As you age, you may notice some hair thinning or greying. You may also see some changes in your fingernails, which makes perfect sense: "Fingernails share a lot of similar characteristics with hair," Michelle Tarbox, MD, associate professor in dermatology at Texas Tech Physicians in Lubbock, Texas, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Both are rich in keratin protein, and they grow in a similar way: "Nails and hair are both dead structures made from living cells that gave their lives for the cause," Dr. Tarbox says.
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So it's no surprise if, like your hair, your nails start looking and feeling different as you get older.
There's nothing wrong with the changes that come with aging. That said, it's always good to understand what may be going on so you can keep your nails as health as possible.
How Your Nails Change as You Age
1. Your Nails Take Longer to Grow
Nail growth slows as you age. "We tend to grow hair and nails really well when we're younger. But there's a slowed rate of growth of the nail plate by a half percentage per year," Dr. Tarbox says.
She adds that in youth, your fingernails might grow three millimeters per month, which decreases to two millimeters per month in your older years.
The upside? Less need to clip them. And maybe your manis don't grow out as fast.
2. Your Nails Become More Brittle
"Just like the skin can become thinner over time, our nails go through similar processes of atrophy, making them thinner," Dr. Tarbox says.
Less-thick nails may become more prone to breaking. Or the texture of your nails may shift from smooth and shiny to rougher and duller, she adds. They may also form vertical lines or ridges that look like "wrinkles."
This can be overcome by nail conditioners and hardeners (more on that below).
3. Your Toenails Thicken
The situation is the opposite when it comes to you toenails. "You might have thin fingernails and doorstop toenails because they're so thick," Dr. Tarbox says.
Every time your toenail runs into the front of your shoe, that's a microtrauma to the nail bed that causes them to grow in such a way that they "get fluffy and thicken" over time, she explains.
In addition, a damaged toenail is more vulnerable to fungal infections, another factor that can make them so thick they're hard to clip — and yellowed, too.
How to Support Your Nail Health as You Age
The natural process of aging happens — but your habits matter, too. Meaning, "there are some things you can control to improve or reverse some of these nail changes," Dr. Tarbox says.
1. Fortify Your Nails
Thinner nails are more vulnerable nails. Nail lacquer can help keep the nail protected, but the products you use should be gentle and fortified with nutrients that support nail health.
Look for the addition of vitamins (like biotin, a B vitamin) or silk protein, which reinforces the nail cuticle, Dr. Tarbox says. You'll find biotin in the Dr.'s Remedy line of enriched nail polishes ($18.99, Amazon).
2. Add a Nail Strengthener
"Nail strengtheners can be a stopgap to improve peeling, cracking and ridging," Dr. Tarbox says.
Many products contain calcium as an ingredient to boost nail strength and resiliency, including Nail-Aid's Biotin Ultimate Strength nail treatment ($3.88, Amazon).
3. Smooth on a Nail Conditioner
Dr. Tarbox recommends Elon Nail Conditioner ($16.99, Amazon), which contains lanolin (sebum or oil from sheep wool).
"Lanolin can be used as a supplement to human sebum, which we can also make less of with age," she says.
Rub this on your nails and cuticles to improve nail health, strength and growth.
4. Consider a Nail Supplement
There are so many supps on the market geared toward hair and nail growth. For one that's derm-recommended, Dr. Tarbox likes Elon Matrix Plus 3000 ($23.99, Amazon). Each capsule contains biotin, the amino acid L-Cysteine and silicon dioxide — all nutrients the body uses to make nails.
Always talk to your doctor before starting a supplement, as some could have side effects or interfere with medications you're taking.
5. Consume Collagen
If you like the taste of bone broth, Dr. Tarbox also recommends adding the warm sip to your regular diet, as the collagen can help support healthy nail development.
If bone broth isn't an option for you, then BioSil ($31.96, Amazon) is a vegan-friendly choice designed to improve the appearance and health of hair, skin and nails. The capsules are formulated with a form of silicon, as well as the nutrient choline, to help your body synthesize collagen.
As with other supplements, though, make sure to check with your doctor before taking BioSil, to make sure it's safe for you based on your health status and medications.
6. Watch Your Manicure
Gel manicures can damage nails, causing brittleness, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Likewise, if you get acrylics, the nail tech needs to rough up your nails so the artificial nail can stick, the AAD also points out. "This can exacerbate nail thinness and weakness if not done well," Dr. Tarbox says.
You can ask your nail tech to do this gently, as well as use gentler acetone removers, making these manis more compatible with thinner nails. But it's also a good idea to take regular breaks from these kinds of manicures.
If you're an older adult, if possible, choose a salon that often works with your age group and understands your nails' needs, Dr. Tarbox recommends.
When to See a Doctor About Nail Changes
Not all nail changes are normal. Nails can also develop fungal infections, marked by discolored, thick, fragile or cracked nails, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). See your doctor or dermatologist, as fungal infections can be tough to treat.
Bacterial infections may appear greenish black, and that's a time you should also see your derm, per the AAD.
Ice pick-like dents in your nails (pitting), nails that curve up (spooning) and nails that curve downward (clubbing) may point to a specific condition, such as anemia, or disease, such as psoriasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Dr. Tarbox says.
If you notice these changes, see your primary care physician, who may want to run additional tests to identify what's going on.
If you see a dark streak in the nail, dark skin around the nail, a nail separating from the nail bed, nail splitting or a bump under the nail, make an appointment with your dermatologist right away. These can all be signs of melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, according to the AAD. (Tell the office what you see on the phone so they know it's serious.)
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Gel Manicures: Tips for Healthy Nails."
- American Academy of Dermatology: "Artificial Nails: Dermatologists' Tips for Reducing Nail Damage."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fungal Nail Infections."
- American Academy of Dermatology: "12 Nail Changes a Dermatologist Should Examine."
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.