Fingernails are a characteristic feature of primates, and are composed of three layers of the fibrous composite keratin. This study examined the structure and fracture properties of human fingernails to determine how they resist bending forces while preventing fractures running longitudinally into the nail bed. Nail clippings were first torn manually to examine the preferred crack direction. Next, scissor cutting tests were carried out to compare the fracture toughness of central and outer areas in both the transverse and longitudinal direction. The fracture toughness of each of the three isolated layers was also measured in this way to determine their relative contributions to the toughness. Finally, the structure was examined by carrying out scanning electron microscopy of free fracture surfaces and polarized light microscopy of nail sections.
When nails were torn, cracks were always diverted transversely, parallel to the free edge of the nail. Cutting tests showed that this occurred because the energy to cut nails transversely, at approximately 3 kJ m–2, was about half that needed (approx. 6 kJ m–2) to cut them longitudinally. This anisotropy was imparted by the thick intermediate layer, which comprises long, narrow cells that are oriented transversely; the energy needed to cut this layer transversely was only a quarter of that needed to cut it longitudinally. In contrast the tile-like cells in the thinner dorsal and ventral layers showed isotropic behaviour. They probably act to increase the nail's bending strength, and as they wrap around the edge of the nail, they also help prevent cracks from forming. These results cast light on the mechanical behaviour and care of fingernails.
- © The Company of Biologists Limited 2004