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Healthy Hands and Nails

Your hands are exposed to the elements all year long, so it’s important to keep them healthy. Here’s what you need to know about hand and nail care.

Nail Composition and Growth

Along with the skin and hair, the fingernails make up your body’s integumentary system. This organ system protects the rest of your body from damage. The part of the nail you can see is called the nail plate. Underneath it lies the nail bed. The nail bed is composed of a tough, protective protein called keratin. Keratin is found in the formative layer of cells known as the nail matrix. This matrix lies beneath the base of the nail and generates epithelial cells that become hard and plate-like as the nail grows. These cells help to protect and enclose the fingers.

The lunula is the visible part of the nail matrix. This milky white crescent of tissue at the base of the nail body indicates new nail growth. Healthy nail growth occurs at the rate of 0.5 millimeters per month, about half the thickness of a dime. Next to the lunula is the cuticle. The cuticle holds the nail to the finger and protects the nail against infections caused by bacteria or fungus.

Parts around the nail include the perionychium and the hyponychium. The perionychium is found on the sides of the nail. This is where hangnails and ingrown nails develop. The hyponychium is located under the front part of the nail plate, where the skin connects to the finger.

Potential Nail Problems

A change in the appearance of your fingernails can indicate potential health problems.

While it’s normal for vertical ridges and white spots to form on the nails, other indications can be more serious. Grooves or depressions across the nail may indicate an underlying medical condition. You should ask your doctor to evaluate any abnormal nail indentations. Tiny pits in the nails can be a symptom of nutritional deficiency. Clubbing of the nails, which occurs when there is a broadened fingertip and a rounded nail, can be a symptom of:

  • lung disease
  • heart disease
  • liver disease
  • inflammatory bowel disease

Another nail problem that should be assessed by your doctor is onycholysis. This condition causes the nail plate to detach from the nail bed. It may be a symptom of certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis, or a side effect of a medication.

Nail splitting occurs when the layers of the nail separate horizontally at the edge of the nail. This condition is common among people who wash their hands frequently, such as cooks and nurses. Nutritional factors and medications can also contribute to brittle nails.

Bluish nails indicate a lack of oxygen in the blood. This can be caused by serious conditions, including chronic obstructive lung disease. Dark red or brown vertical lines are known as splinter hemorrhages. These can be signs of an infection in the heart valves. Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.

As you age, the nails become flatter and more brittle. The lunula becomes less noticeable and the blood supply to the nail bed decreases. Nail growth slows, making it more difficult to treat fungal infections. Such infections may become more frequent as general health declines. Symptoms of an infection include redness, swelling, and a burning sensation in or around the nail. When an infection develops in the tissues surrounding the nail, the condition is known as paronychia.

Nail Care

It can be difficult to prevent all nail problems, but there are certain steps you can take to protect your nails from damage and infection.

Cut your nails straight across to keep them healthy. Never bite or chew your nails. Doing so can directly damage the nail bed, making it easier for bacteria to enter the nail.

If you use nail polish and nail polish remover, avoid products that contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP), formaldehyde, and toluene. While all of these chemicals are legal and considered safe up to certain exposure limits, they can all be hazardous under certain conditions.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, DBP has caused neurological toxicity in workers exposed to high concentrations of it over extended periods of time. It may also cause menstrual irregularities and pregnancy complications. Toluene is harmful if inhaled or absorbed through the skin, or if it comes into contact with the eyes. OSHA also reports that formaldehyde may be a cancer-causing substance.

When you do use nail polish remover, make sure to use it sparingly. It tends to dry out the nail, which can lead to splitting of the nail and infections.

To strengthen and protect your nails, use a nail hardener. This can help keep your nails smooth and intact, allowing for improved sensation and dexterity in the fingers.

Hand Care

The hands begin to lose their elasticity and suppleness over time. This is why veins and bones become more apparent as you age. Hand rejuvenation is becoming a popular procedure for improving the health of aging hands. Dermal fillers can also be effective in giving a fleshier look to bony hands. The dermal fillers often used in hand rejuvenation include autologous fat, collagen, hyaluronic acid, and calcium hydroxylapatite. Aside from making the hands appear suppler, these injections can also soften creases and wrinkles. Wrinkles and age spots on the hands can be removed with dermabrasion, laser treatments, or prescription-fade creams.

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Feb 29, 2016: George Krucik, MD MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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