Healthy Hands and Nails
Unless you live in a warm climate, it’s likely that your
hands are the only skin on your body that remains exposed all year long:
it’s important to keep them healthy.
Nail Composition and Growth
Along with the skin and hair, nails make up the body’s
integumentary system. This is the organ system that protects the rest of your
body from damage. The fingernails are composed of a tight mesh of structural
proteins called keratins. A
cell matrix beneath the base of the nail generates epithelial cells that become
hard and platelike, or keratinized, as
the nail grows.
The part of the nail you can see is called the nail body. The milky-white
crescent of tissue at the base of the nail body, the lunula, indicates new
nail growth. This growth occurs at the rate of 0.5 mm per month (1 mm is about
the thickness of a dime). The cuticle protects against infection of the tissues
that surround the nail. Such an infection is called paronychia and is caused
by bacteria or fungus.
bed is the pinkish area (in light-skinned people) or dark area (in
people of color) beneath the fingernail. Trauma to the nail can cause it to
detach from the nail bed. This condition is called onycholysis.
As we age, the nails become flatter and more brittle.
The lunula becomes less noticeable. The blood supply to the vessel-rich nail
bed decreases. Nail growth slows, making it more difficult to treat fungal
infection, or onychomycosis. Such
infections may become more frequent as general health declines.
Potential Nail Problems
Changes in the appearance of fingernails are often a
good indicator of our general health. Vertical ridges and white spots are
Grooves or depressions across the nail have many causes,
some of which are of serious concern, so this condition should be evaluated by
a doctor. Tiny pits in the nails can be a sign of nutritional deficiency.
Clubbing of the nails—when there is a broadened fingertip and a rounded nail—can
be a sign of lung, heart, liver, or inflammatory bowel disease.
Bluish nails indicate a lack of oxygen in the blood.
This can be caused by conditions such as chronic obstructive lung disease, and
should be investigated by a physician right away. Dark red or brown vertical
lines are known as splinter
hemorrhages. These can be a sign of infection of the heart valves. Speak
to a doctor if you have these symptoms.
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.
Cut your nails straight across to keep them healthy.
Never bite your nails.
If you use nail polish and nail polish remover, avoid
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 (OSHA), 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 reports that formaldehyde can be “reasonably
anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
Hand rejuvenation is becoming a popular option for those
who can afford more than a weekly manicure. A new use for dermal fillers is to
give a fleshier look to bony hands. Wrinkles and age spots on the hands can be
removed with dermabrasion, laser treatments, or prescription-fade creams.