Next time you’re at the nail salon, take a look around you. It doesn’t take a detective to notice that not all nails are created equal. No, we’re not talking about the tendency for peeling or brittleness—but more to do with the shape of the nail plate itself. Some look pretty “normal,” while others are short and stubby or appear to fan out. What gives?An atypical shape may be the result of an underlying health issue, in which case it’s important to seek medical intervention. But more often than not, it’s the luck of the genetic draw. Luckily, the right filing tips will help you nail down the most flattering solution for your fingers.First, a quick anatomy lesson:

  1. The part of your nail you file, buff and paint is the nail plate. It’s a hard structure, made up of many layers of keratin and sits atop the nail bed.
  2. The uppermost, white part of the nail is the distal edge; it’s comprised of old, hardened cells.
  3. The bottommost part of the nail is the matrix. This is the only living part of the nail and is where the keratin and cells are produced.
  4. The cuticle (eponychium) protects the matrix.
  5. The white, half-moon shape at the base is called the lunula. That’s the visible part of the matrix.
  6. Fun fact: Fingernails grow three times faster than toenails, and those on your dominant hand outpace those on the non-dominant one.


“Nail shape and size is determined by the shape and size of your nail matrix,” says Dana Stern, a NY-based dermatologist who specializes in nail disorders. “The larger the matrix, the thicker and larger the nail.” For the most part, the width and thickness of a typical nail, not to mention the growth pattern of the distal edge, is largely determined by genetics. However, Stern cautions that any sudden change in appearance may be indicative of something more serious that merits a physician’s attention.

Here’s what to look out for:

Overly long, narrow nails

“Referred to as dolichonychia, this very long, narrow nail is associated with certain rare genetic diseases such as Ehler-Danlos and Marfan syndrome,” says Stern.

Spoon-shaped nails

“These nails appear concave so that a drop of water placed on the nail will not roll off. Although the cause is unknown, it can be hereditary or a sign of a medical condition such as anemia,” says Stern.

Stubby-looking nails

When the width of the nail bed and nail plate is greater than their length, it’s referred to as “racquet nails.” “It most commonly affects that thumbnail, and can be inherited as an autosomal-dominant trait,” says Stern. Rarely are other fingers involved.”“Interestingly,” says Stern, “nail biting, or onychophagia, can also result in a markedly shorter nail bed if the biting occurs in the area of the cuticle. That’s because it alters the nail matrix where the nail grows.”

Clubbed nails

According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, nails become clubbed when the tips of fingers enlarge causing the nails to curve over the fingertips. “Usually this indicates an abnormality in the lungs or heart,” explains Stern.Making a heart with your thumb and forefingers, place the nail of your right pointer finger up against your left—nail bed to nail bed, like you’re creating a mirror image. Ideally, this should leave a diamond-shaped or triangular space between them. If the nails are flush together, you might be experiencing clubbing.


Thanks to our smartphone obsessions, our fingers are working harder than ever. But that also means that those long, talon-like, Joan Collins lengths are a thing of the past. Unless you’re proficient texting with your knuckles, the optimal length barely skims the tip of the finger.“Trends in nail shape come and go, but the most flattering shape mirrors the natural curve of your cuticle,” says Michelle Saunders, a LA-based manicurist.Dark colors, says Saunders, look the best on short, square, or oval nails shapes. “It’s simple and chic.”Opaque nudes and pastel shades help elongate hands.“If you find yourself with wide nails beds, choose a neutral mauve or sheer taupe,” says Saunders. “It creates a softer-looking manicure.” Finally, Saunders advices that pops of bright pinks, reds and oranges look the most sophisticated on long, narrow or petite nail beds.