Nails are one of the body’s many dermal appendages found on the fingers and toes. They are there when we are born, and as long as there has been no significant trauma, they will be there when we die. The cells that make up the nail are called onchycytes. Onchycytes are partly made of keratin (a protein structure) and are laid down in sheets to form the nail. There is more than just keratin that makes up the nail and the nail structure goes beyond what we can see.
The structures of the nail are:
- Nail plate
- Nail bed
- Posterior nail fold
- Nail root
- Sterile matrix
Function of the nail structures:
The nail plate is the part that we recognise at the nail. It grows at a rate of up to 1mm per day, depending on genetic and health factors. Though it might be nice to think that nails are decorative or functional as a scratching tool, evolution shows us that they have had a purpose. In fact, nails are flattened claws and would have served as defensive and functional appendages before the evolution of the modern human.
- The nail plate protects the other structures of the nail.
- The nail bed is the tissue surface directly under the nail.
- Lanula are the white, half moon shapes that are at the base of the nail.
- Eponychium is the skin around the nail that is thicker.
- The soft tissue border of the nail is called the paronychium, also known as the lateral (side) nail fold.
- The continuation of the cuticle is the posterior (proximal) nail fold. Under the skin, the posterior nail fold turns into the dorsal matrix.
- Nail root is where the nail emerges from.
- At the very start of the nail is the sterile matrix . The sterile matrix houses stem cells that will eventually become onchycytes to form a nail. Damage at the point of the sterile matrix may cause complete loss of nail growth.
Nails that are soft, flexible and easily broken have two main causes: damage and nutritional deficiencies. This damage is often caused by excessive use of varnishes, artificial nails and nail polish removers and will only be seen in places where the products have been used. Excessive use of these products physically wears away at the layers and strength of the nail, causing it to be become soft. Magnesium, sulphur and zinc deficiencies been linked with soft, flexible and easily breakable nails. These minerals are important in the production of keratin, and issues with thinner or brittle hair may also be seen. There has been some suggestion that the taking a biotin supplement can improve weak, brittle nails. Plant based diets have also been anecdotally linked with better nail and hair health because of the variety of rich sources of nail strengthening minerals.
Artificial Nails and Polish
If you frequently use artificial nails and nail polish, you may also experience problematic nails. Acetone is a chemical that is often used in nail polish remover for both artificial nail and polish, and can contribute to nail damage. Newer types of long-wear polish may also cause damage if not removed correctly. Though it is fun to do for a special occasion, for good nail health reduce the use of nail varnish products, or opt for products that are easy to remove without causing too much trauma to the nail.
There are quite a few people who will admit to biting their nails- particularly when they are nervous- calling themselves ‘nail biters’. Nail biting can be quite serious for some as they might bite their nail so far back as to cause bleeding and infection. There are nail lacquer products on the market to help kick the habit, but if the problem has an underlying cause professional help may be needed.
Start by using a nail lacquer product from the pharmacy. If the problem persists, bothers you or if your nails possibly infected, speak to a general practitioner who can refer you to a specialist. If anxiety is causing you concern your GP can also help or speak to a counseling help line.
Sometimes, fungal flora can get under the nails and cause infection. It often starts in one nail and then slowly spreads to other nails if left untreated. Signs of a fungal nail infection are changes in colour, lifting of the nail, nail thickening and poor nail growth. If you suspect that you have a fungal nail infection, speak to your pharmacist or GP and if the problem persists, speak to a dermatologist.
General Advice for the Care of Nails:
- Keep your nails short. This will prevent them getting damaged, torn or caught on things.
- Trim your nails with a nail clipper straight across and round the edges with a file.
- Use a file by going from the centre outwards on both sides.
- Keep polishes and artificial products to a minimum, and take a break between treatments.
- Opt for an acetone free nail polish remover with nail conditioners. Acetone can dry out your nails.
- Do not trim your cuticles. If the appearance of cuticles bothers you, push them back with an orange stick. Trimming back cuticles can cause them to harden and increase the risk of infection.
If you have any questions or concerns about your nail health, contact your local doctor who will arrange for you to see a dermatologist. Contact us today!