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nails; toenails; fingernails; ingrowing; tinea; biting; fungal;


What are nails?

finger nailsNails are made in folds of the skin near the ends of our fingers and toes. They start to grow in the nail root (the part of the nail that is still underneath the skin) and then they slide out over the nail bed towards the end of the toes and fingers. Near the end of the nail it separates from the skin underneath it, where the nail colour changes from pink to white.

Nails are formed by a process called keratinization (say ke-ra-tin-eye-zay-shun). Keratin is the main protein in the top layer of skin, and in hairs and nails. Cells in the root of the nail flatten and become harder (due to keratin in them), and then as new cells form below them, they push these hard cells out and they become the nail.

pink finger nailsNails look pink because of the network of tiny blood vessels underneath which feed the nail bed. The nails themselves do not need any food. They are 'dead'.

Your fingernails grow about 2½ millimetres every month and your toenails grow about 1 millimetre each month. Because toenails grow more slowly, you do not have to cut them as often as you need to cut your fingernails.


Why we have nails

Have you noticed how sensitive the ends of your fingers and toes are? How we can feel the tiniest change in texture with our fingers and how it hurts when we bump a toe against a door or something?

  • Nails are there to protect the ends of fingers and toes.
  • They help us to pick up small things.
  • They come in handy if you have an itch somewhere that you want to scratch!

animal nails (claws)The claws that animals have are made of the same material that nails are made of. Claws scratch, catch and tear things such as food so that the animal can eat it. Human nails do not have to do this. Claws are usually thicker than our nails, so they are stronger.

Looking after your nails

It is important to look after your nails, even the nails on your feet.

You can do this by:

  • Washing around and under your nails every day.
  • Cutting your nails regularly.
  • Fingernails can be filed with a nail file or you can cut them with nail clippers or scissors.
  • You can cut them straight across or into a rounded shape. If you cut them too short, the very tender nail bed can be exposed. This will soon be covered with your growing nail, but the fingertip can be really sore for a while.

Toenails can be cut with strong nail scissors or nail clippers. You need stronger ones because toenails grow thicker than fingernails.

It is best to cut toenails after you have had a bath or a shower because then the nails will be softer and easier to cut. Cut them straight across and keep them short. If they grow long they may stick into the next toe and that can really hurt.

What else can you do?

  • If you have nails that break or tear easily, a good nail cream may strengthen them.
  • You can use a nailbrush to brush under your nails, but soak your hands or feet in water first or you could hurt the sensitive ends of those little digits (say dij-its).
  • Air your running shoes or school shoes every night so that you don't have to put sweaty, wet shoes on each morning.
  • Wear thongs or shoes in changing rooms to avoid picking up fungal infections.

Ingrowing toenails

Some people have toenails that are curved in such a way that the corners of the end of the nail dig into the skin around them.

  • This hurts and an infection can develop there making the whole toe very sore.
  • If this happens to you, you will need to see your doctor or a specialist in toes and feet (a podiatrist (say pod-i-a-trist)) who can treat the infection and show you how to cut your nails so that they do not grow into the skin any more.


tineaTinea is a fungal disease that can affect toenails.

  • It is often called athlete's foot and is an itchy red rash between the toes with white, soggy looking patches of skin peeling off.
  • Sometimes it can affect the nails too, making them thick, soft, crumbly and yellowy white colour.
  • If you have this problem then you need to get busy treating tinea with anti-fungal creams. If this tinea gets under the toenails it can be very hard to get rid of.
  • To learn more about tinea, read our topic Fungal infections.

Injuring a nail

looking after your nailsIf you hit a nail hard (maybe you hit it with a hammer or shut a door on it) you can get bleeding under the nail, making a bruise. This can be very painful.

  • The dark mark of the blood will stay there, moving along the nail bed with the nail until it gets to the end of the finger. It can be several months before the mark goes away.
  • If it is too painful, you could go and see your doctor who may make a hole in the nail to let the blood out (sounds gross…but it can feel so good for the blood to drain away).
  • Sometimes the nail falls off!! The new nail may be misshapen for a while, but eventually it becomes normal again.

Sometimes you may notice a white mark in a nail. This could be when the root of the nail has been damaged before the damaged part of the nail can be seen. This white mark will also slide along as the nail grows.

Biting your nails

  • Some people have a habit of biting their nails. They might do this when they are worried about something, but often nothing bad is happening, they just bite them.
  • biting your nailsThey may bite their nails so short that they bleed, or the skin around the nail becomes very red and sore.
  • It is not known why some people bite their nails and others do not bite them. People who bite their nails are unlucky to have this habit. They are not 'bad'.
  • Stopping biting nails is really, really hard. Some people try horrid tasting nail paint, but often this does not work.
  • People who do not bite their nails often have lots of ideas about what should work, and they can make people who bite their nails feel ashamed because most of the time these ideas do not work.
  • If your friend bites her nails, do not give her a hard time about it. If it was easy for her to stop, she would have stopped by now.
  • Tell her about some of the things you like about her if she is stressing about her nails.

Fascinating facts about nails

  1. Fingernails grow about 2 times faster than toenails.
  2. They grow faster in summer than winter.
  3. fancy nailsIf a nail is ripped off it will grow again if the root of the nail is not too badly injured.
  4. It doesn't hurt to cut your nails because the nail is dead.
  5. The paler half moon shape on the bottom part of the nail is called the lunula.
  6. The slowest growing nail on the hand is the thumbnail. The fastest growing nail is on the middle finger.
  7. Nails and hair get longer after a person has died. It may seem as if they keep growing, but actually it is changes in the tissues around the nails and hairs that make them seem longer.
  8. Deer's antlers, horse's hooves and bird's feathers are all made from keratin, the same protein from which human nails are made.
  9. In the olden days in China, really rich and important people would let their fingernails grow really long to show that they did not need to do any work.
  10. Some women like to have longer nails so they have false nails glued onto their own nails. Sometimes they have all sorts of pictures or decorations put on these false nails too.

Using nail polish

nailsSome people like the look of nail polish and feel special when their nails are coloured. This tends to be a girl thing, although some boys paint their toenails for fun.

Nail polish and nail polish remover can make an awful mess and be poisonous for little people, so keep this out of the reach of younger children.

Chipped nail polish is not a good look, so if you are going to paint your nails, you need to be ready to remove the nail polish when it gets scratched or chipped.

It's a good idea to let your nails 'have a rest' from nail polish during the week. Your school rules may ban nail polish anyway.

Dr Kim says

Dr Kim 
Doctors often look at nails to see how healthy a person is. Pink nails show that the person has enough iron in their blood and that the blood is circulating well around the body.

A healthy diet will help your nails grow strong.

You can protect your nails by wearing rubber gloves if you are in contact with cleaning products (like when it is your turn to clean the bathroom).

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We've provided this information to help you to understand important things about staying healthy and happy. However, if you feel sick or unhappy, it is important to tell your mum or dad, a teacher or another grown-up.


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