Nails

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Nails are made of six laminated layers of keratin, a protein that's also found in our skin and hair. Nails have an important role to play; they protect tissues, and act as windows to our overall wellbeing. This section provides you with more information about nail health, including how to keep them healthy and identifying nail changes that may indicate a greater health problem.

Read on for up-to-date nail care tips, from moisturising your nails regularly to keeping cuticles intact. For those who have weak or brittle fingernails, we’ve included some extra steps to help protect and toughen your nails. If you’re concerned with about any nail abnormalities, see our Common Nail Problems and Treatments page or consult your doctor or dermatologist.

Nail beauty is a great way to pamper yourself and lift your spirits. For steps on how to achieve salon-perfect manicures and pedicures at home or to learn about the most flattering nail shape for you – see our Nail Beauty section. We’ve even compiled a list of our favourite nail beauty resources to bring you tips straight from the pros.

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Fingernails are made of six laminated layers of keratin, a protein that's also found in our skin and hair. They grow from the area at the base of the nail under your protective cuticle. As new cells grow, older cells become hard and compacted and are eventually pushed out toward your fingertips. Fingernails grow 2 to 3 millimetres every month and toenails about 1 millimetre, but growth is faster in the summer months and on your dominant hand.

Healthy fingernails are smooth, without pits or grooves. They should be one colour and consistency, and free of spots and discolouration. It's easy to neglect your nails – but there are many simple things you can do to keep your fingernails strong and healthy. Consider our nail care tips, from moisturising your nails regularly to keeping cuticles intact.

Sometimes fingernails might develop vertical ridges that run from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. These are harmless and tend to become more pronounced with age. You might also find white lines or spots on your nail that eventually grow out. These are caused by minor injuries to the nail and are also not serious.

Not all nail conditions are normal, however. Consult your doctor or dermatologist if you notice:

  • Thinning or thickening of the nails
  • Changes in nail shape, such as curled nails
  • Changes in nail colour, such as discolouration of the entire nail or a dark streak under the nail
  • Separation of the nail from the surrounding skin
  • Redness, swelling or pain around the nails
  • Bleeding around the nails

If you have diabetes or poor circulation, the American Academy of Dermatology states that it’s especially important to seek treatment for nail problems.

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Well cared for nails are an important part of a groomed appearance. To keep your fingernails looking their best, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Keep your fingernails dry as much as possible: Wear gloves to protect nails and cuticles from housework, especially when cleaning or using harsh chemicals. Also avoid soaking in the bathtub for too long. Nails and cuticles that become engorged with water weaken, and are at a greater risk of damage.
  • Trim and file your nails regularly: Cut nails straight across using sharp nail scissors or clippers. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends rounding the nails slightly for maximum strength.
  • Moisturise: If your nails are prone to breakage, it could mean they need moisture. Rubbing hand lotion onto your fingernails and around the cuticles helps moisturise the entire nail, which will reduce the incidence of chipping, cracking and splitting.
  • Don’t remove cuticles: Dermatologists recommend leaving your cuticles alone. The cuticle is the natural barrier to fungus and bacteria and, once breached, protection is lost. This may lead to a nasty infection or nail damage. And while cutting cuticles holds the most potential for harm, pushing them back can cause problems as well.
  • Eliminate bad nail habits: Biting nails or being too aggressive when cleaning out under the nail can create stress fractures on the corners of the edges and eventually cause breaks. Also, don’t use your fingernails as tools to pick, poke or pry things.
  • Don't pull or tear at hangnails: Always gently cut them away to avoid tearing live tissue along with the hangnail.
  • Trim toenails regularly: Keeping them short will minimise the risk of trauma and injury.
  • Don’t ignore problems: If you have a nail problem that doesn't seem to go away on its own or is associated with other signs and symptoms, consult your doctor or dermatologist for an evaluation.
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Apart from regular nail care tips, there are some extra steps you can take to help protect and toughen weak or brittle nails:

  • Use moisturiser every day: Apply moisturiser to your fingernails and cuticles after you wash your hands, as well as just before bed. This helps to smooth away any dryness and keep your nails hydrated.
  • Keep your nails short: Long nails are more likely to split or break.
  • Apply nail polish: A thin coat of clear nail polish can help keep moisture in your fingernails and provide added protection.
  • Keep a nail file on hand for emergencies: Having a nail file with you at all times allows you to smooth away any snags or rough edges and prevent further damage.
  • Consider biotin supplements: Studies indicate that the nutritional supplement biotin (a member of the vitamin B family) might help increase nail thickness and prevent splitting and breaking.
  • Avoid using nail polish remover: Try not to use nail polish remover frequently. When you do need to use nail polish remover, choose the acetone-free variety. Acetone dries nails, causing them to become brittle.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet: A well-balanced diet and drinking plenty of water is another simple way to promote healthier nails. Make sure you are getting enough protein-rich foods like fish that help to build nail strength.
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While serious health issues such as anemia, liver and kidney diseases, and diabetes can show themselves through our nails, the most common problems we see in our fingernails and toenails are often minor – and usually preventable or treatable. Below is a description of some of the most commonly seen nail problems, and information on how they can be treated.

Fungal infection

Fungal infections can affect the fingernails or toenails, but it more commonly affects the toes. They can affect all of part of the nail, including the nail plate, nail bed and root of the nail. The infection develops slowly and causes the nail to become discoloured, thickened and appear 'crumbly' or as if the nail is about to fall apart. It may be painful, and it’s possible to experience inflammation of the finger or toe underneath or around the nail.

Treatment: Your doctor or dermatologist may prescribe antifungal medications, either applied directly to the nail or taken orally. Professional trimming, shaping and care of the toenail might also be carried out.

Ingrown nails

An ingrown nail is a nail whose corner or side curls around and grows into the soft flesh rather than outward toward the edge of the toes. The result is often pain, redness, swelling and, sometimes, an infection. Ingrown nails usually affect your toenails, and most often happen on the big toe. Poorly fitting shoes and toenails that are not properly trimmed are the most common causes.

Treatment: You can treat most ingrown toenails with home remedies: One technique is to soak the feet in warm salt water, dry with a towel, apply antiseptic cream and cover with a bandage. This will help stave off infection and keep it protected. There are also medical treatments for ingrown nails. Your doctor may carry out procedures to lift the nail or partially remove the nail. In more severe cases, your doctor may suggest removing a portion of the nail along with the underlying tissue (nail bed). Your doctor may also recommend using topical or oral antibiotics, especially if the toe is infected or at risk of infection.

Hang Nails

A hang nail occurs when the skin around the nail – which may be at the bottom near the cuticle, or at the sides – becomes dry and then tears or splits. Despite being small, hang nails can be very painful as the skin is splitting apart. Hang nails are generally caused by picking the cuticle or the skin surrounding the sidewalls of the nail or by biting your nails.

Treatment: Cut off the extra skin with a clean nail clipper or small nail scissors. Apply antibiotic ointment or cream and cover it with a bandage for a day or two to protect it from infection.

Splitting or peeling nails

Splitting, peeling or layering of the nail happens to nearly everyone at some point. It's caused or worsened by having constantly wet hands, especially while using soap and washing detergents. Frequently applying and removing nail polish is another common cause. Even habits that cause mild trauma, such as continually tapping your fingertips on a desk, may weaken the nail's edge enough to cause splitting.

Treatment: Once you have nail peeling or splitting, it cannot be reversed. Just keep your nails and cuticles moisturised and the weak areas will grow out on their own.

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