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The Integumentary System Accessory Structures: Nails

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  • 0:07 The Role of Nails
  • 1:36 Nail Structure
  • 3:03 What Are Nails Made Of?
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Adewale

Heather has taught reproductive biology and has researched neuro, repro and endocrinology. She has a PhD in Zoology/Biology.

Did you know that your skin, hair, and nails are all made out of the same protein? Learn more about the structure and function of your nails in this lesson.

The Role of Nails

Did you know that one of the things that sets us, as a primate, apart from other animals is that we have nails instead of claws? Or, that the way your nail looks can give clues regarding your overall health? Or, even drug use?

For example, if your nails have tiny little pits in them, you might have a skin condition known as psoriasis, or if they turn yellow, you might have a respiratory disease, and red lines might indicate cardiovascular problems. And, white spots or flakiness can indicate high amounts of sugar or alcohol in your diet.

Your nails, as you know, are located on your fingers and your toes. They are part of the integumentary system, which includes your skin and all its accessory structures like nails, hair, and sweat and oil glands.

While they can be used for many things, like scratching, opening things, or even winning the Guinness World Record for the longest nails ever (2 feet 11 inches, by the way), they actually have a specific purpose. They help protect the top surface of your fingertips and the tips of your toes. Your fingers and toes, being the extremities of your body, are subjected to the daily mechanical stress associated with walking, writing, typing, and all the other things that you use them for.

Nail Structure

The part of the nail that you see, you know, the one you clip and paint, is called the nail body. It starts all the way back, as seen below, beneath your skin, and grows out past the tips of your fingers. This area, the one growing past your fingertip, is the free edge of the nail, while the other end is the nail root.

The nail body starts back beneath your skin.
image of nail body

The nail root is not visible from the surface. This is where nail production occurs. On the average person, fingernails (which grow faster than toe nails) grow about 3 mm a month. That's why it takes so long to grow a new nail if a large portion of your nail has been damaged, like when you accidentally slam your finger in a door or maybe drop a weight on your toe while working out!

The entire nail body protects the soft tip of your finger called the nail bed, which lies underneath the nail body. As the nail body leaves the skin and emerges onto the surface, you will see that some of it is covered by a small flap of skin. This is called your cuticle.

And, in front of that is a little white half circle on your nail. This is called the lunula. You can remember this because the cycle of the moon is called the 'lunar cycle,' and the lunula looks like a crescent-shaped moon. The rest of your nail body is usually pink in color. This comes from the underlying blood vessels.

What Are Nails Made Of?

Okay, so now that you know the main parts of the nail, let's look at what it's made of. We'll start with a short quiz, one question really. Do you know what skin, hair, and nails all have in common?

First, they are all parts of the integumentary system, which is your skin and all its accessory structures. But, they are also all made up of the same substance! Any ideas as to what that substance is? If you watched our other lessons on the integumentary system, you have probably heard us talk about the protein keratin.

Well, did you know that keratin is found in the epidermis of your skin? It's what your hair is made of, and it's what your nails are made of.

So, why are nails so much harder than your skin or your hair? Well, it all depends on the amount of keratin and the amount of cells. You see, your nails are made up of lots and lots of really densely packed cells that are all filled with keratin. These cells are packed more tightly than those found in your skin and hair, which makes them harder.

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