What are fingernails made of? Same thing as your Hair

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You bite it when you are nervous, you use it when have a scratch, you tap the table with it when you are pondering something. Nails may seem like a plate of dead cells that hardly get any attention, but in reality, they are of great importance and use. But what are fingernails made of?

Fingernails are made of keratin. It is a type of protein that our body makes and is used where the body comes in contact with the surroundings. So keratin is used to make nails, hair, even the outer layer of skin for protection. You’ll be surprised to know that even claws, horns, hooves, etc are made of keratin as well. 

While nails are not made of hair, both hair and nails are made of the same protein that gives them the hard texture; Keratin. 

Keratin is also made where there is continuous friction, such as your inner cheeks and gums. Sometimes due to biting, braces, or wisdom teeth, the keratin layer is placed at the point of contact to protect the delicate cells. But why do we have nails? 

The use of fingernails

Why do we have fingernails and toenails? There are many uses of fingernails and toenails, both for the human body and doctors and researchers. First, nails are only present in primate mammals. So cows and cats don’t have that, but monkeys and chimps do. It is speculated that the reason nails evolved was because of the design of primate hand; five digits with an opposable thumb. 

Illustration of the nail matrix
The nail matrix when the nail is removed. Do not try this anywhere

The most obvious function of nails is protection. They are hard and strong and cover the terminals of the digits. They help to protect the fingertips as we use our fingers most to interact with the environment. But protection is not the only function they have. They also make our fingers more sensitive. 

But how do these dead nails help fingers feel better? When you hold something with your fingers, the nails limit the sensitivity to only one side. This concentration of pressure at one point of the finger helps us feel things better. While the nails don’t feel anything, the skin under the nail (called the nail bed) has many blood capillaries and nerves to feel the pressure.

Nails help with precision: Much of human success (evolutionary and social) can be attributed to the use of fingers and hands in creating complex machines, writing stories, poetry, etc. The mind needs the hands and fingers to achieve things. And nails help us with precise tasks such as peeling something delicate, scratching something off, etc. All these tasks are possible because of our nails. 

Now that we know what nails are made of, let’s see how do nails grow. If nails are dead cells, how do they show signs of life; growth? The nail cells are living, but the outer nail is made of dead cells covered with keratin. To understand how nails grow, we have to understand where the nail comes from.

Learn more about the human body

The anatomy of fingernails

The U-shaped area at the base of the nail is called the cuticle. This is where you see your nail starting from, but in reality, nail goes beyond that. Look at your thumb and see a crescent, pale white spot. This is the matrix of the nail, also called the lunula. This is the visible part of the matrix. The rest of the matrix sits under the skin. 

The anatomy of fingernail
Anatomy of the fingernail

The nail matrix produces cells that later become the nail plate or the nail that you see and feel. As the matrix produces more and more cells, the older cells are pushed out. With a lot of keratin and the pressure and contour of the finger cuticle, a flat nail plate is pushed out. The inner terminal part of the nail is called the root while the outer terminal (which we cut) is called the free margin. The nail root sits on top of the nail matrix.

The skin surrounding the nail on the three sides is called the nail folds. The part on which the nail sits is called the nail bed and it has blood vessels, capillaries, nerve endings, etc and that presence of blood is what gives your nails the pink color. Remember that the matrix makes the cells that become nail, so the nails need blood to grow. 

Some fingernail diseases 

Even though nails are non-living cells that don’t feel anything, they are prone to disease. Nails don’t get any disease per se, but they can cause some infections for sure. One of the most common nail diseases is an ingrown nail. Ingrown nail is the condition when nail digs into the skin and keeps growing, causing skin inflammation and infection. 

Nails can also get infected with fungus due to improper hygiene. Any form of discoloration, thickening, etc can be indicative of deficiency. The white spots on the nails are considered to be a sign of calcium deficiency, but it is a misconception. White sports occur due to trauma or injury to the nail. 

Hangnail is the condition when a strip of skin is peeled from the sides of the nail, the nail folds. While it isn’t a disease, it can be very painful and result in bleeding. Make sure to wash it with cold water and apply anti-bacterial cream. 

Fun facts about fingernails

Here are some fun facts about nails that will make you look at them differently:

  1. Since nails are hard and painless, we tend to think that they are impermeable (prevent things to pass, like plastic). This is not true. Nail is 10%-12% water and hence many chemicals can pass through the nails. Chemicals such as salicylic acid, sodium hypochlorite (found in bleach), even some nail cosmetics can penetrate the nails and cause harm.
  2. It has also been found that nails of the two hands don’t grow at an equal pace. This means that the nails on your dominant hand grow faster. So if you are right-handed, nails on your right hand will grow faster. This happens perhaps because you use the dominant hand more and this causes the blood circulation to be better. 
  3. Our fingernails grow at a speed of around 3.5-mm per month. So if you have a 3.5-mm jack headphone, you can look at the diameter of the connecting plug and estimate the month’s growth in nails.
  4. Men’s nails grow faster than women. There is no clear understanding as to why this happens, but the most probable reason would be that more men are into menial and physical work than women. 
  5. Painting the nails (using nail polish) is not a recent practice. There are records of people painting their nails way back in 3,000 BCE. 

So this was all about the nails and their growth, anatomy, and facts. Make sure you cut your nails every month, take proper care of them because they might not feel anything, but they are important.  

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