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Why do we have fingernails and toenails?

Whether you have been obsessively biting them since childhood, you paint them a different colour for every day of the week, you annoy friends and colleagues by tapping them incessantly, or you use them for bottom scratching or other unpleasantries – we all have nails and we all use them in very different ways. But why is it that they are there?
Whilst we will never have a definitive answer as to why we have any of the body parts we do, expert research has suggested that primates first developed nails to assist them in climbing and grabbing onto things such as trees and rocks to aid their survival1.

According to one particular study carried out by the University of Florida, a lemur like creature known as the teilhardina brandti was using its nails to keep hold of tree branches a staggering 55.8 million years ago.

In today’s society, very few of us now lead a life in which we would ever need to grab onto a tree or scale a mountain with haste during the average day – but that isn’t to say our nails are no longer important.

From switching off the alarm first thing in the morning through to putting the kettle on and typing up a document at work – without even being aware we rely extremely heavily upon the use of our nails – and the nerve endings beneath them.

Fingernails not only offer protection to the tip of the finger, but also enhance sensations in the fingertip, acting as a counterforce to provide additional sensory input when an object is touched.

So, the next time you go to untangle a necklace, open a tin or dig out a splinter, remember that little lemur like monkey who gave you the ability to do just that.

Nails throughout history
Nail treatments may be all the rage now, but at what point did they turn from functional to fashionable?


During China’s Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), long nails were considered to be an indicator of wealth and beauty, with aristocratic women growing them up to ten inches in length to indicate that unlike commoners, they did not have to carry out any manual labour.

Whilst in most nations nail length is no longer considered to be a status symbol – some Asian cultures still continue this traditional practice with many men growing long nails (often just on the little finger) as a sign they work in an office setting.

At the start of the 19th Century upper class Grecian women also considered long talons to be beautiful, and wore empty pistachio shells over their natural nails to give the appearance of length.

This trend was responsible for sparking the artificial nail fashion that is still popular today, though thankfully techniques have advanced considerably since then.
Whilst acrylics, gels and paraffin wax manicures may all be modern developments, nail decoration for aesthetic purposes is by no means new.

The history books tell us that the Incas used to adorn their fingernails with minute pictures of eagles, whilst the practice of painting nails with lacquer dates as far back as 3000 BC during Ancient Egyptian times2.

Beauty was of the upmost important to the Ancient Egyptians, and according to scriptures, men and women would rouge their cheeks, paint around the delicate eye area and redden their palms and nails using henna.

Thousands of years later when many tombs were excavated, archaeologists found gold manicure tools dating back thousands of years – demonstrating just how important well kept nails were to the Ancient Egyptian aristocracy.

Similarly to that of Asian cultures the Ancient Egyptians also believed that long nails were an indication of freedom from labour, as was the colour red. In order to draw a line between the classes, during her reign Queen Nefertiti ruled that only noble men and women were permitted to wear red nail colouring.

After the Ancient Egyptian times the evolution of nail decoration and treatments disappeared off the radar somewhat, and only emerged back on the timeline as a growing trend during the thirties. It was during this post first World War period that nitrocellulose based nail polishes were first introduced, and this was really the time when nail care and polishes (which were at the time being made popular by glamorous on-screen sirens) really began to come into their own.

Since then the nail care industry has grown considerably, with hundreds of treatments available, nail salons on virtually every high street and consumers willing to spend more on looking after their hands, feet and nails.

Whilst we may now be worlds away from the nail care processes of ancient times, our goal still remains the same – to present our hands to the world as a symbol of good care.


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