Take a close look at your fingernails. Are they strong and healthy looking? Or do you see ridges, dents, or areas of unusual color or shape? Many less than desirable nail conditions can be avoided through proper fingernail care. Others indicate an underlying condition that requires attention.
Fingernails: What's normal, what's not
Your fingernails — composed of laminated layers of a protein called keratin — grow from the area at the base of the nail under your cuticle. As new cells grow, older cells become hard and compacted and are eventually pushed out toward your fingertips.
Healthy fingernails are smooth, without pits or grooves. They're uniform in color and consistency and free of spots or discoloration. Sometimes fingernails develop harmless vertical ridges that run from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. Vertical ridges tend to become more prominent with age. Fingernails can also develop white lines or spots due to injury, but these eventually grow out with the nail.
Not all nail conditions are normal, however. Consult your doctor or dermatologist if you notice:
- Changes in nail color, such as discoloration of the entire nail or a dark streak under the nail
- Changes in nail shape, such as curled nails
- Thinning or thickening of the nails
- Separation of the nail from the surrounding skin
- Bleeding around the nails
- Redness, swelling or pain around the nails
Fingernail care: Do's and don'ts
To keep your fingernails looking their best, follow these simple guidelines.
- Keep your fingernails dry and clean. This prevents bacteria, fungi and other organisms from growing under your fingernails. Wear cotton-lined rubber gloves when washing dishes, cleaning or using harsh chemicals, and avoid long soaks in the tub.
- Trim and file your fingernails regularly. Use a sharp manicure scissors or clippers. Trim your nails straight across, then round the tips in a gentle curve. It might be easiest to trim and file your fingernails when they're soft, such as after bathing.
- Use moisturizer. When you use hand lotion, rub the lotion into your fingernails and cuticles, too.
- Abuse your fingernails. To prevent nail damage, don't use your fingernails as tools to pick, poke or pry things.
- Bite your fingernails or pick at your cuticles. These habits can damage the nail bed. Even a minor cut alongside your fingernail can allow bacteria or fungi to enter and cause an infection.
- Pull off hangnails. You might rip live tissue along with the hangnail. Instead, carefully clip off hangnails.
- Ignore problems. If you have a nail problem that doesn't seem to go away on its own or is associated with other signs and symptoms, consult your doctor or dermatologist for an evaluation.
Tips for weak or brittle fingernails
Weak fingernails can be a challenge to toughen up. To protect weak or brittle fingernails and reduce the risk of splitting or breaking:
- Keep your nails short. Long nails are more likely to split or break.
- Use moisturizer. Apply moisturizer to your fingernails and cuticles several times throughout the day and before bed. Consider wearing cotton gloves while you sleep, to help seal in the moisture.
- Apply nail polish. A thin coat of clear nail polish can help keep moisture in your fingernails.
- Limit use of nail polish remover. Don't use nail polish remover more than once a week. When you do need to use nail polish remover, choose the acetone-free variety. Acetone dries nails.
- Ask your doctor about biotin supplements. Changing your diet or taking daily multivitamins isn't likely to strengthen your nails. However, some research suggests that the nutritional supplement biotin might help strengthen weak or brittle fingernails.
A note about manicures and pedicures
If you rely on manicures or pedicures for healthy looking nails, keep a few things in mind. Stick to salons that display a current state license, and work only with technicians also licensed by the state board. Don't have your cuticles removed — it can lead to nail infection. Also, make sure your nail technician properly sterilizes all tools used during your procedure. Various infections can spread through the use of unsterilized tools. You might also ask how the foot baths are cleaned. Ideally, a bleach solution is used between clients and the filters are cleaned regularly.
It's easy to neglect your nails — but there's much you can do to keep your fingernails healthy and strong. Start with basic fingernail care.