James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Why our nails are the cutting edge of civilisation

THERE ARE few more satisfying tasks than trimming the nails after a long hot bath. The hands and feet feel, and look, so much better for it and, on reflection, the ritual poses a whole series of interesting questions… How, for example, did people cut their nails before scissors were invented? They presumably nibbled at their fingernails, but did they have to ask someone else to do the same for their toes? This is not a trivial matter; if left unattended, nails, which grow at the rate of almost two inches a year, can rapidly become a serious hindrance.

Indeed, Chinese mandarins deliberately allowed their nails to grow as proof that they did not need to engage in manual labour – although few, I imagine, went to the length of the current record-holder, Mr Shirdhar Chillal, who at the age of 41, sports a 20-inch thumb nail.

Further, it is a little known fact that the nails grow at different rates: the fingernails twice as fast as the toes, with the middle finger the fastest of all. The tempo slows with the cold (as the first Antarctic explorers shrewdly noted), with illness and, inevitably, with ageing.

It is even more fascinating to reflect on the many different functions that the nails fulfil. They are, if not invariably, aesthetically pleasing, and provide some protection to the tips of the digits – especially when hammering in a different sort of nail.

They are useful for untying parcels and, of course, scratching, as described in An Essay Concerning the Infinite Wisdom of God Manifested in the Contrivances of the Skin, published in 1724: "Nails are weapons to defend us from the trouble caused by those small creatures that make their habitation on the surface of our bodies."

But this is, as it were, only to scratch the surface of their true significance. Certainly, other mammals have nail-like appendages, claws that allow them to tear at their food, but human nails are much too fragile for such a purpose. Rather, they provide a counter-pressure against the pulp of the finger that allows us to pick up and manipulate objects, and so are indispensable to the subtle delicacy and precision of human touch.

Nails make it possible for humans to write – and to turn the pages of this newspaper. Indeed, without the specialised structure of our nail, human civilisation would never have happened. Makes you think!

There are a litany of conditions that can interfere with nail growth, including fungal infections that get underneath and loosen the nail from its bed, while every skin ailment from eczema to psoriasis can adversely affect their growth. More commonly, though, the nails may be either too brittle and break easily, or too soft, as illustrated by a couple of letters I have recently received from readers.

Mrs Irene Pye, from Gloucestershire, reports that her nails are ribbed. "For several years I have had trouble because they split down the ribs, which leads to a section of the nail dying, which then has to be cut off. It takes time for the nail to grow out again, and just as I think it is fine, another split appears."

By contrast, another woman reader, from the West Midlands, reports that her fingernails "peel like onions". "The top layer just peels off about one-third of the way down, leaving the weak inner nail exposed," she writes.

The clue to both conditions lies in the water content of the nail, which should be about 18 per cent. If this falls, brittleness results; if it rises, softness. Hence the usual reason for brittle nails is lack of water, which may be associated with dry skin or with excessive use of nail enamel and cleaning agents which have a dehydrating effect.

Treatment requires rehydrating the nails by soaking them in lukewarm water for 15 minutes at bedtime, followed by the application of a protective moisturiser.

Soft nails can be hardened by the application of formalin, which, according to a recent article in the New Scientist, can transform them into "strong talons capable of ripping out drawing-pins or even opening packets of tea-bags". Formalin can, however, cause allergic reactions, or the benefits may "overshoot", so that soft nails end up brittle and breakable.

Those afflicted with such problems should take themselves off to a manicurist to have them sorted out. The pivotal contribution of our nails to human civilisation requires that they be treated with the respect they deserve.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd