer's pictureAnna Renata

White spots under polish! What causes them?

I posted this originally on my Facebook page back in 2015, there are many interesting comments so if you are interested (and crazy bored!), check it out!

The white spots are kind of a mystery but here is my theory:

Working in a salon, doing pedicures we see them quite often, many clients develop them. They appear after gel polish or even regular polish has been removed.

People blame many things. Some say that the nails need a “break” or they need to “breathe”. Many think it could be a fungal infection (WSO), in one instance a client said that they were told by a dermatologist that an allergy to the nail polish caused the white spots.

A recent popularity in soak off products and longer lasting nail polishes might be the reason why many people experience them.

So, because the products must be soaked off in acetone, so it must be dehydration- right? All that acetone, right?

It must be the removal of the product then? Yes, many times unfortunately I see people push and pry and scrape the coatings off.. and then the dreaded damage appears.

Could it be the buffing that we do before the application?

I’m going to first talk about what I don’t think it is and why and then I will present my theory!

1) The nails don’t breathe. Simple. They are layers of dead keratin and no, nail polish is not suffocating them.

2) Fungal infection (WSO) could be the cause but then why do we see the white spots ONLY on the area previously covered by nail polish and when taken off and not re-applied the infection is not spreading to the rest of the toenail not previously covered by the nail polish? Also these white spots disappear after a few days of having the nail polish off. Usually the client comes a month later with no white spots. I doubt that fungal infection would disappear with such ease. They are usually very difficult to treat but if in doubt there is test mentioned by Dr. Robert Spalding.. All you need to do is to send a clipping of the nail and they will test it. Please contact Dr. Robert Spalding for details.

3) Allergy- quoting the amazing scientist Doug Schoon “I do NOT agree this could be an allergy. More than likely the client misunderstood or misquoted the dermatologist. I can’t image a dermatologist saying something so silly. They know how the immune system works and the nail plate can’t possibly develop an allergic reaction- they are dead!”

4) Dehydration from “all that soaking”- Doug Schoon once said that he conducted a little experiment and left a nail clipping in acetone or primer (even “worse”!!) for a very long time (days I think). After the test the nail clipping was pulled out of the acetone (or primer) with no traces of white spots or damage! Another quote from Doug: “If this were dehydration, putting water on the spot would re-hydrate it very quickly. If you put a nail dehydrator on the plate, it will turn white, but wash the hands and the whiteness will go away when water is re-absorbed into the nail plate… almost instantly”. That’s dehydration.

5) Dehydration from the actual nail polish. Quoting Doug Schoon “There is no way a nail polish can dehydrate the nail plate. Nail polish doesn’t absorb water, in fact wearing nail polish can cause the moisture content of the nail to increase, not decrease. Oil will make surface damage more difficult to see, but the damage won’t go away. If you put oil on the white spot and it goes away and never re-appears, that would indicate there was some “surface” dryness. Only the surface can be temporarily dehydrated. Long lasting white spots on the surface are highly likely to be caused by physical damage to the surface.”

BUT, so many points lead to dehydration. Using nail oil helps for example, right? So many nail tech tell clients to use the oil to “prevent dehydration” or “dryness” and I do see that many people who use the oil have LESS white spots!

I will get back to this……

To be honest, my gut was telling me it was a PHYSICAL DAMAGE….

Makes sense with soaking off the gel polish. Very often the gel polish is not quite ready to be removed and still a little stuck to the nail… so techs “help it a little” but that little pressure can still damage the nail and as Doug Schoon said can cause the pits in some clients nails. BUT!!! This gets a little more difficult because I know that even after being very gentle with the removal people still get them… AND clients that wear NAIL POLISH!!! Nail polish as we all know doesn’t have to be removed by scraping and pulling the product off. We know it’s not dehydration, we know it’s not always the removal but it’s physical damage.

5) Wearing tight shoes? Banging your nails? No, because I don’t ever see this on my male clients or clients that don’t wear nail polish. And why do we see the spots mainly on toes (especially the big toe) and less often on hands?!

Here is my theory:

What if it’s the tension that the coating is putting on the nails? Or/and curing, shrinking and aging of the coatings?

All products cure and as it happens they shrink. Gels shrink the most (especially if they are applied too thick). Liquid and Powder systems shrink less (unless the ratio is off- some techs as Doug Schoon mentions use a ratio that is too wet, contributing to excessive shrinking). So as we clean the nail before the application of the coating we improve the adhesion. Lets say the coating has an excellent adhesion. As the coating ages it loses it’s flexibility. It becomes brittle…..On the other hand… our nails constantly expand and contract when they absorb water and when the water evaporates. They are like little sponges…. with something stuck to them that….. doesn’t move…..

And BAM! It hit me!!!

That constant tension, between the coating (like polish or gel polish) must be pulling the top layer of the nail causing them to lift and create little flakes. Can this be the cause? I asked Doug Schoon about it.

Anna: Doug, could shrinking of the product (curing /aging) create enough pressure on the top layer of the plate to lift these layers up? I have seen a piece of gel polish that popped off the nail after soaking off with no help at all with what looked like a little layer of the nail still stuck to the bottom layer of the product and the nail developed a white spot in the area. Doug Schoon: “Yes, it can and does. I’ve seen this happen when nail pros use too much liquid monomer and not enough powder. I suspect if could happen with UV gel coating as well, if it were over cured and/or left on for too long. The longer UV gel mani coatings are left on, the harder they are to remove. I’ve seen that lead to surface damage”

But then… why is the oil helping? I think it does because maybe it keeps the COATING flexible. We knew that! But because it’s flexible it doesn’t pull at the layers of the nail as much?

So my conclusion is: the coatings themselves can cause the white spots by pulling the top layers of the nail too!!

OK, let’s go back to buffing for a minute. The buffing itself won’t cause white spots. Ever. It will cause thinning but not white spots. BUT put a nail polish on a heavily buffed nail or gel polish and you will see white spots.


Because the lower layers of the nail are less dense and more susceptible to damage. So yes, buffing will contribute to white spots but it’s not really the reason.

Why do we see it more on toes and not on hands? People leave the polish on their toes sometimes for weeks (some- months- yuck, I’m not even kidding). The big toe is bigger and it takes much much longer for an area to travel to the free edge (the end of the nail). Toe nails also grow slower then nails on the hands. Some people instead of removing the old polish from their toe nails just add more nail polish on top of old polish. So that old nail polish that sits on the nail plate is not flexible and it creates more and more tension on the top layers of the nail plate. Hands are a different story- once polish chips, after a few days, people just remove it. Usually. Or in case of gel polish UV cured polish- they last for weeks.

I also find that recent technological advances allowed for creating longer lasting polishes and do we see more white spots when using them? Well, yes!

My advice? Remove the nail polish when it starts to chip! Use well formulated nail oil to keep the coating flexible.

Leaving the polish on for too long allows the nail polish to lose flexibility, become very brittle and starts chipping (guess what- pulling the layers of the nail with it) .

Quick drying polishes might contribute more to these problems as these polishes might become brittle faster (someone mentioned on Facebook- some brands cause more instances of white spots then others- but maybe some formulas get brittle faster)

Clients should not leave the nail polish on forever without changing it!! It’s not the nail polish that causes the white spots per se. It’s the tension of an old or brittle nail polish that might be causing white spots!!

In regards to the gel polish: Applying thinner coats (that shrink less), curing products correctly (faster is not always better) and working with well developed products that shrink less might cause less damage. Also using properly formulated nail oil helps the coating to retain the flexibility= less pulling. Of course soaking properly and long enough so the product can actually release from the nail (and according to manufacturer) and NOT rushing and scraping the nail during the removal goes without saying.

Clients- don’t ever, EVER pick/peel the gel polish off. I don’t care how tempting it it. Just don’t! If you choose to wear gel polish- be responsible and have the gel polish removed properly (research the salon) and in a timely manner. Just because the gel polish lasts 3 weeks and it’s recommended to have it removed after 2, doesn’t mean that you should wait 3 or 4 weeks.

Feb 22, 2015 edited to add: I would like to add a response to this topic made by a chemist  Dr. Vivian B. Valenty

“Anna Renata has her own theory about the formation of white spots. Check out her post on FB today. In a way, products could be responsible for white spots. But I think that there are many causes of white spots. One of them is product related. We can consider a coating on a nail as a composite of the coating and the lamellar layers of the nail. All coatings currently applied on the nails shrink – the polishes because they give off their solvents when they dry and therefore lose mass and the gels when they cure they become denser by cross linking and move closer. The gel polishes shrink two ways – losing solvent and cross linking. This shrinkage results in having the composite under stress or tension as Anna Renata calls it. The stress is exacerbated by the swelling of the nail when it is wet while the coating is on it during our normal daily activities. The coatings do not absorb the same amount of water and therefore do not swell or expand at the same degree as the nail. This is called mismatch of their coefficient of expansion. Any system that is under stress will fail at the point of least resistance or where the system is weakest. When the coating’s adhesion to the nail is the weakest, the coating will peel off. When the coating’s mechanical properties make it the weakest, the coating will crack and may chip off if the adhesion to the nail is also weak. But when both coating and adhesion to the nail are stronger than the lamellar layers of the nail then the nail layers will delaminate. Most often these forces of adhesion are not uniform across the nail surface and will result in shallow holes or pockets on the nail surface seen as white spots because the intact areas of the nail have a different index of refraction than the holes/pockets (damaged areas). Athena Elliott does not see these white spots when she uses Dazzle Dry. That’s because the Dazzle Dry system was designed and engineered taking this mismatch in coefficient of expansion. The Dazzle Dry Base Coat is rubbery when dried on the nail and stretches with the nail when the nail swells/expands and shrinks back with the nail. The rubbery nature of the Dazzle Dry Base Coat creates its property as a stress release layer. The result is long wear and healthy nails.”

UPDATE August 19, 2017 Over the last couple of years I’ve been really paying a lot of attention to this and I kept a good photo journal and notes. I noticed a few things.

Certain brand of gel polish (for me) causes white spots on about 10% of my clients. The rest 90% is great. I use products exactly as instructed along with proper curing time and proper lamps and clients use oil. They still develop some surface damage. The product I’m mentioning is super easy to remove so no scraping or prying is ever done.

The clients who experience issues of surface damage were put in 2 groups:

Group #1  I switched them immediately to another brand. The white spots grew out over the period of 4 months, quite slowly though. Even though I used IBX treatment on couple of the clients.

Group #2  I removed the products all together, I performed 1 IBX  treatment and left any coating off their nails for 2 months. They reported the white spots were gone within days, leaving some surface damage (uneven/little rough) behind. They resumed gel polish manicures after that period (with another brand) and their nails are now in pristine condition (and have been for months)

I used the same approach with pedicures:

I left polish off for 2 months in the winter. I performed 2 IBX treatments. I resumed the polishing in April/May, it’s been 3 months- no sign on white spots. They also are using nail oil which might be contributing to their success. I do believe if they had a WSO the nails would not improve within days (white spots gone, just some surface damage signs visible- rough/uneven surface).

Disclaimer: this article simply voices my opinion/theory and by quoting Doug Schoon this article is not implying that Doug Schoon agrees with my opinion/theory. This article is not intended to diagnose or suggest a treatment (or lack thereof). I’m not a doctor, not a medical professional, just a girl with almost 20 years of doing manicures and pedicures behind her belt, that’s all.

I highly, highly recommend Doug Schoon’s series “Face To Face with Doug Schoon”. In this series Doug answers real questions that are sent to him from nail techs from all over the world. I’m even mentioned in one of his episodes!! The series is worth every single penny. The info he presents is priceless. I have no idea where I would be if it wasn’t for him. I mean it. You must subscribe to Doug’s series :

written by Anna Renata

Do not reproduce without permission

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1 commento

08 set 2018

Hi. I too have always had the same theory as you. As a technician of 22 years now. I agree. Good reading.

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