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From ageing to melanoma: what your nails say about you

Want to know the state of your health? Then take a look at your nails which can reveal a range of issues

Did you know that the natural state of your nails says much more than the polish shades you favour or that you prefer almond to squoval? In fact, they can reveal vitamin deficiencies, product reactions, ageing and even cancer.

Research in 2023 by nail health brand Excilor revealed that a staggering 25 per cent of the UK population suffer from nail infections. More worryingly, only 11 per cent know they have a nail infection, and a scary 89 per cent of sufferers don’t know what a nail infection is.

“The condition of our nails can reveal a lot about our health,” says Margaret Dabbs OBE, Founder and CEO, Margaret Dabbs London.

“The ideal fingernail is smooth, strong and pink–if this is how your nails look, that’s great news! Nails which are very pale can potentially be a sign of ill health, including anaemia or kidney disease at the extreme, and can be affected by cold weather and circulatory issues.”

The same applies to toenails too, says Dabbs. “Sometimes the symptoms can present more severely as a fungal nail condition–you’re more likely to see crumbling and discolouration in the toenails, which can also be a result of nail bed damage through injury or ill-fitting shoes. There is also a high incidence of fungal nail conditions as a result of underlying diabetes.”

The nail expert recommends taking a multi-pronged approach to keeping your nails healthy–speaking to your doctor about any of the symptoms mentioned can help you address underlying health issues, which in turn can improve the quality of your nails. Eating a diet rich in healthy fatty acids, vitamins B, E and F can also strengthen your nails from the inside out.
“Taking care of your nails isn’t a one-and-done process, you need to treat them consistently, both from the inside out and topically to ensure they stay healthy,” advises Dabbs.

Below we round up what to look out for; if you have any concerns about your nails and their appearance, make an appointment with your GP for diagnosis.

Ridges: Ageing; thyroid disease, physical trauma

As you age, and most commonly between the age of 30-50, nails can develop vertical ridges–this is due to the changes in cell turnover which slows down as you age, within the nail. Ridges can also signify a thyroid problem or diabetes, while horizontal ridges can indicate physical trauma or injury.

Brittle nails: Ageing; anaemia; low thyroid levels, Raynaud’s Syndrome

“Often, brittle, weak and snapping nails are caused by genetics such as fine, fair skin, or external factors like hands and nails getting wet too frequently or using harsh products on your nails,” says Dabbs. “But they can also reveal potential underlying health issues–anaemia can also cause brittle nails, and nail health can also be affected by hyperthyroidism.”

Weak nails: Overexposure to chemicals or moisture; vitamin deficiency

“Very soft, weak nails can belie a vitamin B deficiency, but brittle, soft nails can also be adversely affected by illness and the resulting medication," shares Dabbs. "It’s important to eat foods rich in vitamin B and use protein-based nail treatments such as celery seed extract to encourage nail strength and wellness.”

Discolouration and pitting: Psoriasis; product reaction, infection

“Yellowing fingernails can be caused by external discolouring like migration of self-tan or dark nail polish colours, but if you’ve not used anything like this on your fingernails, it could point to diabetes or a potential fungal infection,” says Dabbs.

White spots and streaks: Fungal infection; nail trauma, zinc deficiency

“White spots on the nail could indicate a fungal infection, but it is highly likely to be due to trauma to the nail which can be caused by gel manicures or even nail biting,” shares Dabbs.

Black streaks or stripes: Melanoma

Subungual melanoma is a rare and serious type of skin cancer that develops under the nail, most commonly in your big toe, thumb or index finger. It presents as dark brown or black streaks that appear as a dark line on the nail and run from the bottom to the top–early detection and prompt treatment is vital for the best outcome. This type of melanoma is often discovered later than other cancers, as people aren’t aware of the warning signs.

Nail thickening and fragility: Contact dermatitis; infection, injury

While it’s normal for nails to become thicker as you age, sometimes it can indicate contact allergies or dermatitis, caused by a product or ingredient that’s irritated your skin. A thickened toenail or onychauxis, can be caused by a fungal or bacterial infection, trauma or injury.

Three of the best nail products

Margaret Dabbs Pure Nail Strengthening Treatment
Tried and tested by the EV editorial team, this new 3-in-1 strengthening treatment has been designed specifically for nails that are weak, brittle, soft and prone to snapping or ridging. It’s loaded with the essential building blocks for your nails including vitamins B5, E and F, as well as deeply nourishing celery seed extract, Neonyca® and argan oil. We also love the healthy, subtle rosy finish it gives nails.

Protein Formula 1 For Nails / Maintain
Your nails may have been through treatment and are generally in good health, however need maintenance to preserve the length and strength. Protein Formula 1 contains proteins to actively leave nails healthy and conditioned with optimum moisture. The formula can also be used in conjunction with other polishes as a base and top coat.

Ful.Vic Health Fulvic Nail Cream,
This top rated cream contains Ioniplex®, a fulvic ionic mineral–the breakthrough formulation promotes nail growth, strengthens nails, resists splits, peels and prevents nail cracks and ridges. In addition, the combination of three powerful antifungals; fulvic acid, tea tree oil and lemongrass oil (within the fragrance), means it is also beneficial in the treatment of fungal nails when applied to the nail bed and massaged onto the nail itself.

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