You wouldn’t think to consider skin, hair and nails together, would you? However, these three are all inter-related and generally require the same vitamins and minerals to maintain them in their best condition. Our skin is our body’s largest organ, cradling and protecting the rest of our internal organs. Hair and nails are actually both a type of modified skin that grow by creating new cellular growth below the skin and employing a process called keratinization to harden new cells into hair and nails. In this month’s article, we’ll cover the frequently asked questions about skin, hair and nails such as which vitamins promote healthy skin, hair and nails, how do certain nutritional choices help keep my skin, hair and nails healthy, how can certain conditions (such as white spots on your nails) be relieved, and how do our skin, hair and nails change as we age.
A BASIC OVERVIEW OF OUR SKIN, HAIR AND NAILS
Our skin is the largest organ in our body. It forms a barrier to protect our internal anatomy against external harmful substances, such as microorganisms, and environmental conditions like the sun’s harmful rays. It helps our body retain internal fluids and plays a role in regulating body temperature. The nerves housed in our skin allow us to feel cold, hot, sharp, and other sensations which alert our brain to a changing condition; i.e., go put on a sweater, it’s cold, or don’t touch that, dummy, it’s hot!
Our skin contains thousands of cells, glands, blood vessels, and nerve endings in every square inch that control functions such as sweat, oil production, touch, and temperature control. If you cut yourself, and are in good health, the cut should heal quickly as your skin completely replaces itself every 28 days. Tiny muscles in your skin respond to environmental and emotional situations by standing the hairs on your skin up straight. This can happen when you’re cold or frightened, or to make you look scary to potential predators!
Two important types of fibers in our skin are collagen and elastin. These fibers allow us to bend and stretch our skin without tearing it. As we age, collagen and elastin decrease.
The innermost layer of our skin, the subcutaneous tissue, is where our sweat glands, blood vessels and cells that store fat are found. This is the layer that is responsible for protecting your internal components from blows and other injuries and helps your body hold in the heat.
The fashion industry seems to have taken over one of the original reasons for our hair; to keep us warm. Now it’s more about how you look than how you’re coping with the cold. Tiny hairs in our nose, ears, eyebrows and eyes guard against intrusion by dust, dirt and bacteria and also act as a filter for our eyes to shield them from overexposure to light.
New hair cells are nourished by blood vessels running through your skin. As they grow, the new cells move further away from this source of nutrition and begin forming a hard protein called keratin. This process is actually the death of the hair cell. The dead cells and keratin are what form your hair.
If you never cut your hair, it would grow approximately ¼” per month for up to six years. Then it falls out and another begins to grow in its place. Your hair follicles go through a growing cycle whereby they are active for two to six years and then become dormant for up to three months. Balding occurs when the hair follicles fail to reactivate after the dormant cycle.
Ever wonder why some people have a lovely mane of thick hair and others have straight, shiny thin hair? This could largely have to do with genetics because thick hair grows from large follicles and thin hair grows from narrow follicles.
Melanin is the substance responsible for the color of your hair. Your hair begins to turn gray when this pigment no longer forms.
Nails grow out of deep folds in the skin and protect the nerve-rich tips of your toes and fingers from injury. As epidermal cells below the nail root move up to the surface of the skin, they increase in number, and those closest to the nail root become flattened and pressed tightly together. Each cell is transformed into a thin plate; these plates are piled in layers to form the nail. As with hair, nails are formed by keratinization. When the nail cells accumulate, the nail is pushed forward.
Your nails grow much more quickly in summer than in winter, and your fingernails grow more quickly than your toenails. If you lose a nail, and the skin below the nail (the matrix) remains intact, your nail should grow back.
HOW DO OUR SKIN, HAIR AND NAILS CHANGE AS WE AGE?
Our skin actually begins aging in our twenties and goes through a natural progression throughout our lifetime.
WRINKLES: Our skin contains two proteins which are central to the appearance of our skin; collagen and elastin. Collagen is strong and hard to stretch and elastin, as its name suggests, is elastic. Both are abundant in our younger years. In older people, elastin-containing fibers break down, which is one reason why the skin looks wrinkled. Sagging skin is also attributed to a decline in collagen and elastin. Deep wrinkles, age spots and leathery skin indicate premature aging of over-exposed and under-protected skin to the sun.
DRY SKIN: During our teenage years, hormones stimulate our sebaceous glands to make more sebum. Later in life, these glands produce less sebum, which contributes to dry skin in older people.
AGE SPOTS: Older skin is more prone to age spots because pigment cells, called melanocytes, begin to grow irregularly.
The most noticeable sign of aging is gray hair. This happens because pigment cells in our hair follicles gradually die and with fewer pigment cells, a strand of hair will no longer contain as much melanin and becomes a more transparent color like gray, silver, or white.
Other than the onset of gray hair and thinning of the hair, aging doesn’t overly affect your hair. A person you knew with thick, dark hair in younger years may appear with thinner, lighter hair in their later years. Conditions such as balding in men are determined by genetics and testosterone levels. You can still have a gorgeous head of hair in your eighties if you’ve made the effort to take care of it over the decades.
In later years, nail growth begins to slow. Nails may become dull and brittle and appear yellowed and opaque. When nails become thicker and harder, you could begin to see problems, especially with ingrown toenails.
HOW CERTAIN NUTRITIONAL CHOICES HELP KEEP SKIN, HAIR AND NAILS HEALTHY
Best Nutrition for Your Skin
Vitamins A, B2, B3, B6, and Biotin are the nutrients of choice for issues with acne, dry/oily/flaky skin, eczema, psoriasis and dry skin in general.
Best Nutrition for Your Hair
For dealing with issues such as dry hair, hair loss, baldness, premature graying, and unhealthy hair, look to vitamins A, B3, B6, E, and Biotin.
Best Nutrition for Your Nails
If you’re living with split nails, vitamin B2 is your best bet. You can get more vitamin B2 into your diet either through supplementing from a quality source, or from foods such as cheese, eggs, fish, legumes, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, currants, mushrooms, and nuts. For issues with dry and brittle nails, choose to supplement with vitamin A. B vitamins in general, and iron, can help with ridges in your nails, but most likely this is a hereditary issue. Additional vitamin C in your diet can help with hangnails.
HOW CAN CERTAIN CONDITIONS BE RELIEVED?
Dry or Oily Hair
Dry hair can lack luster and, often, a dry scalp with dandruff accompanies it. Dandruff is simply a layer of skin shedding from your scalp. When the skin cells get trapped on your scalp by your hair and clump together, you have dandruff. And dandruff can make your hair look dull.
All types of things can cause dry hair, including environmental factors, harsh chemicals and shampoos, chlorine, hot blow dryers and curling irons, or high mineral content in your local water supply. Physical conditions brought about by cancer treatment, medications, nutritional deficiencies, and chronic illnesses can lead to dry hair as well.
There are some simple things you can do to relieve dry hair, starting with your shampoo. A good rule of thumb is to never use a shampoo on your hair that you wouldn’t use on your face. In other words, it should have a pH between 4.5 and 6.7. Finding this information may take a little research on your part, but it’s well worth it.
Dry hair can be very fragile so, when lathering, be as gentle as you can. Scrubbing with fingernails can break the hair and irritate your scalp. A gentle massage stimulates the oil glands. Decrease the number of times per week that you wash your hair; once every couple of days should be sufficient.
Chemical treatments should be spaced out so your hair has time to recover between treatments. Perms, dyes, and straighteners can still be used; just try to use them less often and get into the heavy conditioning products between treatments.
Turning to conditioners, dry hair needs all the help it can get. Look for a product that you can use once a week for 20-30 minutes or so to give your hair some deep conditioning. Also ensure that your conditioner doesn’t contain any alcohol which means looking for conditioners that have little to no scent. Hot oil treatments are really a treat for dry, damaged hair.
Brushing dry hair can lead to further damage so easy does it with the brush. Vented brushes are a good choice since their rubberized tips don’t pull on your hair or aggravate your scalp.
Back away from the hot stuff! Using very hot blow dryers to save time, or curling irons on high settings, is so hard on your hair that it’s not really worth it. Hot rollers are the worst because they stretch the hair as the heat shrinks it. So keep that dryer on a lower setting and take your time.
You can always turn to natural remedies for dry hair. The answer may be sitting in your kitchen cupboard as we speak. Good old vinegar can help your dry hair as it’s a great conditioner. There are several options for using vinegar:
- After shampooing, rinse your hair in the sink, adding vinegar to the water as you rinse.
- Massage full strength vinegar into your scalp several times a week before you shampoo.
- Rinse your hair with vinegar and water, but don’t wring it out; wrap it in a towel instead for 5-10 minutes. This helps control dandruff and removes buildup from styling products. Alternately, add ½ cup of apple cider vinegar to 2 cups water in a spray bottle and spray on your hair after rinsing out the shampoo; wrap in a towel for 5-10 minutes. For serious dandruff, this mixture can be left on your hair for up to 1 hour. A great way to control the frizzies as well!
Not into vinegar? Try your fridge instead! Become an egghead instead by using eggs to give your hair back it’s shine. Whip an egg into warm water and lather it into your hair; rinse with warm water. Or, try this pre-shampooing treatment; for very long hair: mix together 3 eggs, 2 tablespoons olive oil or safflower oil and 1 teaspoon vinegar. For long to medium length hair use 2 eggs, and for short hair use one egg. Apply to your hair, cover with a plastic cap and leave it on for 30 minutes. Then shampoo as usual.
Oily hair has issues all its own.
Heredity can play a large part in why your oil glands become overzealous. Hormonal fluctuations have a part to play in controlling the amount of oil in your hair; when the hormones settle down the problem usually does too. Fine hair often suffers a double misfortune; fine and oily. There are generally more fine hairs on a scalp than if the hair is thick, and where there’s more hair, there’s more oil because each hair follicle has 2-3 oil glands.
Eating greasy foods is not to blame for oily hair or skin, contrary to what many believe, unless you rub your burgers directly on your scalp.
Relieving oily hair is easier than most people think. You can shampoo oily hair often. In fact, shampooing every day is a good idea. Unlike dry hair, oily hair requires a shampoo to be more alkaline with a pH of 6.7 and higher. Even easier is just to look for shampoos formulated specifically for oily hair. The more generic the shampoo, the better; you want to leave out all the fancy ingredients, additives, and the two-in-ones, shampoos that are mixed with conditioners.
Rinse your hair as thoroughly as you can and don’t bother with conditioner every time you shampoo. If you must, just add conditioner to the ends of your hair. Adding lemon juice to your rinse water helps cut through any grease in your hair and will give it a healthy looking shine. If you want to get really inventive with your rinse, adding any type of alcohol, such as vodka, gin, or beer (but not the sweet, sticky stuff like sherry), to your rinse water has a drying effect. For those tea-totallers, using diluted tea, which contains tannic acid (an astringent), can cut the oil as well.
Be gentle with the brush and try not to drag the oils from your scalp down through your hair.
Dry or Oily Skin
There are many reasons why you might have dry skin and knowing what they are can help you take care of it.
Heredity does certainly play a part in the type of skin you have. The oil glands in your skin may not be producing as much oil as they could and this is exacerbated by age; the older we get, the less oil our oil glands produce.
Do you live in a windy, dry, cold climate? Does it seem that your lips and feet dry out as soon as you’ve put on your moisturizer? Your environment plays a major part in the health of your skin. Constant exposure to wind, dust, indoor furnace heat, and outdoor cold wreaks havoc on our skin. Even air conditioning has an adverse affect on our skin.
Hot showers and baths can suck the moisture from your skin. Harsh soaps and household cleansers can leave your hands looking 40 years older than they are. But all is not lost and the answer is, again, in your kitchen cupboards.
Baking Soda is a good alternative to dishwashing liquids and is very skin-friendly. To avoid one or two hot showers or baths per week, take a sponge bath using 4 tablespoons baking soda in 1 quart of water. This can relieve the itch of dry skin. If you really miss your bath, add 1 cup of baking soda to the water and soak for 30 minutes.
Packed with vitamin E, oatmeal is an old, common remedy that your grandmother probably employed. Adding quick oats to your bath will soothe dry, parched skin. For dry, chapped hands, try rubbing wet oatmeal onto your hands, pat them dry with a towel, and then rub them again with dry oatmeal.
A handful of sea salts massaged onto wet skin after your bath or shower will remove the dead skin and leave it feeling soft and smooth. Rinse with cool water.
Remember to wear rubber gloves when completing any household chores that require harsh cleaners.
Gently pat your skin dry after a shower or bath so as not to aggravate your skin and apply your moisturizer as soon as possible after drying.
What is it they say about the noon-day sun; only mad dogs go out in it? That’s a good rule of thumb. It’s a great place to hang your washing but you’ll want to shield your skin from the hot sun to preserve any moisture in your skin that you do have.
To add humidity to the air in your rooms, put a pot of water on the stove, bring it to a boil and let the steam humidify your rooms. Just don’t let it boil dry or you’ll end up going through a lot of pans. An alternative to boiling water is simply plain water, minus the flowers, in vases placed in every room of the house. Leave the vases in place until the water has evaporated and fill them again. This is an especially good trick in the winter when your furnace is heating the house every few minutes.
As annoying as they are, hangnails are nothing more than dead, dry skin at your nail’s edge. This skin doesn’t have the rich blood supply like the rest of your fingertip does and it simply dries out. Biting your nails seems to bring them on with a vengeance. Hairdressers, florists, gardeners, janitorial staff; anyone who has their hands in water quite a bit can start to have problems with hangnails.
There are a few things you can do to prevent hangnails or take care of them properly if you have one. Clipping off a hangnail is the proper thing to do. Soak you hand in water for a few minutes to soften the skin somewhat and then use scissors or clippers that have first been properly sterilized. Never bite off your hangnails. This can lead to infections and deeper cuts around the edges of your nail.
Soaking your nails can help slow and prevent hangnails. Just before bed every night, soak your nails in a mixture of a simple bath oil (such as Alpha-Keri) and warm water for 10-15 minutes. Then slather on a generous quantity of good quality unscented (no alcohol) hand cream, rubbing it in to the sides of your nails. A pair of white gloves will keep the hand cream on overnight. For serious hangnails, wrap the offending fingertip/s in plastic wrap before putting on your gloves. Remove the gloves and plastic first thing in the morning.
White spots on the nail are sometimes due to temporary changes in growth rate and could indicate a lack of zinc in your diet. White spots can also be caused from an injury to the nail or an overzealous manicurist who put too much pressure on the base of your nails. These spots are usually temporary and will grow out as your nail grows. Just remember, it can take 8 months or more for your nail to grow out completely.
Ridges, Splitting and Peeling of Nails
It is widely accepted that your nails are a particularly handy (no pun intended) early indicator of changes in the general health of your body. For this reason, it is a good idea to keep an eye on your nails and take notice of any changes that may occur.
Ridges in your fingernails come in two directions; vertical and horizontal. Vertical ridges are very common, especially in the elderly, and generally are not a cause for concern unless they are accompanied by a change in the color of the nail. Horizontal ridges are much more of a health concern and worth discussing with your primary health care provider.
Horizontal ridges could be a sign of malnutrition or malabsorption, and/or vitamin deficiencies (which usually accompany the last two conditions). The ridges occur when the nails growth is interrupted by noticeable changes in diet. Chronic illness, leading to lack of appetite, could be one cause.
Ridges can also occur from a lack of moisture. Read through the section on hangnails above for suggestions on how to moisturize your nails.
Peeling, splitting, or flaking fingernails can be troublesome. Sudden or seasonal changes in the weather, particularly changes to the dry side can dehydrate the nail plate, causing layers to separate and flake off. Moisturizers and soaking can help defend against Mother Nature’s annual upheavals. Getting a good supply of B vitamins and biotin in your diet can help stop your nails from peeling, splitting and flaking. A few extra servings of raw fruits and veggies per day can help alleviate the problem.
Some prescription medications can cause problems with your nails. You should never stop taking your medications without your primary health care provider’s approval. Simply adhere to a regimen of moisturizer and adding extra daily servings of fruits and vegetables to your diet.
The obvious culprit of peeling, splitting and flaking nails seems to be chemical exposure. Wearing gloves when using these chemicals will save your nails.
It seems a bit of a contradiction, but over-exposure to water never quite allows your nails to dry out properly which leads to flaking and peeling (see examples of professions above in “Hangnails”). Nightly soaks don’t cause the same kind of damage and remember that moisturizer is your best ally. If your exercise routine includes a daily swim, rub petroleum jelly or olive oil on your nails before beginning your laps.
Want to increase the circulation to your nails to help them grow? While sitting at a red light, watching TV, or standing in line, gently tap the nails of your right hand in the palm of your left hand. Switch hands after about five minutes. The tapping motion increases blood flow to your fingertips.
Carol Roy is a Natural Health Practitioner who received her diploma from the Alternative Medicine College of Canada in Montreal, Quebec. With 12 years experience in her area of expertise, natural health and wellness, Carol has also trained to become a fully qualified Reiki Master, Quantum Touch Practitioner, and Reflexologist.
The suggestions by Nutter’s Bulk & Natural Foods and the contents of this article
are recommendations only and not a substitute for any medical advice or a
replacement for any prescriptions. Seek medical advice for any health concerns.
Consult your health care provider before using any recommendations herein.