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Why do we have nails?

Ever looked at your hands and thought – why do we have fingernails? What are they made of? And what would happen if we didn’t have them?

Nails are the finishing touch to our fingers and toes, and a multi-billion-pound industry exists around keeping them looking good. But what exactly are they?

Read on to learn everything you’ve ever wondered about nails and why we have them.

Shot of toe and finger nails

What are nails?

Nails are a tough plate of hardened cells protruding from our finger and toe ends.

However, the part of the nail we see is only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface there’s plenty going on, and our nails are linked up to a vascular environment of blood vessels, soft tissue, cellular activity and ligaments.

Our nails also contain important clues to our health status, lifestyle, recreational habits and can even tell whether or not we’re stressed.

What is a nail made of?

Ever been curious about what exactly nails are made of? Find out the answer here.

What are fingernails made of?

Fingernails are mostly made up of a hardened protein called keratin. Keratin is the same stuff which makes up hooves, claws and horns in animals. It’s also found in our very own hair and skin.

The formation of a nail begins out of sight, inside a part of the fingertip called the nail root. This is where the cells which will eventually form the nail plate gradually die, harden and push out of the skin.

As the older cells are compacted and pushed out of the skin by the formation of new cells, they take the hardened, flattened form of the fingernail.

What are toe nails made of?

Toe nails are also made of the tough keratin protein, and formed in exactly the same way as the nails on our fingers.

What are cuticles?

Cuticles are a thin waterproof membrane which seal the nail plate to the fingertip. Cuticles are an important barrier to infections around the nail.

Why do we have nails?

Humans have fingernails because we are primates, evolved from forest-dwelling species.

It’s thought that fingernails are an evolutionary variation on claws. Our mammalian ancestors evolved away from claws and towards the broad-tipped fingers we have today.

Broader-tipped fingers supported by a sturdy keratin plate were handier than claws for grasping smaller branches while travelling across tree canopies and collecting fruits. (Just look at a monkey’s hands – their nails are extremely similar to ours).

Our nails help us in the following ways.

  1. Nails help us grip

Nails help us grip by offering a solid surface for the pads of the fingers to press against as we grip something tightly.

  1. They are a tool

Can you imagine opening a drink can without fingernails? Fingernails help enhance the function of our fingers, enabling us to perform manual tasks more easily.

  1. They help us defend ourselves

Just like a cat, humans can use fingernails in self-defence if required.

  1. For grooming

Just like primates in the jungle, human fingernails are useful for removing lice, ticks and other pests from our skin and hair.

  1. They aid food preparation

Think about the last time you peeled an orange. Chances are, you used your fingernails!

  1. They protect our fingertips

Fingertips (and toe tips) are packed with nerve endings and blood vessels. Our nails provide a hard, protective shell for these vulnerable digits.

  1. They help us dig

OK, so when we’re gardening, we usually use a trowel or other tool to make the job easier. But in a survival situation, we could dig or claw earth with our fingertips just like animals do.

  1. They help our tactual sensation

Our nails help us judge how to hold things, detecting pressure changes and increasing the sensitivity of our fingertips.

  1. They help us scratch itches

Whether you’re a forest-dwelling mammal, cat, dog or human – everyone loves a good scratch.


  • Nails are made from a hardened protein called keratin
  • Nails cells begin in the matrix – where they’re compacted and pushed out over the nail bed
  • It’s thought nails evolved from claws – but they still have plenty of uses for modern-day humans

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