By Louise Carr, Contributing Columnist
It seems like every time you take off your socks, your toenails are longer. Your toenails are driving you crazy – you always have to trim them, and they look like they’re growing faster than ever. What’s happening?
The American Academy of Dermatology says toenails grow about 1 millimeter per month.
Just 1 millimeter? Surely that can’t be right.
Many different factors influence how fast or slow your toenails grow. If yours seem like they’re getting longer every day, there are some interesting reasons why.
What Are Toenails Made Of?
Nails are made of layers of protein cells, similar to those in the hair and the skin. The toenail is made up of different parts including the part of the nail you can see – the nail plate – and the nail bed, which is the skin beneath your toenail.
The nail folds are the frames of skin that hold the toenail on three sides, and the matrix is the part of the nail that is hidden from view beneath the cuticle – the material that helps the nail grow is found in the matrix.
How Do Toenails Grow?
Your toenails begin life in the matrix. This is the part closest to your skin at the base of the nail. The matrix makes skin cells, which it then consumes and leaves behind the dead keratin-rich cells that build up in the matrix. As these keratin-rich cells become more plentiful, they are pushed up towards the tip of the toe, forming the nail.
Toenails and fingernails follow the same process, but they do grow at different rates.
Do Your Toenails and Hair Keep Growing After You Die?
And no, the commonly believed “fact” that toenails, fingernails and hair continue to grow after you are no longer alive is not actually true.
In order for your toenails to grow, they need new cells and new cells cannot be produced without glucose, which is formed when the heart is beating.
A similar process happens with your hair. Each hair has its own follicle with its own matrix. Without energy from the oxygen pumped around by your heart, hair stops producing cells and stops growing.
The myth persists, perhaps, because when a person dies the skin around the nails retracts through dehydration, making the nails appear longer.
It's also not true that faster growing toenails indicate you have a higher risk for cancer.
Myths aside, we looked at the scientific facts as to why some toenails grow faster than others. If your toenails are lengthening, think about the following possibilities:
1. Everyone’s Toenails Are Growing Faster Nowadays
A recent study shows that the speed of toenail and fingernail growth has rapidly increased over the past 70 years. What?
According to researchers from the University of North Carolina in 2009, big toenails now grow by more than 2 millimeters a month, compared to 1.65 millimeters in the 1930s.
The surge in growth is due, researchers believe, to the modern diet that is rich in protein from the meat, fish, eggs and chicken you can easily pick up in the stores. In the 1930s, quality protein food was scarce due to post-war rationing.
So, if your nails are on a growth spurt it could be because you are putting better quality food into your mouth.
2. Your Toenails Are Growing Fast Because You’re Pregnant
Hormones can affect nail growth, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Women often see their toenails and fingernails grow faster when they are pregnant. And it’s not proven, but nails do seem to grow faster right before menstruation.
3. It’s Summer Time and Your Toenails Grow Faster
According to a 2006 report from the University of Oxford, studies dating as far back as the 1930s show that toenails grow more quickly in the summer than in the winter.
If it’s cold, your toenails probably won’t be growing so quickly. A 1958 study by Basil Geoghegan, D. F. Roberts, and M. R. Sampford reveals that the coldest places produce the least nail growth – in their study nail growth was markedly less in people living in the Arctic.
4. Your Toenails Grow Faster Because You've Got Great Circulation
Faster growing nails require a faster, better supply of nutrients to the cell-producing matrix. This demands increased blood flow. As previously suggested, nails grow faster in the summer and this is when circulation is improved.
Toenail growth decreases as you get older, which is when blood flow in your limbs also slows down, according to a 1999 study from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
So if you have super-fast growing toenails, you could deduce that your circulation is top-notch.
5. Is Your Big Toenail Growing Faster?
Take a closer look. Are all your toenails growing at the same rate or is the big toe responsible for the growth you notice?
According to a 2010 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the big toenail grew faster than other toenails in the research into healthy adults and their nail growth.
6. They Grow Faster Because You’re Young
William Bean at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. pursued a tireless investigation into nail growth over 35 years at the end of the 20th century. He marked a line on his nail from where it came out at the cuticle on the first day of every month and then he measured how far these lines moved. He discovered that the rate of nail growth had markedly slowed at the end of his 35-year observation.
7. They Don’t, they Grow Slower than your Fingernails…
Finally, if you think your toenails are growing fast you may actually be mistaken.
Research shows that fingernails grow about 0.5 to 1.2 mm per week, according to the medical reference book “Clinical Dermatology” by Richard Weller, John A. A. Hunter, John Savin, and Mark Dahl, 2013.
Your toenails grow about three to four times slower than that, according to Gray's Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Clinical Practice, Expert Consult - 40th Edition 2009).
So, it could just be the extra attention you are paying your toenails at the moment that makes it look like they’re on a growth spurt.