Fingernail Problem

Scratch an itch. Strum a guitar. Peel an orange. Your fingernails come in handy all day long, but too much use-or misuse-can cause problems ranging from nasty fungal infections to brittle, broken nails.

Your nails are made of keratin, the same type of protein that goes into your hair. Each nail actually consists of several parts, all of which play an important role in its health and growth:

  • Nail plate: This is what you see as the fingernail.
  • Nail bed: This lies below the nail plate; the two are attached. The capillaries in the nail bed nourish the nail and give it its pinkish color.
  • Nail matrix: You don’t see most of this, yet it may be the most important. It’s below the cuticle at the base of the nail. Cells in the matrix produce the fingernail. If the matrix gets damaged, your nail will be distorted or may even stop growing completely.
  • Lunula: This is the part of the matrix that you can see. It’s the moon-shaped portion at the bottom of your nail.
  • Cuticle: This fold of skin, made of dead cells, keeps foreign substances, like infection-causing bacteria, out.
  • Nail fold: The nail fold is the ridge of skin around the nail.

Although plenty can go wrong with the nails, one of the most common complaints dermatolo¬≠gists hear is that fingernails are brittle-”whether they’re soft and brittle or hard and brittle,” says Lawrence A. Norton, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine.

“Brittle nails can be compared to dry skin of the nails,” explains Richard K. Scher, M.D., professor of clinical dermatology and nail specialist at Columbia University School of Medicine in New York. “You treat them like dry skin-use moisturizers and avoid harsh chemicals and detergents that are drying.”

“Such nails are often shingling-they split like roof shingles at the end of the nail,” says Norton. He blames the condition on nails dried out from indoor heat, exposure to detergents, and too frequent use of nail polish removers.

Nails that are soft and brittle, on the other hand, need to be kept dry. “You’ve used too much lotion or kept your hands in water too long,” says C. Ralph Daniel III, M.D., clinical professor of medicine (dermatology) at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Trauma, the doctors’ term for injury, is another major problem for fingernails. “You hit your fingernail with the hammer,” says Daniel. If a bruise forms beneath the nail, a doctor may have to relieve the pressure that builds up.

Injuries also open the door to infections, especially fungal infections. Although these generally plague toenails more often than fingernails (because of athlete’s foot), fungal infections can strike the nails on the hands, with some unpleasant consequences.

And finally, certain skin diseases, such as psoriasis, can show up in your nails.

What you don’t want to occur. Separation of the nail plate from the nail bed, a condition called onycholysis. It can occur after an injury, infections, allergies to nail cosmetics, exposure to chemicals, or diseases like psoriasis. If the nail appears white, it may have separated. You’ll need to see your doctor and you’ll want to be careful not to aggravate the problem further. Unfortunately, once the nail separates, it won’t reattach until a new nail has grown out.

You also want to take good care of the nail matrix. If this is damaged, it will start producing a deformed nail or, even worse, no nail at all.

Here’s what the experts recommend you do to keep your nails as healthy and attractive as possible:

Avoid the culprits. The housewife or househusband is exposed to detergents and cleansers, the janitor to strong cleaning fluids, the bartender to citrus fruits, and so on, says Daniel. If you can’t stay away from these substances, wear gloves whenever possible. Otherwise, you risk brittle nails and even nail separation, or infection, which could lead to a deformed nail or even the loss of it.

Wear vinyl gloves for wet work. That’s vinyl, not latex or rubber, stresses Daniel, which will make hands sweat. In fact, Scher recommends wearing cotton gloves under the vinyl gloves.

Wear cotton gloves for dry work. You’ll help protect nails from damage or possible injury.

Keep your nails short. Try giving that advice to actress/singer Barbra Streisand or Olympic star Florence Griffith Joyner. But face it, the shorter your nails, the less the risk of damaging them.

Be careful of nail bangers. Don’t use your nail in place of a screwdriver, says Daniel. Try not to hit it with a hammer. You get the idea: Such actions can injure your nails, opening the door to infections, stopping nail growth, or causing bruises. “If your nail turns black and blue, go to your doctor or the emergency room,” says Daniel. The pressure should be relieved on the blood vessel that’s been injured underneath the nail.

Moisturize your nails. “Soak them in tepid water,” says Norton. “Then massage in a moisturizer to hold the water. There’s no fat in your nails to hold the moisture in.” He suggests trying any product with phospholipids, urea, or lactic acid-all are “humectants,” which will hold water; two he recommends are Complex 15 or Aquaderm. Daniel suggests white petrolatum or Moisturil.

Avoid moisture. Sounds like a contradiction, right? If your nail becomes infected, particularly with a yeast organism, it’s important to keep it as dryas possible. The nail plate may look chalky white, yellowish, brownish, or even green when an infection has set in. The nail may separate from the bed, or the nail fold may be red and irritated looking. See your doctor if you’re not sure what’s happening.

Care for your cuticles. But not the way you may think. “Don’t use mechanical instruments and cut them,” warns Scher. Soak them first, then push them back with a moist towel. He warns against orange sticks and cuticle scissors. “When you clip cuticles, you’re breaking down the normal barrier to bacteria and moisture,” says Norton, “and that can lead to an infection.”

Don’t pick or tear at hangnails. Otherwise, you’re opening the door to infection by making a break in the skin where bacteria can enter. Daniel suggests clipping the dry part of the hangnail with fine scissors and applying an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment. Keeping your hands, nails, and cuticles moisturized will help prevent future hangnails.

Realize the risk with nail cosmetics. Sculptured nails can hold in too much moisture, says Norton. The glues used in nail wraps can cause reactions resulting in permanent damage to the nail bed and root, says Daniel. The most common problem is separation of the nail from the bed. But if you notice any pain or tenderness, you’re probably reacting to the glue, and you need medical attention, stresses Daniel.

Forget formaldehyde. Although most fingernail polishes and nail hardeners are not supposed to contain formaldehyde, some still do. And if they cause an allergy or irritation, you can end up with nail separation.

Cut down on polish remover. “Apply and remove polish no more often than once a week,” advises Daniel. “The acetone in polish remover dehydrates the nails.”

Don’t eat gelatin hoping to build strong nails. It just doesn’t work.

Ditto for calcium. “Calcium has very little, if anything, to do with how hard your nails are,” Daniel says. Unless you are crash dieting or suffering from a malabsorption problem, your nails are not influenced that much by what you eat, says Scher.

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