Your fingernails are composed of laminated layers of a protein called keratin that grow from the area at the base of the nail under your cuticle. Healthy fingernails are smooth, without pits or grooves. They are uniform in color and consistency and free of spots or discoloration.
Sometimes fingernails develop harmless vertical ridges that run from the cuticle to the tip of the nail. Vertical ridges tend to become more prominent with age. Fingernails can also develop white lines or spots due to injury, but these eventually grow out with the nail.
Not all nail conditions are normal, however. Consult your doctor or dermatologist if you notice:
- Changes in nail color, such as discoloration of the entire nail or a dark streak under the nail
- Changes in nail shape, such as curled nails
- Thinning or thickening of the nails
- Separation of the nail from the surrounding skin
- Bleeding around the nails
- Swelling or pain around the nails
- Failure of nails to grow out
To keep your fingernails looking their best:
- Keep fingernails dry and clean. This prevents bacteria from growing under your fingernails. Repeated or prolonged contact with water can contribute to split fingernails. Wear cotton-lined rubber gloves when washing dishes, cleaning, or using harsh chemicals.
- Practice good nail hygiene. Use a sharp manicure scissors or clippers. Trim your nails straight across, then round the tips in a gentle curve.
- Use moisturizer. When you use hand lotion, rub the lotion into your fingernails and cuticles, too.
- Apply a protective layer. Applying a nail hardener might help strengthen nails.
- Ask your doctor about biotin. Some research suggests that the nutritional supplement biotin might help strengthen weak or brittle fingernails.
To prevent nail damage, do not:
- Bite your fingernails or pick at your cuticles. These habits can damage the nail bed. Even a minor cut alongside your fingernail can allow bacteria or fungi to enter and cause an infection.
- Pull off hangnails. You might rip live tissue along with the hangnail. Instead, carefully clip off hangnails.
- Use harsh nail care products. Limit your use of nail polish remover. When using nail polish remover, opt for an acetone-free formula.
- Ignore problems. If you have a nail problem that does not seem to go away on its own or is associated with other signs and symptoms, consult your doctor or dermatologist for an evaluation.
A note about manicures and pedicures:
If you rely on manicures or pedicures for healthy-looking nails, keep a few things in mind. Stick to salons that display a current state license and work only with technicians also licensed by the state board. Do not have your cuticles removed; they act to seal the skin to the nail plate, so removal can lead to nail infection. Also, make sure your nail technician properly sterilizes all tools used during your procedure to prevent the spread of infection.
You might also ask how the foot baths are cleaned. Ideally, a bleach solution is used between clients and the filters are cleaned regularly.
It's easy to neglect your nails — but taking some basic steps can keep your fingernails healthy and strong.
Vitamins for healthy nails:
Biotin is a B-complex vitamin, also known as vitamin B7, coenzyme R and vitamin H.
It promotes healthy cell growth and aids in the metabolism of protein-building amino acids that are essential for nail growth.
Biotin-rich foods and supplements may help strengthen your brittle fingernails. A few small studies support biotin supplement use to that effect
One study in 35 people with brittle fingernails found that 2.5 mg of biotin per day for six weeks to seven months improved symptoms in 63% of participants.
Deficiency in this vitamin is rare, and while there is no Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for biotin, the Adequate Intake (AI) recommendation for adults has been set at 30 mcg per day
- Other B vitamins
Vitamin B12 plays a role in iron absorption, as well as the development of red blood cells. Both iron and B12 are necessary for keeping nails strong and healthy.
A deficiency in vitamin B12 can result in entirely blue nails, bluish-black pigments with wavy longitudinal dark streaks and brownish pigmentation.
Likewise, folate, or vitamin B9, is important for nail growth and health by contributing to red blood cell formation and the development of new cells.
A deficiency in folate can cause a pigment change in your nails and make them rigid and brittle.
To prevent deficiencies, adults require 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 and 400 mcg of folate per day, though pregnant women have an increased need.
Folate can be found in dark green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds and avocado. On the other hand, B12 is primarily found in animal foods, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, though it can be fortified into other foods and beverages.
Iron composes the center of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to your organs and every cell in your body including your nails. Without iron, oxygen does not get adequately carried to your cells. As oxygen is needed for healthy nails, an iron deficiency or anemia can lead to vertical ridges in your nails, or your nails may concave or “spoon” RDAs for iron vary considerably depending on age and gender. The recommendation for men is 8 mg per day, while that of women aged 19–50 is 18 mg per day. After women hit age 50 or go through menopause, their iron needs drop to 8 mg daily.
Your body absorbs the iron found in animal foods, such as beef, chicken, fish and eggs, better than that in plant foods like dark green leafy vegetables, peanuts, seeds, beans and other fortified foods. However, eating a food rich in vitamin C together with a plant-based iron food source improves absorption. For example, eating oranges and strawberries alongside a spinach salad with beans and seeds improves your iron absorption.
Magnesium is a mineral involved in over 300 reactions in your body, including protein synthesis, which is required for nail growth.
Vertical ridges in your nails may be a sign of a magnesium deficiency. Despite worldwide availability of this mineral, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that less than 60% of the US population consumes the recommended amount.
The RDA is 400-420 mg and 310–320 mg per day for men and women respectively.
Whole grains, specifically whole wheat, are a rich source of magnesium. Dark green leafy vegetables, as well as quinoa, almonds, cashews, peanuts, edamame and black beans, are good sources, too.
Nails are primarily made of a fibrous structural protein called keratin. This is what gives nails their strength and resilience. It also protects your nails from damage or stress.
Interestingly, the keratin you see is actually dead. Nails are formed by dead cells, which your body sheds as new cells push up from underneath.
Eating enough protein through your diet is essential for boosting keratin production and thus creating strong nails, whereas low protein intake may cause weaker nails.
The RDA for protein is 0.36 grams per pound (0.8 grams per kg) of body weight per day. This equals approximately 55 grams of protein per day for a 150-lb (68-kg) person.
However, the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) allows protein to account for 10–35% of your total daily calories — significantly more than the RDA.
Protein can be found in animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, as well as plant foods, such as soy, legumes, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids can help lubricate and moisturize your nails, giving them a shiny appearance.
These fatty acids may also reduce inflammation in your nail bed, which nourishes and promotes the health of cells that give rise to your nail plate. A lack of omega-3 fatty acids could contribute to dry and brittle nails.
There is no RDA for omega-3 fatty acids, but the AI is 1.6 grams and 1.1 grams per day for men and women respectively. The AMDR says that up to 1.6% of total calories can come from omega-3s.
- Vitamin C
Vitamin C is essential for the production of collagen, a protein that gives shape, strength and integrity to many tissues and is the building block of fingernails, hair and teeth.
A deficiency in vitamin C can result in brittle nails, as well as slowed nail growth.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient and cannot be produced by your body. Men require 90 mg and women 75 mg per day.
While citrus fruits, such as oranges, strawberries and kiwi are thought to be the best sources of vitamin C, bell peppers, green vegetables and tomatoes are very high in this nutrient as well.
In fact, red bell peppers have more than twice the vitamin C of and orange.
Zinc is required for many reactions in your body, including the growth and division of cells.
Nails are made up of a type of cell that grows and divides rapidly. Because of this fast production, a steady supply of zinc is needed to promote the healthy growth of nails.
Inadequate zinc intake can contribute to a degeneration of your nail plate, causing the appearance of white spots on your nails.
The RDA for zinc is 11 mg and 8 mg per day for men and women respectively.
Animal proteins like beef, poultry, fish and eggs are rich sources of zinc. However, soy, chickpeas, black beans, nuts (such as almonds and cashews) and seeds also contain it.Supplements vs Food Sources
A nutrient-rich diet is likely the best way to achieve strong, shiny, healthy nails.
However, it’s important to note that deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals and nutrients may negatively affect your nail health.
Try to get your vitamins and nutrients from food, but when you can’t, taking a supplement can help you meet your needs and likely improve your nail health.Bottom Line:
While consuming a variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients through food contributes to growing and maintaining healthy nails, evidence suggests that supplementing with them may not. Biotin is the exception, and supplements of this vitamin may help restore brittle nails. Overall, if you want strong, shiny nails, be sure to include a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in your diet, as well as adequate protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Photo Credit: Bryony Elena