Nail care know-how

By: Michelle Morra-Carlisle Aug 09, 2010

Healthy nails are a sign of good health. Do you know how to keep yours in peak condition?

We scratch and scrape with them. We rattle them on desks, bite them, and then want them to look pretty. Unfortunately our fingernails and toenails (both containing keratin – just like an animal’s hooves!) endure a lot of wear and tear and sometimes bear the scars.

Healthy nails are smooth and consistently pink-coloured. But what about those annoying flaws – splits, ridges, spots, white lines or brittleness? They’re nothing serious, according to Brenda Arychuk, a registered dietitian at Pivot Point Inc. in Edmonton. She says these common signs of weakness in nails are “most likely due predominantly to environmental issues such as from chemicals or water.” Every time we wash dishes or use cleaning products without wearing rubber gloves, and every time we subject our nails to chemical treatments, we cause them a little bit of damage.

Biting our nails can weaken them. So can injury, inflammation (from certain diseases), thyroid disorders and fungal infections. Unfortunately age, too, can alter their appearance.

“As we age, our nails become brittle and ridged and may even turn yellow,” Arychuk says.

Does diet affect nails?

Getting too much or not enough of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, protein, iron or selenium, could affect the strength and appearance of nails. But these conditions are rare in Canada. 

Good health and nutrition show up in various parts of the body, so the best way to ensure healthy nails is to follow Canada’s Food Guide. That’s the official word from Health Canada, which recommends getting enough nutrients, especially protein (a protein deficiency can cause dents in nails), for optimum nail health. Lean meat, poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, soy, eggs, as well as low-fat milk and yogurt are good sources of protein.

There are no proven “cures” or supplements that help nails. Many of the supplements claiming to enhance nail growth have not been tested for effectiveness or safety. According to Health Canada there is no proof that getting an extra boost of calcium, biotin, chromium or protein will help your nails grow, or that soaking them in gelatin will make them stronger.

Arychuk agrees. “You should not take an individual vitamin or mineral supplement unless your doctor specifically tells you that you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency,” she says. “If you do wish to take a supplement, then consider a multivitamin to cover your bases. Also, calcium and vitamin D supplements are generally safe.”

Arychuk also recommends consulting a doctor or pharmacist first to make sure the supplements will not work against any medications you take or health conditions that you have.

Nails as a health indicator

In some cases, changes in the strength or look of nails may indicate an underlying health problem. They could also be a side effect of medication. Health Canada recommends talking to your doctor if your nails:

  • Easily pull away from the nail bed (the skin under your nail);
  • Are pitted;
  • Look yellow or have yellow spots;
  • Have dents running across the nail bed;
  • Are spoon-shaped or concave; or
  • Show changes in colour – such as brown lines, red lines, or completely white or blue nails.

Tips for healthy nails

  • Wear rubber or vinyl gloves when doing dishes or other cleaning and chores that expose the hands to chemicals or water.
  • Moisturize your nails. Pharmacies sell cuticle oil, but you can also use petroleum jelly, castor oil, olive oil or vitamin E oil. Rub it in daily, or as often as you can.
  • Keep your feet and hands moisture-free. Don’t wear wet or sweaty shoes, socks, or gloves. Feet and hands should be clean and dry to avoid fungal infections.
  • Stay healthy! Eat right, exercise daily, and routinely check with your doctor to stay on top of any health concerns.

Michelle Morra-Carlisle has written professionally for almost 20 years, at a federal government agency, for a trade magazine publisher and most recently as a freelancer. She enjoys the ever-changing nature of freelance work and the variety of topics she gets to cover - from jewellery design to schizophrenia - and has won several awards for her articles. Michelle is especially pleased to be covering health, fitness and wellness for and says that with each article, she picks up valuable tips for improving her own health and lifestyle.