For starters, if your nails are whitish, it could be an indication of kidney or liver disorders. Find out more about nail colours and their associations with health, as well as what you can do about them.
Some women are obsessed with painting their nails, so much so that they feel bare without the sight of bright-coloured nails on their digits. But this infographic isn’t about that kind of nail colour.
Nail abnormalities – including discolouration – can sometimes be a sign of an underlying health condition. “The skin is the largest organ in the body,” explains Dr Paul Chia, Specialist in Dermatology & Consultant, Raffles Skin & Aesthetics. “Therefore, any underlying ill-health can also affect the nails and their appearances.”
Find out if your nails display any of the colours below, then read on for our interview with Dr Chia for nail health tips.
When is it a concern to see a dermatologist?
Nails often reflect our general state of health. Changes in the nail – discolouration and thickening – can signal health problems, such as liver and kidney diseases, heart and lung conditions, anaemia and diabetes.
Although rare, melanomas and other skin cancers can grow under the nail. Melanoma is a form of cancer that begins in melanocytes (cells that make the pigment melanin).
The most common early presentation of a melanoma of the nail unit is a dark-coloured streak within the nail plate. Occasionally, skin cancers in the nail unit can also present as a deformed nail or bruising under the nail.
See your dermatologist if you notice any changes in your nail to check for any underlying medical condition.
Are ladies more susceptible than men about these health conditions?
Women and men are affected similarly by nail disorders. However, certain nail disorders are more commonly seen in women.
Brittle nails, frequently accompanied by nail splitting, are more common amongst women. Frequent wetting and drying of the hands is the most common cause of brittle nails and nail splitting; this condition is common among homemakers, nurses, and hairdressers. Nail splitting may also be caused by nail cosmetics (hardeners, polish, polish removers/solvents) and pedicures/manicures.
Women are also more likely to wear nail polish and artificial nails. Besides brittle nails, nail cosmetics have been known to cause contact dermatitis (skin rash resulting from sensitivity to nail polish constituents), discoloured nails and onycholysis (separation of the nail from the nail bed).
Women who wear high heels and pointed shoes with small toe-boxes are also more likely to develop nail problems. These include ingrown toe nails, subungal hematoma (bruising under the nail, appearing as a blue-black discolouration), and fungal nail infection.
What are the available treatments?
The treatment depends on what the nail disorder is. If you notice any changes in your nail, you should consult your dermatologist to check for any underlying medical condition. Depending on the nail findings, your dermatologist may do other investigations to check the state of your health.
Occasionally, a nail biopsy (procedure to obtain tissue for pathological examination) may be required, especially if a skin cancer of the nail unit is suspected.
Nail problems commonly seen in women like brittle nails, nail splitting, ingrown toenails and contact dermatitis are often treatable and preventable. This can be achieved by educating the patient on ways to keep her nails healthy.
Here are some tips:
- Cut your fingernails and toenails straight across and rounded slightly in the center. This will prevent the development of ingrown toenails.
- Ensure that your nails and skin are well moisturised by applying moisturising cream regularly, to prevent brittle nails and nail splitting.
- Wear proper-fitting shoes. Tight shoes can cause ingrown toenails.
- Do not try to self-treat ingrown toenails, especially if they are infected. See a dermatologist.
- Do not bite your fingernails. You can transfer infectious organisms between your fingers and mouth. Also, nail biting can damage the skin around your fingers, allowing infections to enter.
For ladies who always paint their nails, their nails may be discoloured. How are they able to tell if they possibly have certain health conditions from their nails?
Nail plate discolouration occurs with prolonged use of coloured nail varnish, particularly with deep red nail polish. This staining will usually fade spontaneously 14 days after the nail varnish has been removed.
Nail discolouration from health conditions usually do not resolve by themselves. Moreover, people with underlying health conditions usually have accompanying symptoms to suggest their health condition (e.g. in people with liver problems, they may have jaundice), in addition to their nail changes.
Are there any health risks from the prolonged use of nail varnish?
There are concerns that some nail polish might contain toxic chemicals like dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. These chemicals can cause cancers, birth defects and developmental problems in children of pregnant women who have had extended exposure.
Even if they are present, the levels of toluene and DBP found in nail products are generally at levels considered safe. Generally, they are a minor health concern for nail varnish users.
However, nail varnish is a relatively common cause of contact dermatitis. This is the inflammation of the skin that occurs when you come into contact with a particular substance. The chemical most responsible for allergic reactions to nail varnish is tosylamide formaldehyde resin. Sensitivity to the offending agent may cause a rash not only around the nail area but also around areas that are commonly touched, such as the eyelids, mouth and chin, and sides of the neck.
What are the health risks of nail biting?
Although nail biting is unlikely to cause long-term nail damage, it is not without risks. Nail biting can result in inflammation and infection of the nail fold (the skin around the nails). It can also increase the risk of transmission of germs from the nails and fingers to the lips and mouth.
More importantly, compulsive nail biting is sometimes a sign of an underlying mental health condition, such as anxiety or an impulse control disorder.
Tips to stop nail biting include:
- Avoid factors that trigger nail biting, such as boredom
- Find healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety
- Occupy your hands or mouth with alternate activities, such as playing a musical instrument or chewing gum
- Discuss with your doctor if fingernail biting persists along with anxiety and stress
About The Author: A founder of Material World, Tan Lili has previously worked in magazines The Singapore Women’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan Singapore, as well as herworld.com (now herworldplus.com, the online counterpart of Her World). She is now a freelance writer who works on this website full-time. Lili hopes to travel the world, work with wild animals, and discover more awesome Twilight fan-fiction. Follow her on Twitter @TanLiliTweets.
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