Toenails serve a critical role in the health of our feet. They are are sensory organs that act like a shield, providing a critical layer of protection. The various parts of the toenail comprise toenail anatomy. These parts work together to protect the underlying tissues of the toe and aid in walking and other activities.
Toenails may look like a singular unit, they’re actually pretty complex. In this blog post, we’ll dive into the structure and functions of the different parts of our toenail anatomy, providing a deeper understanding of this often-overlooked aspect of foot health.
The nail plate is the hard part of the nail and is comprised of a tough protective protein called alpha-keratin. Keratin adds strength and durability to the nail. The nail plate grows out from the nail matrix. It is translucent, and its colour can vary from white to yellowish-brown, depending on the thickness and the presence of underlying tissues. The end of the nail plate is part of the nail you trim away when clipping your toenails.
The nail bed is the skin under the nail. It nourishes and supports the nail. The nail bed is composed of blood vessels, nerves, and cells called melanocytes, all of which combine to produce the pigment that gives the nail its colour. When the nail bed is damaged, you may notice your toenail appears to change colour. For instance, your nail bed may produce a purple/darkish colour known as a black toenail, which occurs when the nail bed is damaged and pools blood.
Did you know it takes roughly 18 months for a toenail to grow its entire length? This is thanks to the nail matrix, which helps dictate toenail growth. The nail matrix is the part of the nail bed that produces new nail cells. It is at the base of the nail plate, just beneath the cuticle. The nail matrix contains specialized cells called keratinocytes, which produce the protein that forms the nail plate.
The lunula is the crescent-shaped white area at the base of the nail plate. It’s the actively-growing component of the nail. The lunula is sometimes called the “half-moon” of the nail due to its curvature and half-ringed shape.
The cuticle is the thin skin layer covering the nail plate’s base. It protects new nails from bacteria when they grow from the root, and also helps to keep the nail plate hydrated.
The nail folds are the skin folds surrounding the sides and base of the nail plate. They help to anchor the nail plate in place and provide support and protection to the surrounding tissues. Nail folds direct the nail growth in the correct direction and shape. When the nail folds are damaged, you may experience horizontal grooves across the nail, known as Beau’s lines.
The nail groove separates the nail plate and the nail fold. It helps to direct water and debris away from the nail bed.