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Your nails may be small but they play an important role, serving to help protect your fingers and improve dexterity. They also may reveal clues to your general health.
Take a close look at your nails. Are they strong and healthy looking? Or do you see ridges, dents or areas of unusual color or shape? Many less than desirable nail conditions can be avoided through proper care, but some actually indicate an illness that requires attention.
Your nails are composed of laminated layers of a protein called keratin, which is also found in your hair and skin. Each nail comprises several parts, including:
- Nail plate. The nail plate is the part of your nail that's most visible — the hard portion you see when you look at your fingernail.
- Nail folds. This is skin that frames each of your nail plates on three sides.
- Nail bed. Your nail bed is the skin beneath the nail plate. Cells at the base of your nail bed produce the fingernail or toenail plate.
- Cuticle. Your cuticle is the tissue that overlaps your nail plate at the base of your nail. It protects the new keratin cells that slowly emerge from the nail bed.
- Lunula. The lunula is the whitish, half-moon shape at the base of your nail underneath the plate.
Your nails grow from the area under your cuticle (matrix). As new cells grow, older cells become hard and compacted and are eventually pushed out toward your fingertips. Nails grow about 0.1 millimeter a day, which means that it takes a fingernail about four to six months to fully regenerate. Healthy nails are smooth, without ridges or grooves. They're uniform in color and consistency and free of spots or discoloration.
Your fingernails hold clues to your health. Learn to recognize the signs that might indicate a health issue. Some nail conditions are harmless. These include vertical ridges, which may become more pronounced as you age, and white lines or spots. Spots usually result from injury to the nail plate or nail bed. In time the white spots will grow out.
Other nail conditions can indicate disease. For example, yellow or green discoloration in your nails may result from a respiratory condition, such as chronic bronchitis, or from swelling of your hands (lymphedema). Indentations that run across your nails, called Beau's lines, appear when growth at the area under your cuticle is interrupted. This might occur because of an injury or severe illness, such as a heart attack.
If you have a nail problem that persists or is associated with other signs and symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor to get it checked out. The doctor's visit typically includes an examination of your nails along with other observations and tests to make a diagnosis.
No nail care product alone can give you healthy nails. But following these simple guidelines can help you keep your nails looking their best:
- Don't abuse your nails. To prevent nail damage, don't use your fingernails as tools to pick, poke or pry things.
- Don't bite your nails or pick at your cuticles. These habits can damage the nail bed. Even a minor cut alongside your nail can allow bacteria or fungi to enter and cause an infection (paronychia). Because your nails grow slowly, an injured nail retains signs of an injury for several months.
- Protect your nails. Wear cotton-lined rubber gloves when using soap and water for prolonged periods or when using harsh chemicals.
- Perform routine nail maintenance. Trim fingernails and clean under the nails regularly. Use a sharp manicure scissors or clippers and an emery board to smooth nail edges. Never pull off hangnails — doing so almost always results in ripping living tissue. Instead clip hangnails off, leaving a slight angle outward.
- Moisturize your nails frequently. Nails need moisture just like your skin does. Rub lotion into your nails when moisturizing your hands. Be sure to apply a moisturizer each time you wash your hands.
If you rely on manicures to make your nails look good, keep a few things in mind. Don't have your cuticles removed — it can lead to nail infection. Also, check to be sure that your nail technician properly sterilizes all tools used during your manicure. Using unsterilized tools may transmit viral infections, such as hepatitis B or warts.
Weak or brittle fingernails can be a challenge to toughen up. The following tips can help you protect them, making your nails less likely to split or break.
- Keep your nails short, square shaped and slightly rounded on top. Trim brittle nails after a bath or a 15-minute hand-soak in bath oil. Then apply a moisturizer.
- Moisturize your nails and cuticles at bedtime and cover them with cotton gloves.
- Apply a nail hardener, but avoid products containing toluene sulfonamide or formaldehyde. These chemicals can cause redness or irritate the skin.
- Don't use nail polish remover more than twice a month. Instead, touch up the polish. When you do need a remover, avoid those that use acetone, which dries nails.
- Repair splits or tears with nail glue or clear polish.
Dietary changes that supposedly strengthen nails don't work. Unless you're deficient in protein — rare among people in the United States — adding protein to your diet won't strengthen your nails. Similarly, soaking your nails in gelatin won't help either.
It's easy to neglect your nails. But a little basic nail care can go a long way to keeping your nails in healthy condition.