Our nails may be small, but they play an important and integral role in the impressions that we make and leave upon others. From shaking a person’s hand for the first time through to holding a pen in an interview – our hands and nails are one of the first things to get noticed, and though we may not mean them to they can say a lot about who we are.
Whilst of course this isn’t the case for everyone, bitten and very poorly kept nails for example may give the impression of low self-confidence or anxiety, whereas short, neatly manicured nails are more likely to indicate practicality and professionalism.
Although a single chipped nail is unlikely to stand in the way of you and a job you are qualified to do and are the perfect candidate for – good overall presentation can really help you to make a positive and lasting first impression that could work in your favour.
With nails now being considered to form a significant part of our overall appearance, a good nail care routine whether carried out in the home or at the salon, is becoming ever the more important.
Read on to find out why our nails are important, how nail care has evolved over the years, what nail care treatments are available, and nail tips for looking after your nails at home.
Why do we have fingernails and toenails?
Whether you have been obsessively biting them since childhood, you paint them a different colour for every day of the week, you annoy friends and colleagues by tapping them incessantly, or you use them for bottom scratching or other unpleasantries – we all have nails and we all use them in very different ways. But why is it that they are there?
Whilst we will never have a definitive answer as to why we have any of the body parts we do, expert research has suggested that primates first developed nails to assist them in climbing and grabbing onto things such as trees and rocks to aid their survival1.
According to one particular study carried out by the University of Florida, a lemur like creature known as the teilhardina brandti was using its nails to keep hold of tree branches a staggering 55.8 million years ago.
In today’s society, very few of us now lead a life in which we would ever need to grab onto a tree or scale a mountain with haste during the average day – but that isn’t to say our nails are no longer important.
From switching off the alarm first thing in the morning through to putting the kettle on and typing up a document at work – without even being aware we rely extremely heavily upon the use of our nails – and the nerve endings beneath them.
Fingernails not only offer protection to the tip of the finger, but also enhance sensations in the fingertip, acting as a counterforce to provide additional sensory input when an object is touched.
So, the next time you go to untangle a necklace, open a tin or dig out a splinter, remember that little lemur like monkey who gave you the ability to do just that.
Nails throughout history
Nail treatments may be all the rage now, but at what point did they turn from functional to fashionable?
During China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), long nails were considered to be an indicator of wealth and beauty, with aristocratic women growing them up to ten inches in length to indicate that unlike commoners, they did not have to carry out any manual labour.
Whilst in most nations nail length is no longer considered to be a status symbol – some Asian cultures still continue this traditional practice with many men growing long nails (often just on the little finger) as a sign they work in an office setting.
At the start of the 19th Century upper class Grecian women also considered long talons to be beautiful, and wore empty pistachio shells over their natural nails to give the appearance of length.
This trend was responsible for sparking the artificial nail fashion that is still popular today, though thankfully techniques have advanced considerably since then.
Whilst acrylics, gels and paraffin wax manicures may all be modern developments, nail decoration for aesthetic purposes is by no means new.
The history books tell us that the Incas used to adorn their fingernails with minute pictures of eagles, whilst the practice of painting nails with lacquer dates as far back as 3000 BC during Ancient Egyptian times2.
Beauty was of the upmost important to the Ancient Egyptians, and according to scriptures, men and women would rouge their cheeks, paint around the delicate eye area and redden their palms and nails using henna.
Thousands of years later when many tombs were excavated, archaeologists found gold manicure tools dating back thousands of years - demonstrating just how important well kept nails were to the Ancient Egyptian aristocracy.
Similarly to that of Asian cultures the Ancient Egyptians also believed that long nails were an indication of freedom from labour, as was the colour red. In order to draw a line between the classes, during her reign Queen Nefertiti ruled that only noble men and women were permitted to wear red nail colouring.
After the Ancient Egyptian times the evolution of nail decoration and treatments disappeared off the radar somewhat, and only emerged back on the timeline as a growing trend during the thirties. It was during this post first World War period that nitrocellulose based nail polishes were first introduced, and this was really the time when nail care and polishes (which were at the time being made popular by glamorous on-screen sirens) really began to come into their own.
Since then the nail care industry has grown considerably, with hundreds of treatments available, nail salons on virtually every high street and consumers willing to spend more on looking after their hands, feet and nails.
Whilst we may now be worlds away from the nail care processes of ancient times, our goal still remains the same – to present our hands to the world as a symbol of good care.
How to look after your nails
Although our nails may not be made up of living tissue, their appearance actually says far more about us than you may think – with how they look on the surface often reflecting the health of the living cells beneath the nail base.
Strength, growth rate, colour and shape for example, may all be indicators of recent health concerns, long-term issues or general imbalances within the body.
The following common nail problems may be indicative of a variety of underlying medical concerns and have been used as a diagnostic tool since ancient times3:
- Discolouration of the nail could mean there are problems with the liver, diabetes or issues with the lymphatic system.
- White spots could indicate problems such as cirrhosis of the liver or kidney disorder.
- Brittle nails may be indicative of iron deficiency, thyroid problems, impaired kidney function, or circulation problems.
- Peeling and chipping nails may mean that there is a mineral or protein deficiency in your daily diet.
- Dark blue nail beds could be a warning sign of pulmonary obstruction.
- Nail pitting (small depressions in the nail) is a common sign of psoriasis and can also be related to connective tissue disorders such as reiter’s syndrome and alopecia areata.
- Nail clubbing describes the enlarging of the finger and the nail curving around the fingertip – often over a prolonged period. Clubbing often occurs as a result of low oxygen within the bloodstream and may be an indicator of lung disease.
Try to pay attention to your nails and note any lasting changes to their texture, colour, shape or growth rate. If you do happen to spot any of these changes and they are accompanied by other changes in your general health then it is advisable to pay a visit to your GP so that you can report and discuss your concerns and appropriate treatment can be given if necessary. Other nail issues that may also occur include the following:
- fungal infections
- ingrown toenails
- ridges in fingernails.
Our nails and their appearance can act as an overall window to our health, so ensuring that they are well manicured and cared for not only means that we could gain important clues as to what is going on in the rest of the body, but also mean that we appear professional, tidy and presentable – an important factor when we are trying to make a good first impression.
The nail care industry is ever expanding, with the vast array of services available now going far beyond that of the traditional manicure and pedicure and appealing to all ages and both genders.
If you are looking to give your hands a helping hand – whether it be a one off treat or the start of a regular regime - there is an extensive number of treatments now available from nail bars and independent nail technicians, some of which can be found detailed below.
At the nail bar
Can be pasted over the nail or at the top of an extension to create length and strength. Hardens when exposed to air.
Similar to acrylics but are considered to be the safer and more eco-friendly version of the two as they allow the nail to breathe. Need to be cured under a UV light whereas acrylics do not.
A cosmetic beauty treatment not only for the nails but also for the hands – often consists of a hand massage, moisturising treatment and file, shape and polish.
A cosmetic beauty treatment for the feet as well as the toenails. Usually consists of a foot soak, pumice, moisturising treatment and file, shape and polish.
A coloured or clear gel applied directly to the natural nail. Bio-sculpt gel is intended to mimic the natural movement and flexibility of the nail to keep them protected and strong with a non-chip finish. Lasts up to three weeks on fingernails and six to eight weeks on toe nails.
- Shellac™ nails
Combines the resilient finish of a gel nail overlay with the ease of paint on colour. One clear base coat is applied which is cured with UV light then two coats of coloured polish follow which are again cured by UV light. Lasts around two weeks.
- Gelish® nails
Similar to Shellac™ in that it is painted on like a nail colour but has the resilient finish of gel. Cured using an LED or UV lamp and stays on the nails for around three weeks.
Creative decoration of the nail including pictures, designs, stickers and other adornments. Can be done freehand or using the airbrush technique.
- Nail wraps
A sticker-like film applied to the nail to accessorise it without using polish. Can be applied in the home or by a professional nail technician.
- Minx® nails
A type of nail wrap with a metallic finish.
Full details about all of the above hand, nail and foot treatments can be found in our individual fact-sheets.
Looking after your nails at home
Of course, if you can’t afford regular trips to the nail bar or you are between treatments you can look after your nails at home. Chemists and beauty stores now offer a variety of home hand, nail and foot treatments from home foot spas through to specialist scrubs, creams and polishes. See below for our top home nail care tips.
Applying a good moisturiser to the hands, nails and cuticles will help to lock water into the nails to keep them strong and healthy and will also help to keep hands soft and supple.
2. Protect your hands
Donning a pair of rubber gloves when carrying out cleaning activities or gardening is a simple way to protect your hands and nails from any harsh or drying chemicals and detergents.
3. Trim and file regularly
Use sharp manicure scissors or clippers to trim the nails to the desired length before using a file to achieve the perfect shape. To prevent breakages and splitting it is best to file gently in one long stroke from each side of the nail into the centre. Filing your nails a little on a weekly basis will help you to keep on top of the length and shape.
4. Care for your cuticles
Refrain from cutting overgrown or tough cuticles as this might lead to infection. Instead, soak the nails in warm water to soften them before applying and massaging in a cuticle oil or moisturiser. You can then use a cotton bud or an orange stick to gently push back the cuticle before removing any dead skin that is left on the nail bed (using a cotton pad or damp cloth).
5. Treat your feet
For a quick and easy pedicure in the comfort of your own home, pop a damp towel into the microwave and heat for a couple of minutes. Once it is toasty warm, cover the feet in a rich moisturiser (preferably one particularly aimed at feet) and wrap them in the warm towel.
6. Always apply a base and top coat
Whether you are going au naturel or for a bright pop of colour, a base and top coat will help to strengthen the nail, protect it from staining, prolong the colour and keep the nails looking shiny and lovely. A good pre-polish tip is to swipe a cotton pad soaked in acetone-free remover across the bed to ensure the nail is free of any excess oils or soap that can cause peeling once the polish is applied.
7. Speed up drying time
In a rush to leave the house but your polish is still wet? Use a hairdryer on a low heat setting for about a minute at a time to speed up the drying process. Be sure to hold the dryer at a safe distance of around 12 inches away from the nails.
8. Remove excess polish in the shower
Painted your nails haphazardly and have lots of nail polish on your skin? Wait until you get in the shower and then use an orange stick to flake away the softened polish.
9. Use acetone-free nail polish remover
Nail polish removers containing acetone are very drying on the nail and can lead to brittleness and peeling. We recommend you use non-acetone remover for everyday polishes and acetone ones for stubborn polishes such as glitter polish or very dark shades.
10. Treat discoloured nails
If your nails are discoloured and yellowing, or are stained from dark polish colours – applying a drop of lemon or lavender oil onto the nails and then gently buffing may help to remove the stains.
To keep your nails in tip-top condition, it is recommended that you have a professional manicure or pedicure every six to eight weeks (recommended length of time between other treatments may vary), maintaining the nails at home between treatments.
1TS-SI News Service, Oldest Evidence of Nails in Modern Primates
2New World Encyclopedia, Nail
3Mayo Clinic, Fingernail problems not to ignore
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