Having good-looking nails is great because every time you stretch a hand, people notice your manicure (or the lack of it) and this creates a positive or a negative impression about you but there is more to nails than pure vanity.
Nails are not only for decoration. Rather, they have another very important role – they serve as a health indicator. Many diseases and conditions manifest themselves on the nails and if you know how to read these signs, you could be warned in advance about an internal disease you were unaware of.
Different diseases appear in different ways on the nails. Most often they leave marks on the nail bed (i.e. the largest part of the nail that we often identify the nail with) or the skin around the nail. Aside from nail diseases like infections, ingrown nails, or separation and falling of the nail from the nail bed, nails get damaged by general body diseases and conditions.
Sometimes when nails are ill, this does not mean anything else than a local nail condition but most often nails show symptoms of other diseases. Changes in the shape or the physical properties of nails can indicate health problems.
When it comes to caring for your nails, many of the tips that you’ve taken for granted over the years may in fact be myths that can damage your nails.
Speaking today at the American Academy of Dermatology’s (Academy) Academy, dermatologist Marta J. VanBeek, MD, MPH, FAAD, assistant professor, department of dermatology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, discussed the myths and facts of healthy nails.
“Healthy, strong nails are important not just for their looks but for performing the tasks of daily life, like picking up objects,” Dr. VanBeek said. “Most of us don’t realize the importance of our nails until we have a problem with them. Misconceptions about nail care abound and it’s important to know the facts so that you can keep your nails in top shape.”
Myth: To get stronger nails, use polishes that contain hardeners or apply ingredients like gelatin.
Fact: While using polishes that contain strengthening ingredients may help make nails less prone to splitting, they also increase nail stiffness, causing the nails to break more frequently under trauma, because they become hard and inflexible. While some people swear that immersing their nails in gelatin makes them stronger, there is no scientific evidence that applying gelatin has any benefit.
The best way to grow strong nails is to make sure that they are kept moisturized. Because nails take a lot of abuse in daily life and are repeatedly exposed to harsh detergents and chemicals that can dry them out, it’s important to keep them moisturized. Most nail polish removers are alcohol based, so it is especially important to moisturize after removing nail polish.
“Moisturizers that contain petrolatum or mineral oil to protect against evaporation are particularly good,” Dr. VanBeek noted. “No special products are necessary as most hand creams contain one of these ingredients.”
Myth: It’s important to push your cuticles back to keep them healthy and help your nails grow.
Fact: Most people are aware that cutting the cuticle is never a good idea and groom them by pushing them back. However, dermatologists recommend against this as well because it can create problems.
“The cuticle is a barrier that protects the skin and the delicate nail matrix, or ‘root’ of the nail. Pushing back on the cuticle can injure it and expose the paronychium, or skin fold around the nail, to bacteria and result in infection,” Dr. VanBeek said.
Myth: Nail salons are regularly inspected so I don’t have to worry about safety.
Fact: Most nail salons take sanitation very seriously and follow strict cleanliness and disinfection guidelines, but consumers should not be afraid to ask how implements are cleaned.
“Look at the salon with cleanliness in mind and ask yourself these questions: Are the stations clean? Does the nail technician wash her hands between clients? Are there dirty implements lying around? If the salon does not appear clean, then move on,” said Dr. VanBeek. “People who get frequent manicures and pedicures may want to purchase their own tools and implements to be used at the salon in order to protect against infection.”
In addition to making sure that the implements used are sterilized properly, check that any foot baths that are used for pedicures are thoroughly disinfected before you use them. If they are improperly cleaned, they can harbor bacteria and fungus which can lead to serious infections.
Myth: Artificial nails are the best solution for problem nails.
Fact: Covering up nail problems will not make them go away and may even make them worse. While artificial nails are not always a bad thing, they are not recommended for people who are prone to fungal infections or have brittle nails because they can actually make the condition worse.
“Artificial nails can trap moisture, providing an excellent environment for bacteria and fungus to grow,” Dr. VanBeek said. “People with brittle nails should minimize the amount of trauma associated with removing or changing artificial nails. Chemicals used to dissolve the bond between artificial nails and the nail plate can dry out the nail and damage the nail if used too frequently. For people with healthy nails, artificial nails can be fine as long as they are not worn continuously.”
Because the substances used in artificial nails can cause an allergic reaction in some people, Dr. VanBeek recommends that you make sure that you know what products are used so that you can tell your dermatologist if you do develop a rash or other reaction.
Myth: Always wearing dark nail polish can discolor your nails.
Fact: This is not a myth—it’s true. For some people who use darker shades of nail polish on their fingers and toes, removing the color may reveal yellowed, discolored nails.
“Darker colored polish, like blue, brown, burgundy and black, can temporarily stain the nail plate. The staining will resolve over several weeks if the same color of polish is not reapplied,” said Dr. VanBeek. “The staining is neither bad nor harmful for your nails.”
To prevent this from happening to unblemished nails, apply an extra layer of base coat first before using the nail color.
Myth: Fungal infections of the nail can be effectively treated with topical products.
Fact: Despite the wealth of over-the-counter products available that claim to treat fungal nail infections, the only way to cure an infection is to see a dermatologist.
“Over-the-counter topical medications don’t penetrate the nail and therefore, aren’t as effective as oral prescription medications,” Dr. VanBeek said. “A dermatologist can prescribe the proper medication to eradicate the infection in most cases.”
One of the best ways to deal with fungal nail infections is to prevent them from happening. Since nail fungus thrives in warm, damp environments, Dr. VanBeek recommends that you keep your feet clean and dry, refrain from sharing towels and wear sandals in public shower areas.
Myth: Nail problems can be cleared up quickly.
Fact: Because nails grow slowly—about 0.1 mm a day, replacing the damaged or diseased nail may take many months. It’s important that you follow the instructions for the medications or treatment that you are given carefully to ensure that the new nail growth is healthy.
“When it comes to nails, there is no real quick fix so you have to be patient,” Dr. VanBeek. “Having beautiful nails is less a matter of luck and more a matter of caring for them correctly. Make sure that you pay attention to them and have a dermatologist look at any unusual problems because early treatment can prevent further damage.”
Headquartered in Schaumburg, Ill., the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy), founded in 1938, is the largest, most influential, and most representative of all dermatologic associations. With a membership of more than 15,000 dermatologists worldwide, the Academy is committed to: advancing the diagnosis and medical, surgical and cosmetic treatment of the skin, hair and nails; advocating high standards in clinical practice, education, and research in dermatology; and supporting and enhancing patient care for a lifetime of healthier skin, hair and nails.
It’s easy to neglect your nails. But a little basic nail care can go a long way to keeping your nails in healthy condition.