By Taylor Arnold
Handshakes have long been a universal greeting—so hands and nails are often the first gesture we present to others. But aside from the occasional trim or manicure, many people fail to properly care for their nails. While imperfections such as ridges, cracks or inflamed cuticles may seem insignificant, they can sometimes be a sign of deeper problems that can impact a person's overall health. Paying close attention to the nails on both hands and feet can help you keep tabs on the rest of your body.
Nails, like skin and hair, are made of specialized proteins called keratin. As we age, these keratin-based structures tend to thin, so some natural thinning of nails over time is normal. However, issues like cracks, inflamed cuticles and warts are not. "Some of these common problems can damage the part of the skin that makes up the nail, known as the nail matrix," explains Dr. Weston Waxweiler of North Atlanta Dermatology. "When the nail matrix is damaged, the nail may be permanently altered."
According to Dr. Stephanie Michael of Village Podiatry Centers, the most common concerns with toenails are in-grown nails, nail fungus and bruising of the nail. "It's important to really look at your nails for any discoloration or deformities," she says. "If you have a bruise under the nail, have the podiatrist take a look. Although rare, melanoma can present itself as a dark spot."
The good news is that growing and maintaining strong nails on a day-to-day basis involves some very basic practices. First and foremost, eating lots of protein and vegetables is key, because good nutrition helps strengthen the nails. Cut your fingernails straight across the top and properly trim the cuticles (filing with the more gentle friction of 240-grit files and buffers). "Filing the natural nail should be done in one direction—from the edge to the center of the nail plate," says Stephanie Allen, nailcare program director at the International School of Skin, Nailcare and Massage Therapy. She also recommends educating yourself about the products used on your nails, particularly those with harmful ingredients like formaldehyde, DPB, toluene and acetone.
To further protect your fingernails, wear gloves when washing dishes, as excessive contact with water or cleansing agents can lead to cracks, ridging and fungal infection. "When considering a manicure, give your nails a week or two between gel coats to allow them to recover," Dr. Waxweiler says. "Finally, consider asking your doctor about biotin, as this vitamin can help all keratin-based structures (including nails, hair and skin) in your body."
For healthy toenails, cut the nail straight across the top, but avoid rounding them off or cutting them too short because this can cause ingrown nails. Also, wear shoes that fit properly. "If they are too small or too tight in the toe box, this can cause ingrown toenails, bruising and nail fungus," Dr. Michael says. "For fungal toenails—think discolored and yellow toenails—topical or oral medications or laser therapy all are very effective treatments," she says. "The number one cause of fungal toenails is trauma. For example, when you are a runner or a soccer player, that trauma of the nail against the shoe is what causes the fungus."
If you enjoy a good mani/pedi, treat yourself, but be sure you're frequenting a quality nail salon. "Several red flags for nail salons include unlabeled products, an unusually strong 'chemical' smell, a price that is extremely low and lack of a ventilation system or fans blowing in the salon itself," Dr. Waxweiler says. Dr. Michael adds, "Make sure the place is clean, that they wear gloves and that they are cleaning out basins where you soak your feet. They should not be doing any medical procedures for you, using sharp instruments near your feet or cutting out ingrowns."
Most of all, keep in mind that the majority of nail issues tend to resolve on their own. Be patient—nail turnover is slow, so it may take many months for a damaged nail to replace itself entirely. Consistent care and attention will help you keep your best foot, and hand, forward at all times.