What are Nails and Why do We Have Them

If you’re like me, you don’t think-much about your nails. Perhaps you wonder how you can grow them longer, keep them from chipping, or whether they’d look better painted a muted claret or a blush pink. However, you may not consider all the reasons why you have nails. In fact, fingernails and toenails serve several purposes: to support the tissues of the fingers and toes, to safeguard the fingertips and the tips of the toes from injury, to assist us in picking up small objects, to help us manipulate objects, and, quite simply, for scratching. Another interesting tidbit: like hair, nails are made of keratin.

Nail structure

Our nails are made up of several components, some of which are visible, some of which are not. What we see when we look at our nails is called the nail plate. A plate is hard, smooth, rectangular in shape, and slightly convex.

If you need medical attention for a toenail problem, a podiatrist or a dermatologist can usually help you. If a fingernail is troubling you, visit a dermatologist for advice.

Nails are translucent in color, but they take on a faint pink cast thanks to the network of blood vessels located beneath them. This color is variable. It may become paler, for example, when you’re feeling cold and the blood vessels in your fingers and toes have constricted.

Half moons

The whitish, half-moon area visible at the base of the nail is the lunula. Its shape and pale color come from nail cells that are not fully mature; these cells will mature and turn translucent as they grow toward the nails’ tips. The size, shape, and brightness of the lunula varies from person to person and even from finger to finger – for some reason, lunulas are often most pronounced on thumbs. Should you happen to notice your lunula isn’t as bright as it once was, don’t worry: the lunula often fades with age.

Cuticles and nail beds

The cuticle is the thin tissue that grows from the finger to overlap the nail plate and form a rim around the base of the nail. Its purpose is protective: to keep out debris and microorganisms that can harm the matrix and nail bed.

The nail bed is the finger tissue directly under the nail plate; its network of small blood vessels provide nutrition for the nail. While the nail bed does support the nail, it does not contribute to the nail’s growth.

If you’ve ever wondered how the nail sticks to the nail bed, here’s the answer: both the nail bed’s surface and the nail plate’s underside feature vertical ridges and depressions that fit together like puzzle pieces, locking the bed and plate together.

Also known as the nail root, the matrix is the area hidden beneath the cuticle. It is here that nail keratin is created. Nail cells divide in the matrix, thereby lengthening the nail plate, and pushing it forward over the nail bed. The folds of skin at the nail’s base and sides are known as the nail folds. These folds frame and support the nails.