Beautiful, well-cared-for nails are aesthetically pleasing and also indicate good general health. When the body lacks essential nutrients, the first indicators often appear in our hair and nails. While the way we groom our hands and feet can be a way of expressing personality, our nails have other functions, too.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans used to use their nails for digging, grabbing, climbing, and similar functions, and for protection. Even if you aren’t using your nails to dig holes or help you climb trees, our hands and feet are in constant contact with our surroundings, and the nails protect the sensitive skin at the tips of our fingers and toes. Healthy nails are important for more than just aesthetics.
Nails are made primarily of keratin, a type of resilient structural, fibrous protein that makes up our nails and hair, the top layer of our skin, and can also be found in glands and organ tissue. Nails start growing below the skin, and the part that’s visible outside is already dead nail cells. That’s a great thing because if we could feel the pain in our nails, that would make manicures much more challenging. Nails are also constantly growing, for about 3 millimetres per month for fingernails and 1 millimetre for toenails. Due to ageing or poor blood circulation, nails might grow slower.
Nail damage can be a result of poor care, but our nails can also reveal information about our health. When we hit or break a nail, the injury heals, and the nail grows back. But some signs of damage are visible in our nails even as they grow; this sometimes indicates a more severe underlying health problem.
Brittle nails that break easily, or nails that are very soft, can be a sign that you are lacking protein and some essential nutrients. But it can also be a sign that the nail care products you are using, for example, gel nail polish or acetone polish remover, have damaged the nail plate and caused it to soften. Nail discolouration, curling of the nail plate, and thickened nails can also indicate that the body lacks something it needs.
Nails hold a lot of information about our health. A dark brown line across the nail plate, known as Beau’s lines, can indicate malnourishment, diabetes, or zinc deficiency. Clubbing, when the nail develops a curve or a hunch, can indicate the onset of a serious disease such as AIDS, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, or pulmonary disease. Clubbing occurs because of a lack of oxygen.
White spots on the nail, or leukonychia, can indicate nail damage or a zinc and calcium deficiency. One or two white spots are usually nothing to worry about. However, more pronounced leukonychia can indicate heavy metal poisoning, heart disease, or kidney failure.
Poor care. Let’s start with the obvious—if you don’t take care of your nails, they are more likely to look bad. Injuries, nail-biting, and breakage are all are bad for the nails and can cause them to detach from the nail bed or change colour. If we traumatize the nail bed by, for example, slamming your finger in a door or hitting it with a hammer, blood pools beneath the nail and looks like a bruise; this causes the nail to detach from the skin below and eventually fall off. Nail-biting can damage the tissue around your nails and make them grow strangely, and can also damage your teeth. What’s more, nail-biting can damage the skin, creating cuts and raw places that easily become a gateway where bacteria, viruses, and parasites can enter the body.
Infections. Unfortunately, even the best nail care won’t always prevent infections. The most common nail infection is nail fungus. This can form on fingernails and on toenails, but toenail fungus is more common because we tend to take better care of our hands. A fungal infection can cause the nail to change colour, break, pull away from the skin, and, in serious cases, even fall off. Dermatophytes, moulds, and yeasts are the main culprits.
Usually, the nails become infected from the fungus that is present in a condition like an athlete’s foot which is usually contracted from walking barefoot in a public sauna, gym, shower, or SPA. Poor oxygen circulation makes us more susceptible to fungal infections.
Paronychia is another type of infection that affects the nails; it is a bacterial infection that can enter the nail root or bed through a damaged cuticle or broken nail. The infected tissue around the nail swells, becomes red and painful, and puss often forms at the infection site. People who bite their nails, cut their cuticles, or otherwise damage their nails are at higher risk of paronychia.
Malnourishment. Diet is crucial for nail health. When you don’t get enough essential nutrients, nails and hair suffer first because they aren’t essential. The body allocates nutrients to more critical parts like organs and bodily functions. Malnourished people often have brittle nails, nails that don’t grow as fast as they should and break easily. The most important micronutrient for the nails is protein.
The nail is mainly made out of protein, so if you don’t get enough of it with food, nails become weaker. When it comes to vitamins, vitamins like B7, also known as biotin, B9, and B12 are crucial for nail tissue. Many studies support that biotin effectively strengthens the nails and improves their growth. Other B vitamins are essential for oxygen transportation throughout the body as well as tissue regeneration.
Zinc is an essential mineral. White spots on the nails are often a result of zinc deficiency. Omega-3 fatty acids are responsible for hydrating the nail and preventing breakage. Also, magnesium, iron, vitamins E and C are essential for strong and healthy nails. It’s important to get these nutrients with food because it’s the best way for our bodies to absorb them. There’s a lack of proof that the body well absorbs vitamins and minerals from supplements.
Chemicals. We are constantly exposing our skin to chemicals in cosmetics and cleaning products. Nails also get an unfair share of chemicals from nail beauty products. A neat manicure is nice to look at, but it’s important to be aware of the ingredients used in nail polish and other manicure products. Some of the dangerous chemicals found in nail polishes and polish removers include:
Gentle nail care. The occasional nail injury at work or while gardening is unlikely to cause long-term harm, but it pays to be careful. You can wear rubber gloves when cleaning the house and washing the dishes to protect your nails from chemicals and the peeling and splitting that can come from frequent and prolonged exposure to water. If you do physical work, keeping your nails short is practical and can prevent damage. And of course—don’t bite your nails! Nail-biting not only damages the nails themselves but can also make it easier for infections to enter the body.
Balanced diet. Only a flourishing body can sustain strong, healthy nails. For that, it’s important to eat plenty of protein and foods that are rich in vitamins B and E and the minerals zinc and magnesium. Good sources of vitamin B7 or biotin include organ meats, eggs, dairy, and fish. Plant-based alternatives such as avocados, nuts, and seeds also contain biotin. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products such as organ meats, beef, and fish; for plant-based alternatives, either take supplements or eat fortified foods.
Zinc is found in seafood such as oysters and clams, and in beef and poultry. Plant-based alternatives include soy products, chickpeas, nuts, and beans. Dark leafy greens, almonds, and legumes are good sources of magnesium. Remember, the best source of vitamins and minerals is a wholesome, balanced diet; taking supplements isn’t as effective.
Essential oils for nail care. Moisturizing the nails from the outside is as important as hydrating from the inside. Natural moisturizers such as shea butter and coconut oil can strengthen the nails and prevent them from breaking. Some studies have shown that essential oils such as tea tree oil, thyme oil, oregano oil, and lemongrass oil can be effective against nail fungus and harmful bacteria.
Manicure advice. When you have strong and healthy nails, a manicure can complement the look. However, we suggest you make sure your manicure specialist uses non-toxic products. Ask about ingredients and certifications. These days, many beauty salons use non-toxic, vegan products that are much safer for the skin and nails of their customers and much better for the manicurists who handle those products every day.
If you do your own manicures, check the ingredient list of each product you use. Also, try not to cut your cuticles but only push them otherwise, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria. It’s also recommended to use wooden or silicon cuticle pushers as not to damage the nail plate. Using cuticle cream or cuticle oil regularly will keep the skin soft and supple and easy to care for. Cuticle remover can be used to loosen stubborn cuticles but be sure to use a non-toxic product.
If you are aware of these basics and practice simple regular care, you too can enjoy strong, healthy nails.
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