17 Facts About Toenails That Make You Go “Oooh” And “Ew”

We spoke to the Institute
for Preventive Foothealth (IPFH) and asked its
executive director Robert Thompson and research director
Rick Mende for some essential information on our toenails.

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Toenails are basically human claws.


Some mammals have hooves or claws; we have toenails. It’s
believed that way back when our feet were used for more
than just mobility-related activities, our toenails would
help us pick things up (the way our fingernails still do

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2. Some
research suggests toenails help us to balance.

Toenails assist in proprioception, which is a complicated
name for the sensory mechanism that helps us interpret our
surroundings and maintain our balance.

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3. Fungi
and bacteria lurk between our toenails and the skin beneath


There are
125,000 sweat glands in each foot, which means we’re
basically wrapping our feet in very moist, warm
enclosures every day. This makes it a breeding ground for
fungi and bacteria – which can result in infections and,
at a minimum, smelly feet.

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4. Other
crap like dead skin cells, dirt, debris, and any lotions
you use end up there too.


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5. You
might think your toenails look super clean but they
are not (sorry!).

“Even if you think your toenails look clean, they are
microscopically filthy almost all the time,” Mende and
Thompson explained.

IPFH recommends washing your feet (including toenails) at
least once a day in lukewarm water with a mild soap, drying
thoroughly, especially between the toes.

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Toenails are made of the same dead skin tissue as
fingernails but are two to three times thicker.

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Toenails are quite thick due to friction and fungus. In
general they also get quite the rough ride having to put up
with woolly socks, tight shoes, and being stepped on.

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7. Ever get
a pesky hangnail? They are essentially bits of the nail
cuticle that become dry and brittle and separate from the

Hangnails are caused by a number of things: exposure to harsh
chemicals (cleaning agents), nutritional deficiencies, and
bad pedicures.

Moisturising the hangnail itself with petroleum jelly or even
lip balm may help. Cutting it away at its attachment point
with the skin with a clean pair of cuticle scissors is
probably the quickest and easiest solution, but it’s
important not to break the skin and risk possible infection.

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8. Then
there are those evil bastards: ingrown toenails.

These bad boys HURT and here’s why: When a toenail is cut too
short or trimmed down too much at the corners, the sharp edge
of the nail digs into the skin. As the nail continues to grow
out it moves in deeper, curving downward and creating a
painful recession in the side of the toe.

If you leave your ingrown toenail untreated the deformed skin
attempts to protect itself by becoming inflamed. Inflammation
may escalate into an infection, which can then lead to pretty
intense pain. Ouch.

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9. You CAN
fix them, though.

Thompson and Mende recommend cutting toenails straight across
and NOT curving the ends. Refining the ends with an emery
board to lessen the sharp points at the nail ends is better
than cutting them down with scissors. Another option is to
gently lift the ends of the nail and place a small ball of
cotton under them to help the nail stay flat and prevent it
curving downwards. For more info see

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Onychomycosis is the most common fungal nail infection, and
the older you are, the more likely you are to get it.

Due to diminished blood circulation, longer exposure to
fungi, and nails that grow more slowly, you’re more likely to
be at risk for
onychomycosis once you reach old age.

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11. Also,
men are more likely to get fungal nail infections.

Also, men are more likely to get fungal nail infections.

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Nail fungus tends to affect men more often than women.
There are
other risk factors of course: wearing shoes and socks
that are too tight, walking barefoot around damp places
like swimming pools and gyms, a weakened immune system, and
diabetes to name a few.

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12. The
most common reason a toenail falls off is due to a certain
contagious fungal infection.

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This fungal infection is caused by various types of
dermatophytes, which are fungi that feed upon the keratin
found in the skin and nails. Dermatophytes can also affect
the skin, resulting in athlete’s foot.

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13. The
second-most common reason a toenail falls off is injury.

If you injure your foot badly your toenail might come off,
which can be pretty damn painful. In the healing process it’s
important that the root of the nail (the matrix) is prevented
from becoming infected or otherwise permanently damaged.

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14. Once
the nail comes off it will usually regrow within three to six

The nail should regrow naturally, but if it’s deformed and
painful, surgical removal of the nail and its root may be

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There’s also a condition called yellow toenail syndrome.


The cause of this is unknown but a genetic predisposition
is suspected. People with weak lymphatic systems (like
bronchiectasis, sinusitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and
cancer) are more likely to develop this syndrome.

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Sometimes, toenails turn black.

Blood under a nail resulting from an injury can cause a

toenail to turn black. Reddish, purplish, brownish nails
can result from a fungus growing between the nail and the
skin under the nail.

An injury to a toe, repetitive traumatic athletic action, and
ill-fitting shoes can also all cause toenails to turn black.
More rarely, but important to note, is that a melanoma (skin
cancer) under the toenail can cause the nail to be black.

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17. And
lastly, toenail polish CAN discolour your toenail.

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Technically covering your toenails in polish is fine; the
nail is “dead” so it doesn’t need to breathe. However, the
nail absorbs moisture and so it can pick up some of the
chemicals used in nail polish. This might dry out the nail
and cause it to become stained (usually a shade of yellow
or blue) if the polish is left on too long. One way to
prevent this discolouration is to use a base coat on the
nails to seal them before applying the polish.

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