Scratch an itch. Strum a guitar. Peel an orange. Your fingernails come in handy all day long, but too much use -- or misuse -- can cause problems ranging from nasty fungal infections to brittle, broken nails.
Although plenty can go wrong with the nails, one of the most common complaints dermatologists hear is that fingernails are brittle, or easily broken. Fingernails can become brittle either because they are too dry, making them hard and easily cracked, or because they are too moist, which leaves them soft and prone to tearing.
Trauma, the doctors' term for injury, is another major problem for fingernails. The classic example: Whacking the fingernail with a hammer. If a bruise forms beneath the nail, a doctor may have to relieve the pressure that builds up.
Injuries also open the door to infections, especially fungal infections. Although these generally plague toenails more often than fingernails (for the same reason athlete's foot develops -- the hot, moist environment of shoes), fungal infections can strike the nails on the hands, with some unpleasant consequences. Infection may turn the nail plate chalky white, yellowish, brownish, or even green and make the nail fold look red and irritated. (If you suspect a nail infection, discuss it with your doctor.)
And finally, certain skin diseases, such as psoriasis, can show up in your nails.
See the next page for home remedies the experts recommend you try to keep your nails as healthy and attractive as possible.
Avoid the Culprits
If you do a lot of housework, it's exposure to detergents and cleansers; if you're a janitor, strong cleaning fluids; a bartender, citrus fruits; and so on. If you can't stay away from these substances, wear gloves whenever possible. Otherwise, you risk brittle nails and even nail separation or infection, which could lead to nail deformity or even loss of the nail. Also, the shorter your nails, the less the risk of damaging them.
Vinyl gloves. Wear vinyl gloves for wet work. Exposing your hands to moisture too often, or getting your hands in harsh detergents or chemicals, can cause brittle nails. Wearing vinyl gloves, not latex or rubber, keeps your hands dry and safe from abrasive materials. To repel moisture even more, try sprinkling a little baby powder in your gloves, or wear a pair of cotton inserts under the gloves.
Cotton gloves. For dry work, wear cotton gloves. You'll help protect nails from damage or possible injury.
Also, don't use your nail in place of a screwdriver, a scraper, or other tool. Try not to hit it with a hammer or slam it in drawers. You get the idea. Such actions can injure your nails, opening the door to infection, stopping nail growth, or causing bruises. See your doctor as soon as possible if a nail turns black and blue; if your physician isn't available, go to an emergency room. The pressure should be relieved on the blood vessel that's been injured underneath the nail.
Moisturize Your Nails
Your nails contain no fat, so they can't naturally hold in moisture. Instead, try soaking them in tepid water, then applying a moisturizer, which will help lock in the water.
You may also want to try products that contain phospholipids, urea, or lactic acid -- all are "humectants." Complex 15, Aquaderm, and Moisturel are worth trying, or you may want to use an old standby -- petroleum jelly. Don't forget to reapply moisturizer after wetting or washing your hands or bathing.
But don't overdo it -- nails become soft and brittle when exposed to too much hand lotion and other moisturizers. Nails may be extremely soft right after a lot of time underwater or may become dried out from repeated soaking and drying.
If your nail becomes infected, particularly with a yeast organism, it's important to avoid prolonged exposure to water and to keep the nail area as dry as possible, since infecting organisms generally prefer warm, moist environments.
Care for Your Cuticles
Care for your cuticles but don't cut them with a mechanical instrument, which breaks down the cuticle's natural protection from bacteria and moisture. Avoid using so-called orange sticks, too. Instead, soak cuticles, then gently push them back with a moist towel. For a natural alternative, clean your nails and soften cuticles by scrubbing them with a nailbrush dipped in baking soda.
Don't Pick or Tear
Don't pick or tear at hangnails. Otherwise, you're opening the door to infection by making a break in the skin where bacteria can enter. Clip the dry part of the hangnail with fine scissors, and apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment. Keeping your hands, nails, and cuticles moisturized will help prevent future hangnails. If you have an ingrown nail, a saltwater solution will help ease the pain and relieve swelling. Add 1 tablespoon salt per quart of water and soak for 30 minutes. A saltwater soak can also make tough nails easier to trim.
Ways To Protect Your Toenails, Too
Toenails are most likely to fall prey to fungal infections. That's because the fungus that causes athlete's foot can invade the toenail after it's been injured.
Topical antifungals containing clotrimazole or miconazole will help defeat athlete's foot; apply them at the first sign of athlete's foot, hopefully before the fungus can invade the nail.
If the toenail does get infected, a prescription medication may be necessary to cure it.
Realize Nail Cosmetic Risks
Sculptured nails can hold in too much moisture. The glues used in nail wraps can cause reactions resulting in permanent damage to the nail bed and root. The most common problem is separation of the nail from the bed. But if you notice any pain or tenderness, you're probably reacting to the glue, and you need medical attention.
Forget formaldehyde. Although most fingernail polishes and nail hardeners are not supposed to contain formaldehyde, some still do. And if they cause an allergy or irritation, you can end up with nail separation.
Cut down on polish remover. Nail polish remover contains acetone, which dries nails. Use these powerful solvents no more than once a week. The less, the better.
For more information about nail care and common nail problems, see the links on the next page.
You can't just judge a nail polish by its color. You have to consider its name, too.
About the Author
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.