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As the title suggests, I've noticed that my fingernail grow much faster than my toenails. For instance, I usually trim my fingernails every two week or so, but for toenails the number would be about 6 to 8 weeks.

A bit of research revealed this wikipedia article:

In mammals, the length and growth rate of nails is related to the length of the terminal phalanges (outermost finger bones). Thus, in humans, the nail of the index finger grows faster than that of the little finger; and fingernails grow up to four times faster than toenails. [12]

In humans, nails grow at an average rate of 3 mm (0.12 in) a month.[13] Fingernails require three to six months to regrow completely, and toenails require 12 to 18 months. Actual growth rate is dependent upon age, sex, season, exercise level, diet, and hereditary factors. Nails grow faster in the summer than in any other season.[14]

But correlation does not imply causation, so why should the growth rate of nails depend on the length of the terminal phalanges? Then why do babies grow nail much faster? I wasn't satisfied by its answer, so I looked a bit more where I found this other article. They had two possible candidates:

  • because hands are physically closer to the heart than are feet, fingers get better blood circulation and consequently better access to oxygen and nutrients.

  • Fingernails experience almost constant trauma through tapping, typing, bumping, and other seemingly insignificant actions. These persistent minor traumas stimulate fingernail growth. Toes, on the other hand, are not exposed to nearly as much trauma as they are usually bundled up safely inside socks and shoes. Similarly, fingernails on a person's right hand grow faster in right-handed people than on their left hand and vice-versa.

However they don't give actual experimental results. So my question is which of the above is the real cause of this difference in the growth rate of nails; or simply why toenails grow much slower than fingernails?

P.S. The season dependence and the lefthand-righthand asymmetry were news to me; it would be really nice if the answer explains them as well.

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Interesting! We could test "These persistent minor traumas stimulate fingernail growth. " by doing a study of people who primarily walk barefoot (beaches, temperate climate, etc). Mark the toenail, measure actual growth (since they will wear faster, being exposed), and compare it. –  Adam Davis Nov 13 '14 at 16:04

3 Answers 3

Going on the abstract of a study by J.P. Pessan, et al., fluoride intake, as well as "the fact that toenails are less prone to environmental contamination," constitutes a lesser need for growth in toenails than that in fingernails. Also, fluorine being a crucial component in maintaining the solidity of bones, the body may redirect more fluorine that is ingested by various means, to the hands than to the feet, due to the arguably more necessary functions of the hands (in that they are used them for agile and precise motions that tend to influence our survival), meaning less growth in toenails as evidenced in the first citation.

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Something I found: Jeffrey S. Dover,Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale University,said the exact reason for fingernails and toenails growth factor defference is still unclear. However, the growth rate of fingernails is indeed nearly 3 times to toenails'.

Dover said that when the nails grow old, their growth rate may be slightly slower, but people do not know the reason. When the skin aging, its ductility and shine will deteriorate. In fact, hair and nails are also part of your skin, too, and will grow old.

Dermatology clinical instructor Bruce Robinson from Mount Sinai Hospital said, fingernails' growth rate peaked in teens and twenties, and it will slightly decrease afterwards. May be due to decrease of blood flow and physical condition.

Robinson felt fingernail growth rate depends on a number of factors: the individual situation, habits which hand (writing with the hand's nails grow faster, cause is not clear), and the prevalence of age. He also said that the growth rate will be faster in the summer, winter is slow. Also men faster than women. For women, nails grow faster during pregnancy.

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It would be great if you can cite the articles corresponding to these studies. –  WYSIWYG Mar 29 at 7:41

I can think of two trivial answers offhand - neither of which I am going to try to cite.

  1. Perhaps it's your shoes. Even without shoes, your feet are probably getting a lot more abrasions than your hands. Veterinarians will tell you that dogs who are walked often (esp. on sidewalks) won't need their nails trimmed as much - or ever - as dogs who are much more sedate.

  2. It could have something to do with the thickness of the nails.

Although these are not real answers, I think it's best to eliminate the trivial (variables) before getting into a real comparison.

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It's just intuition and I have no citation, but I think your point #2 has merit. If our toenails are thicker (and it's evident they are) that means given a similar volumetric growth rate, the toenail length growth rate would be slower. –  ghoppe Nov 13 '14 at 17:39

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