We bite them. We rely on them to peel fruit. We pop open cans with them. That's a lot to ask of something smaller than a postage stamp and made from the same type of protein as hair. Our fingernails are made of a protein called keratin, and there's more to them than meets the eye.
Each of our nails is made up of six parts. The nail fold is the ridge of skin around the nail. The part we can see and normally call a fingernail (or toenail) is called the nail plate. Beneath the nail plate is the nail bed, which nourishes the nail. That half-moon-shaped area at the base of your nail is called the lunula, and it's part of the nail matrix. The nail matrix is at the base of each nail, although you can't see it -- it's below the cuticle, a fold of skin made of dead cells that keeps bacteria from getting in. The matrix makes the cells needed to grow your nails.
Nails are complicated little bits of protein, and if we overlook them, things could potentially go wrong. The most common complaints we have about our nails is that they are brittle, they've developed an infection or we've injured them. You don't need to rely on a mani-pedi to keep your fingers and toes looking good if you follow some basic at-home tips to help keep all of your finger and toenails healthy all year long. Let's start with at-home remedies (and preventative tips) for brittle, easily broken nails.
Remedies for brittle, easily broken nails
Brittle nails that split, peel and break easily are a common complaint.
Brittle nails can happen because nails are too dry, but they can also happen if nails are too soft. Because of this, health care professionals often have two recommendations: Apply light moisturizer daily, and avoid harsh chemicals.
Applying a moisturizer to your nails and cuticles will help lock water into the nail, which is good for strong, healthy nails.
In addition to keeping nails hydrated, experts recommend we avoid exposing them to harsh chemicals, including cleaning products and acidic foods, such as lemons and oranges. When working or cleaning, wear gloves to protect your skin and nails from damage -- use vinyl gloves for wet work and cotton for dry work.
Nail trauma: A Thumb-nail Sketch
Your fingernails and toenails are there to help prevent injury to your digits, so from time to time your nails are likely to get injured in the line of duty (or in the strike line of a hammer's head). Nail injuries can cause bruising, infection and may sometimes stunt nail growth.
Keeping your nails short can help prevent nail injury because you'll be less likely to snag a nail or separate it from the nail bed. And while you can't always prevent an accidental injury such as shutting your finger in a door or drawer, you can help reduce the risk of nail bed trauma with a little common sense: Don't use your fingernails as if they were tools.
Nothing Fun About Fungus
Although yeast and other fungi and bacteria are equal-opportunity nail invaders, it's more likely you'll develop a fungal infection in your toenails than your fingernails. This is generally because the fungus that causes an infection in a nail is the same as the one that causes athlete's foot. Athlete's foot is a common infection; it can develop quickly in warm, moist places, such as inside your socks.
To help prevent fungal infections from invading your nails, keep all nails and cuticles clean and dry with a baking soda scrub, don't bite your nails or pick at hangnails (which can open the door to a fungal or bacterial infection), and treat ingrown nails with saltwater soaks to keep them clean and infection-free.
If you have signs of a foot fungal infection, over-the-counter topical antifungal medications containing clotrimazole or miconazole can help clear it up, but if the infection gets into or under a nail, you may need prescription-strength medication to knock it out.
Supplements: beneficial or bunk?
Wish there were a magic pill to make nails strong and healthy, and keep them that way?
While it's not a magic pill, some studies have found that the vitamin biotin may help build nail thickness and hardness while reducing the chance of splitting. And for people with brittle, soft nails, this could seem like magic. An easy way to boost your biotin intake is with a supplement, but foods many of us eat every day are also rich in the B vitamin, from salmon to carrots to bananas.
When it comes to other dietary supplements, there really aren't any proven to encourage strong, healthy nails. While some consider calcium to be beneficial for nails, no scientific studies have found that to be true. And those claims that soaking your fingernails in gelatin will boost their strength and length? Well, that's just bunk.
Underlying disease? How Your Nails Might Help With Diagnosis
Your nails may be telling more than when you had your last manicure. They may be cluing you and your doctor in to potential health problems. For example, pitted nails may indicate undiagnosed psoriasis. Spoon nails (when the nails curve away from the nail bed to form a spoon shape) may give away an anemic condition, while clubbed nails (typified by an extreme, rounded curvature of the nail) may occur in people with cardiopulmonary disease or asthma.
Before you worry about every bruised nail bed and every hangnail, though, remember that most nail injuries and problems don't lead to a diagnosis of lung disease or anemia. Most of the time, a bruised nail is just a bruised nail. If you notice changes in your nail health, texture or growth, visit your health care professional to determine the cause and treatment.
Today it's second nature to paint your fingernails and toenails. But it's been a long road to here. HowStuffWorks breaks down the colorful history.
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