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The Human Nail
The principle function of nails is a protective role for the distal ends of fingers and toes. Essentially the human nail consists of the nail plate, the nail matrix and the nail bed below it. The matrix extends beneath the nail root and contains nerves, lymph and blood vessels. It is responsible for the production of cells that form the nail plate. It is the only growing and living part of the nail.
On averege nails grow at a rate of about 3 mm per month. Fingernails grow faster than toenails - the former will grow completely between 12 to 25 weeks compared to a year to a year and a half for toenails.
Although nails may appear to be an impenetrable barrier, they are actually more permeable than skin. They contain 7 to 25%* water (normally 16%) and require a certain degree of hydration to maintain their elasticity or flexibility. When applied to the nail, water containing materials can carry dissolved substances into the nail. This is a particular concern for makers of cosmetics. This also allows the opportunity for the development of medication-containing lacquers or varnishes to be applied and absorbed directly to the nails (e.g. antifungals such as ciclopirox). Given their water content is similarly to that of skin, nails can dry out or lose water resulting in nail brittleness.
*Nail water content can vary depending on temperature and relative humidity.
*Egawa M. et al. Determining water content in human nails with a portable near-infrared spectrometer. Applied Spectroscopy 2003; 57(4): 473-78 ** Scher RK, Bodian AB. Brittle Nails. Semin Dermatol. 1991; 10(1): 21-5. *** 1. Reich A, Szepietowski JC. Health-related quality of life in patients with nail disorders. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2011 Oct 1;12(5):313-20. 2. Elewski BE. Onychomychosis. Treatment, quality of life and economic issues. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2000 Jan-Feb; 1(1):19-26.
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Brittle nails affects approximately 20% of the population. Woman are twice as likely to have the condition. The physical characterisitics include nails that seem dry and have lost their elasticity. Brittle nails have a propensity to be fragile and can easily split, flake, peel and crumble (i.e splitting, flaking, peeling or crumbling nails). Although brittle nails are usually idiopathic (without the association of an underlying medical problem) the cause of brittle nails may be the result of nutritional deficiencies, trauma, drugs or exposure to occupational elements that dehydrate or dry out the nail. Typical culprits include aging, long-term use of nail polish and excessive exposure to moisture, for example frequent swimming and dishwashing. Regardless of cause, the major factor contributing to this condition is dehydration of the nail bed.**
A large proportion of individuals experience brittle nails as a significant cosmetic problem. Given that healthy looking nails are an important part of an individual's body image, brittle nails can have a negative impact on self-esteem. Daily as well as occupational activities may also be impaired to a degree. In fact many clinical studies*** have demonstrated that cosmetic abnormalities associated with other nail conditions has a significant effect on quality of life.
Some individuals may not have brittle nails per se but are more prone to damaging their nails. This is largely a function of occupation, daily activities and the consistency of their nails. Similarly to brittle nails, it is very likely that damage-prone nails also lack sufficient hydration or are relatively low in water content. As such, these nails are less flexible and are easily damaged.
Brittle Nails and Pain
At times brittle nails can be painful and turn a normally easy chore into a difficult task. The nail plate (outer distal nail - see above diagram) is not a living aspect of our nails and therefore is not painful if cut or split. However, if damage runs into the nail bed (portion of the nail closer to the cuticle) then this can be somewhat discomforting. The discomfort will last until the nail plate grows out and covers the exposed nail bed.