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Why do We Have Fingernails and Toenails?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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There are many theories about why humans have fingernails and toenails. Most relate to human evolution, suggesting that they are related to the claws that other members of the animal kingdom have. Fingernails especially are highly useful to perform daily tasks, and toenails sometimes come in handy as well, depending on the situation. While nails may be vestigial remains of humanity's wild past, most people who have lost nails agree that they are much more valuable than they look.

One theory suggests that they are designed to protect the delicate nail bed. This supposition has been dismissed by many medical professionals, who point out that people who permanently lose their nails develop tougher nail beds. It seems more likely that the delicate tissue or quick under the nail evolved in response to the presence of fingernails, rather than the other way around.

The more likely reason is that these structures are useful. Fingernails help humans to scratch things, peel fruit, open things, pick away the outer layers of other edibles, undo knots, and perform a variety of other tasks. In a more distant past, they probably assisted humans with the capture of body lice, as is still seen among the great apes. When the feet were used more like hands, toenails served a similar function, helping humans to open vital food objects, strip bark to build structures, and other such things.

Fingernails help the hands to grip things and start rips and tears. Having them out of commission makes it much more difficult to scratch itches, clean the hair and scalp, open foods, and perform a wide variety of delicate manipulations with the hands. Toenails may not be quite as useful, but when a person imagines the feet as hands, their presence makes much more sense.

Like the hair, nails are made out of keratin, a type of protein. If the nails are weak and brittle, higher amounts of keratin should be ingested: a common source is gelatin, a food product derived from the hooves of animals, which also contain keratin. An increase in the level of keratin consumed will lead to healthier skin and nails, which will serve the user better for daily tasks. Nails should also be well cared for: the cuticles should be kept trim and the area underneath the nail before the quick should be scrubbed to eliminate accumulated dirt and bacteria that collect there during the day.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1003408 — On Jun 23, 2020

I've had the large toenail ground down completely by way of a motorcycle accident where I slid across pavement with the motorcycle upon my foot. In fact, the injury ground all the way down to the bone in that toe.

Recovery took grafting skin over the exposed bone. So, I may be biased here, but the bone in the toe is, I don't know, "uncomfortably" close to the surface of the toe?

It could be that without the "shell" of a toenail & nail bed, doing things like marathon running in shoes could hurt the tip of the toe, or maybe even expose the bone itself without a nail for protection. Of course, running can also hurt a nail too.

Maybe damaged toenails from running is proof the tip of the toe requires this shelf-like protection?

By anon931733 — On Feb 10, 2014

I think they simply grew to protect our nerve filled finger tips. Imagine just how detrimental it would be to have injured fingers, not being able to make tools or make a fire or as a female not being able to sew animal hides for clothing? I think a fingernail would simply spread the impact of something hitting it over the whole finger as opposed to just crushing and injuring, similar to if you hit someone with a hammer it hurts a lot! But if you place a book over your skin first, it will spread the impact and do less damage.

I think that may have been the primary reason we have evolved with them and the scratching and stuff was a secondary advantage. But yeah, I'm not really sure.

By anon925405 — On Jan 11, 2014

Why is this a religious debate? I just want to know what the purpose of nails are. You can do all the tearing and peeling listed above with your fingernails removed. Monkeys use their fingers to pick lice not fingernails. People will pretend to understand the Evolution theory and troll blogs about fingernails just to win an argument.

By anon322222 — On Feb 26, 2013

There's not really any deadly disadvantage to having nails. Our ancestors used them, and we kept them. That sums it up.

By anon296131 — On Oct 09, 2012

@post 32: Toenails on humans are vestigial structures. Our primate ancestors who had more dexterity in their feet would have made more use of them. Humans still have them because there aren't any sufficient evolutionary disadvantages selecting against them, i.e., having them did not decrease the chances of passing on genes.

By anon275905 — On Jun 20, 2012

This is hilarious. How did my curiosity about the usefulness of my hideous toenails lead me to a religious debate? I have a both big toes ingrown and they bug the hell out of me. I want to get them removed. Does anybody know how severe ingrown toenails have to be before they're up for removal?

By anon218775 — On Sep 30, 2011

Discard science, choose religion! The only difference is there's proof when it comes to science. We have fingernails to pick up very small objects delicately, but my question is why toe nails? Oh and by the way, we do have body hair, just as much as any average ape or monkey. Human body hair isn't as long or thick as it used to be during ardipethicus stage of evolution. If you look at skin under a microscope, you will see humans have just as many hair follicles per square centimeter.

By anon201099 — On Jul 29, 2011

Well, there are a lot of comments here that I would like to address. The first being that regardless of whether or not we deem them necessary or not, we have them. Secondly, we didn't get nails because our nail beds are too sensitive; that would go against evolution. (Our bodies wouldn't develop an ultra sensitive area, just to cover it. It would serve no purpose.) I do believe that we have nails because back in the day we needed them.

You may counter with the idea that now we don't need them, but I would say that we don't need our pinky toes either, but they do just magically fall off one night? It takes time. Maybe our children won't have pinky toes or nails! Just like we aren't covered in hair. Oh, and about the overhang nail biting situation. That's a bad habit. They call it a bad habit, because it's bad for you. So you should stop doing it. Plus it looks icky. By the way, I'm 18. Just saying.

By anon167613 — On Apr 13, 2011

so when we stub our fingers and toes they won't hurt.

By anon145545 — On Jan 24, 2011

Chilled, your response fascinates me. Your proposed explanation sounds plausible. It is weird to accept nails as an evolved physical trait. I can't imagine why we evolved nails and kept them.

I wonder at what point we starting getting early hints of nails. Whether this was something passed down, still present as memory in our genetic code, or a characteristic that appeared in some early shape or form because it was required.

I thought I understood the mechanism of evolution but it's hard to grasp right now. I know we known very little about how certain parts of our body work (nervous system) and I think it is strange to be thinking about how humans came to be the way we are today.

By anon128601 — On Nov 20, 2010

Well, the overhanging portion is part of the nail and you are supposed to trim it. All or non- from within or from without. There's only one answer and you got none out of two.

By Chilled — On Nov 04, 2010

I looked up this topic and it led me to this thread, among others. This topic fascinates me since I have been a chronic nail bite since a teenager. I can't stand to have a single fingernail to overhang at all.

Unlike many other theories posted on here, they are not useful to me for scratching, or anything else obvious. As a matter of fact, I view any fingernail overhang, even as small as maybe a millimeter as being a burden, as they catch on things and what-not and irritate me.

I like my fingers to be nail overhang free and my nerve-sensitive, and useful finger tips unburdened. If I want to scratch myself beyond what my overhang free fingers can provide, I use a tool, which, coincidentally, in my own personal evolution, I finally discovered later in life that there are better tools than my teeth for ridding me of my burdensome overhanging fingernails.

Now, if I have my manicure kit near me when I feel the need to rid myself of an overhanging nail, etc. I use a better human-designed tool than my teeth. If it is not handy, however, I still end up biting them.

Actually, I hypo-theorized that after my research on this topic, that I might find some scientific studies, or at least other thoughts, that theorized that our fingernails evolved as protection and/or a catalyst for our highly sensitive and nerve filled fingertips.

We have highly evolved motor skills and touch sensation with our finger tips, and I read somewhere that there are more nerve endings in our finger tips than anywhere else in our bodies. But I haven't found anyone even talking about this theory yet, but I have to believe I just haven't searched enough, because I can't believe I'm the first person alive to think of this.

To all of you who have said something similar to “Try not having them for a day and see how inconvenient that would be. Nails are necessary for us to do day-to-day activities.” I have had a nail, on my main right-hand pointer finger (1st finger next to thumb) mysteriously just stop growing and appeared to die-off, if you will. It was gone for a year or so, but then eventually grew back. I have no idea what caused this phenomenon, but I could perform every task with that finger as well, if not better, than when having the nail present.

To this day, I have found no present-day need for my finger nails (at least the overhanging portion). I was hoping to find a more conclusive answer to why we have them other than a religious/evolution debate founded in no facts. Oh well.

So anyway, as far as I'm concerned, this topic, at least on this site, is very far from concluded. But my search will go on.

By anon114162 — On Sep 27, 2010

Well, two nights ago a car ran over my toe. It didn't hurt that much. If I had no toe-nail I imagine the pain would have been substantially worse.

By anon80398 — On Apr 27, 2010

I'm not getting into the religious aspect here. I just wonder if toenails are even necessary nowadays since we don't eat like primates (well, most of us!).

I've had one big toe nail removed since it continuously grew ingrown since having my right foot smashed years ago. My physical therapist noticed and asked me why we even have them because she has a problem one that flares up because she jogs/runs marathons a lot.

I told her she should see my foot doctor to see if it could be removed. More people than you know probably have similar problems. OK! Continue your religious debate. Bye!

By anon77134 — On Apr 13, 2010

okay you people are really reading way too deep into this. I don't think we need any explanation for why we need fingernails. Have you ever cut your nails too short? Doesn't it hurt because the skin under it is very sensitive, unlike other skin. Nails are there to protect it. We need fingernails. we wouldn't be able to do stuff without them.

Evolution, religion. blah, blah, blah. Please don't be so easy to fall into these traps. Now if it was why do we have brains, okay. Fingernails and other parts of your body are there for a reason. Don't question it, just accept it.

And why are you arguing for? You are just trying to force your opinion on someone else. both sides are stubborn. Let people think whatever they want to think; it's their choice.

And for this comment i wrote, it's your choice to read this,and use my words, or not to use them. but in the end i told you what i felt, and isn't that what comments are about?

jeez, from nails to religion? why do we need to explain these things?

Most of what i said was probably hypocritical to most of you. but who cares, not like I'll be coming back to this site.

By anon71878 — On Mar 20, 2010

Anon672 just because you didn't evolve doesn't mean the rest of us didn't! I'm a catholic and I believe in God and evolution. God gave us the gift to evolve so that we can one day fully be made in his image.

By anon63925 — On Feb 04, 2010

Anon672: I'm a Mensa member and I have no clue what you're trying to say. One true god? What about Hinduism and Judaism? Both came before your precious Jesus Christ. Religion is war.

Oh yeah, and the world is flat too.

By kelleynine1 — On Oct 23, 2009

anon672, there are numerous ways that evolution and religion can work together. Even the Catholic religion does not discount evolution. Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II both stated that evolution and religion can exist together. I am not Catholic, however, Catholicism is not known to change its ideas easily. This being said, if a whole hard headed christian religion can believe in evolution then you can too. I would also venture to say that you have never actually looked into evolution. Before you defend your faith, you should know more. By the way I have been through theology school and also used to believe that the two could not mix. I educated myself before I ever defended that to someone.

By anon49869 — On Oct 23, 2009

Anon672 for a devout catholic you might want to look into the church's position on this. Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II both recognized evolution. They stated (in present terms) that evolution (or the body) was to be left to the scientist and the bible (or the soul) to the church. You can pretty much find the information anywhere if you type in the two pope's names and evolution. Many websites (including the vatican's) that support this fact. Look it up.

As for the article: thank you very much I have been looking for info on nails. This helped.

By anon44083 — On Sep 04, 2009

Anon672, evolution and religion are not incompatible. I am a devout catholic but i believe it's foolish to discount the evidence supporting evolution. Just because the people of biblical times couldn't understand the concept of evolution doesn't mean we should keep our heads buried. God gave of the gift of science to understand how he works and to better ourselves, or do you believe it's Satan's work? I personally believe that God put everything where he wanted it before the Big Bang and let causality do the rest.

By anon35788 — On Jul 07, 2009

This was a nice informative article. Thank you for posting. As for anon672 you've obviously never read *any* biology, geology, or paleontology books otherwise you wouldn't sound so ignorant when you say you don't believe in evolution... It's not a choice. Evolution is as true as the earth orbits the sun. You don't have a choice in deciding if it's true or not.... It happened whether you wanted it to or not. Do yourself a favor and read up on it.I used to be against it myself but after seeing and reading the *overwhelming* evidence decided that I couldn't deny the *facts* anymore.

By anon10302 — On Mar 24, 2008

Anon672 and Anon1091, "Why do we have them now?" For the dozen reasons posted on this article. Try not having them for a day and see how inconvenient that would be. Nails are necessary for us to do day-to-day activities.

By anon1091 — On May 15, 2007

Thanks for putting it so clearly, my religious commentator friend - nails, as you have shown, are proof of evolution. We have no use for them now, so we have them because we once did need them, like body hair.

By anon672 — On May 01, 2007

Suppose there was no nail bed because there was no nail...that's not to say that if there was no nail, then there would be no nail bed, but rather that if there were no nail, why would there be a nail bed? (or vice versa?) What, then, would be the purpose of a nail? Do not say "evolution", for I do not believe in evolution, I believe in the one true God, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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