To Protect and Serve

To Protect and Serve

Perfectly polished, elegant nails are a sign of good grooming. But nails do more than make you look good; they also protect your fingers and toes. Find out how to reward your nails for all their hard work by keeping them healthy and looking great.

The manicure sometimes seems like the last great cheap indulgence; a chance to be pampered for a little while without breaking the bank.  And because well-polished, immaculate nails are often seen as the essence of good grooming, many women see it as not so much an indulgence as a necessity.

But our nails are more than pretty accessories; they are actually the first line of defense for our fingers and toes.  "The skin near the tips of the digits is full of nerve endings," explains Zoe Draelos, M.D., clinical associate professor of dermatology at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC. "Without nails, it would be painful to grip things or even put on gloves and shoes."

The hard, visible portion of the nail known as the nail plate gives some protection to the underlying skin called the nail bed. But the price of protection can be high. Sun exposure can make the nail plate frayed, brittle and breakable. "The good news is that the nail plate is renewable," Dr. Draelos points out. When the new nail material grows out, it generally will be back to normal. Over time, however, sun exposure may cause permanent damage to the nail's growth center, called the matrix - especially the pale, "half moon" portion of the matrix visible at the base of the nail plate. Cumulative sun exposure may also permanently harm the nail bed and nail folds - the skin around the cuticle - accelerating their aging process and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

Because the matrix originates under the cuticle, getting a manicure can harm it if the equipment isn't sterilized. And when a drill is inserted under the cuticle to smooth it, the matrix cells can be ground up so badly that they cannot regenerate. Nail sculpture chemicals can also drip down into the matrix, causing damage. "When the matrix cells are damaged, they may never grow properly again, and the nail will always be deformed," says Dr. Draelos.

Skin cancers are a serious concern. They can develop in the nail bed, matrix, or nail folds. Malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, may first be observed as a long pigmented band of black or dark brown in the nail plate, most often on the thumb or big toe. And wart-like lesions on the nail fold or in the nail bed could be squamous cell carcinomas.

So how do you protect these guardians of your fingers from the ravages of the sun?


Moisturize daily. This is the best way to keep nails from flaking and cracking. Dr. Draelos recommends lactic acid creams in 5 -12 percent concentrations.

Wear gloves. European and American women used to wear gloves whenever they went outside to keep their hands soft and protected. Although that may not be practical these days, cold weather dries out the nails, so wear gloves when the elements demand it. Use rubber gloves when working with cleansers, detergents or solvents.

Check the premises. You don't have to give up your manicure, but make sure that the equipment they use on you is sterilized.

Use sun protection. Nail polish does provide some UV protection to the nail bed. For greater protection, some manufacturers are making nail polish with added UV filters.

Leave the cuticle alone. The cuticle is a seal that protects the nail matrix, and disturbing this seal increases your risk of inflicting permanent damage. Never remove the cuticle, and don't trim it or push it back.

Give it a rest. Throughout the year, periodically give your nails a break from polish and polish remover - say one to three months total.

See a doctor. If you develop a wart-like lesion, an usual colored band, or a sore that won't heal in the nail area, go to a doctor, ideally a dermatologist, immediately.