When it comes to managing your health, there are physical signs that can indicate areas of concern. It’s true that your hair can indicate underlying issues about your health, and the condition of your fingernails can be just as revealing. In addition to nail biting being an indicator of stress or anxiety, there are other features that show up in fingernails that can indicate liver, lung, and heart disease, as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

We spoke to a family doctor, a manicurist and a nail artist to find out more about what our nails can tell us about your health. Here is what they had to say.

THE DOCTOR

For Dr Sam Saling, the appearance, feel, and special features on a patient’s nail offers excellent insight into their overall health. The Sydney-based family doctor explains: “An elderly patient who presents with a fall may have overgrown toenails, causing ill fitting footwear, and therefore poor mobility. Or in some of my younger female patients who may be intentionally restricting their eating, I may find thin, brittle nails, with ridges that signify nutritional deficiencies.”

The conditions of a patient’s nails can also indicate their psychological state, as well as that of their immune health, says Dr Sam. “Ragged and destroyed nails can show us that this person is struggling with anxiety, and uses nail biting in times of distress. There are also hallmarks of autoimmune diseases that show up in nail changes, like the sausage shaped fingers in a middle-aged male, which may be a sign of undiagnosed psoriasis and associated arthritis.”

Nail biting is a common way that people react to stress, Dr Sam says, but the behaviour can also indicate a broader impulse control disorder that leads to physical injury: “The physical effects on the nail involves trauma from the biting itself, and the resulting open wound can be prone to bleeding and infection. Work with your doctor to explore why you bite your nails, and what can be done to improve this.”

Other diseases that can present with nail changes include liver, lung, and heart disease, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and, yes, plain old fungal nail infections.

As for how you can get strong, healthy nails, Dr Sam says calcium is only part of it: “Strong nails are due to a multitude of factors, not just calcium intake. But getting enough calcium in your diet, along with other vitamins and minerals, is essential for your overall health.”

THE MANICURIST

Jocelyn Petroni is an expert when it comes to healthy, beautiful nails, and says that the condition of a client’s nails can tell a story about their overall health and wellbeing.

One of the treatments offered at her Sydney-based salon is designed to transform natural nails into the healthiest and most naturally glossy versions of themselves, without the use of polish or synthetics. The signature “Naked Manicure” treatment is designed especially for people who have used acrylics, gels and powder polishes long term and are wishing to take a break or stop completely—or perhaps for anyone seeking perfect nails but are sensitive to wearing polish.

“Our Naked Manicure is a real change from a traditional colour-focused approach and instead leaves the nails looking natural, bright and healthy,” she explains. “It’s all about treating the nails and restoring nail health by identifying a client’s nail concern and offering a tailor-made solution.”

Clients who book this luxurious, polish-free manicure begin by discussing their concerns with one of the salon’s nail therapists, who then devise a tailor-made plan. 

“After the consultation, the therapist then treats the nails accordingly with a mix of nail-enhancing products combined with a firm hand and arm massage using European, Shiatsu and Reiki massage techniques,” she says. “Nails are left with a breathable high-shine glassy finish that does not include polish.”

Jocelyn is not by any means against other types of manicures, and offers polish and shellac treatments at her salon, but urges people to prioritise care and maintenance before nail art.

“Social media has given people a platform to showcase their interpretations and art, and designs have become so refined and minimalistic, which affords everyone the opportunity to experiment and replicate for themselves,” Jocelyn says. “But, like all nail treatments, nail art should be performed with care to the nail first and foremost. If this philosophy is followed, then there should not be a problem.”

The problem, she says, is when people become trapped in a never-ending cycle of synthetic nails, choosing to maintain synthetics rather than allow sufficient time and care for their natural nails to heal.

“Unfortunately people become trapped in an ongoing cycle of synthetic nails, which whilst appearing perfect on the outside, is actually causing a detrimental effect to nail health. Synthetic nails occlude or suffocate the natural nail, thereby causing the nail to soften and deteriorate.”

Her advice? Take breaks between treatments and actively use the downtime to focus on nail strength and rehabilitation, and that ingestible and topical nutritive products can help support nail rehabilitation.

“I’ve always been passionate about nails and the impact well groomed and polished hands and nails can have on a woman’s confidence, after all we are looking at our hands all day long.”

If you are one of the few people who can’t stand having any sort of polish on their fingernails, Jocelyn recommends seeking out products that are breathable and natural, such as those offered by Swiss brand Mavala. Instead of occluding the nail, they allow air and water to pass through to the nail plate and help to maintain overall nail health.

THE NAIL ARTIST

Victoria Houllis has been working as a nail artist full time for a year now, with two years prior taking clients after coming home from a 9 to 5 job in marketing. For her, nail art is a creative expression of the fashion and art that inspires her: “Whenever I see something that I love or find aesthetically pleasing, my first thought is how can I switch up the medium and apply it to my nails.”

At Mannequin Hands, Victoria is the go-to for nostalgia-inspired nail art—yin yangs and flower motifs are among the cheery designs that go viral on Instagram.

Because she loves nail art so much, she also stresses the importance of maintaining healthy nails between treatments.

To maintain healthy nails in between nail art treatments, Victoria says it’s important to keep your hands moisturised. “Wear your gloves whenever you’re doing something where you’re immersed in water—I know it’s hard washing the dishes with gloves on, but it helps!”

If you file your own nails at home, take care to file them in one direction rather than back and forth, she says. “And don’t push your nail clippers into your nail bed when you cut your nails!”

“Diet definitely plays a role in nail health! Foods high in antioxidants, iron, calcium and biotin are always helpful!” 

Another way that Victoria’s nail art practice supports good nail health is that she likes to create designs that will grow out nicely, which means fewer treatments and less damage to the nails.

“I love designs that grow out nicely because I’m a busy bitch and I love nail art that still looks fresh after a good stretch of time!”

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.

Words by Emily Royal, September 22, 2020.