Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Nail Health May 11, 2011

I can’t remember the last time I got a manicure though recently I did try those Sally Hansen real nail polish strips which say they last 10 days.  Mine lasted about 4 days which made me sad since they did look cool when they were on (I tried the bright flower pattern), and when I went to remove the strips I literally had to scrape/file the nail polish off my nails with a nail file.  Regular nail polish did not remove the strips at all even though that is what the manufacturer said would work.  It was so time-consuming to remove the strips, and my nails were left looking horrible – all beat up and scratched up.  Such a disappointment.  So there went my experiment with those nail polish strips.  I’ve also learned from lots of trial and error that it is best to get professional pedicures during the summer instead of trying to paint my own nails.  The professional pedicures always look better and last longer than any DIY pedicure.  Anyhow, I started thinking more about nails since I scheduled my first pedicure of the season for this week.   My problems with getting the right manicure and pedicure are nothing compared to having real nail problems.  So how does our health affect our nails?  And what is the best way to take care of our nails?

What Our Nails Tell Us About Our Health

It fascinated me to learn how much our nails can reveal about our overall health.  Before I give some explains I think it is important to point out that the growth cycle of a nail is six months.  And what exactly make up our nails?  In her book The Beauty Bible Paula Begoun explains (pages 376-377 , 2nd edition):

 Physiologically speaking, the nail is simply a protective covering composed of dead cells filled with a thick protein called keratin, quite similar in essence to the hair.  Although the part of the nail you can see is dead, the matrix (the part of the nail under the skin) is very much alive.  The white crescent area of the nail is called the lunula and is part of the matrix.  The nail grows out from the matrix and as the growth of new cells build up and dies it is pushed forward and out toward the surface.  The cuticle is the protective layer of skin between the outside environment and the matrix.  Keeping the cuticle intact is perhaps the single most important element in preserving the health of the nail.

It turns out that a lot about your nails is genetically predetermined so you cannot alter the why your nails naturally grow just as you cannot alter how your hair grows.

Ok so what can our nails reveal about our health?  Concave, spoon shaped nails, or koilonychia, can show that you have an iron deficiency.  Those white horizontal line that you sometimes have on some nails but not others?  That is called a Beau’s line and shows that the nail actually stopped growing during a period of physical or emotional stress.  Even a case of the flu can cause those lines to form.  Even the shape of your nails can be informative about a health issue.  Some people have nails’ whose tips are curved and slightly bulbous.  This occurs in people who don’t have enough oxygen reaching the tips of their fingertips because they smoke or have congestive heart failure.  This is actually almost like having a scar.  If the person stops smoking or is able to improve their heart condition their nail shape will change.  If your nails are discolored, for instance blue-gray, that could mean that you suffer from a collagen vascular disease or are having a negative reaction to medication.

 Brittle and peeling nails are chiefly caused by wetting and drying your hands and nails.  Chronic exposure to harsh detergents, water, toluene and formaldehyde in nail polish, and harsh nail polish remover solvents can stress our nails once again making them brittle.  Genes and diet definitely play a role in nail health as do medical conditions (as illustrated above).  And of course many people add to their nail problems by biting and picking at their nails when they are stressed, anxious, or bored.

According to an article in the Fall-Winter 2010 issue of New Beauty – pages 46-48 (New Beauty used to put issues of their magazine online but no longer do which is too bad in my opinion):

    • If your nails have white spots then you may have a vitamin or mineral deficiency
    • If your nails are brittle and separate easily from the nail bed, you may have a thyroid condition
    • If your nails are thin and concave, then you may have an iron deficiency
    • If your nails are overly thick or flakey you may have a fungal growth
    • When nails have a yellow case to them, it can be from a variety of causes, and a common culprit is dark nail polish. …  But, if you don’t regularly wear dark shades and your nails are yellow, it may be the sign of a health condition.  Discolored nails can hint toward fungal infections, psoriasis, diabetes or liver, kidney or lung conditions that require medical attention.

Suffice it to say, if your nails don’t look right go see a doctor immediately to have them checked since your nails could be revealing a larger and more serious health issue.

What Can or Cannot Help Your Nails

Can using a product on top of your nails help them grow or make them stronger?  Sadly no.  You cannot change the way your nail grows by applying a topical product.  In order to see a real change in the health or appearance of your nails you need to either treat a health problem or perhaps tweak your diet.  Remember that no matter what a manufacturer claims neither topical applications of fluoride or calcium will improve your nail health.

According to Dr. Amy Wechsler in her book The Mind-Beauty Connection (page 159):

Contrary to popular belief, our nails do not contain much calcium, so supplementation, while good for our bodies, may not help our nails.  In fact, vitamin and mineral deficiencies are rare causes of nail problems.  More often than not, brittle nails are caused by excessive exposure to harsh soaps, irritants, polish remover, and the wetting and drying of nails (all typical of a busy, kitchen-maven mom).  Brittle nails can also be seen with medical conditions like psoriasis, fungal infections, and thyroid problems.  Age also factors in, and the older you are the more likely your nails will become brittle.

That said, one little nutrient that may help give your nails a boost is biotin.  Found abundantly in foods like cauliflower, peanuts, and lentils, biotin is absorbed into the core of the nail, where it may encourage a better, thicker, nail to grow and prevent splitting and cracking.  In one study, people who consumed 2.5 milligrams of biotin daily had marked increases in nail thickness after six months.  To get this much biotin, ask your doctor about taking it in supplement form.

Nail Care 101

  • Moisturize the cuticle area
  • Wear gloves when washing dishes and doing house work
  • Apply hand cream frequently and especially after you wash your hands
  • Use a sunscreen on your hands – better yet get a hand cream with spf in it.  My current go to hand cream with spf is Boots No7 Protect and Perfect Hand Cream Spf 15 which you can get at Target or online
  • Don’t soak your nails for long period of time
  • Don’t use your nails as tools to open things such as letters or anything else
  • Avoid nail polish with toluene and formaldehyde and nail polis remover with acetone
  • Don’t bite or pick your nails

Sources and Further Reading:

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One Response to “Nail Health”

  1. Ana Says:

    Thanks for this informational post. Really helpful 🙂


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