As with other organ systems, such as skin and joints, our hair and nails age. It is a slow process that starts in our 30s. Aging causes our hair and nails to change and make us appear older. When other internal organ systems begin to age, no one can see the changes. Having constant visible daily reminders of our aging can make the entire aging process more distressing. However, there are some things we can do to help slow down this process.
Hair and nails change as we get age due to internal and external forces.
Hair becomes thinner, more brittle, grey, and less dense.
Nails become thinner, more brittle, and yellow, and grow inwards.
There are certain hygiene practices and medical and cosmetic interventions that can slow down the appearance of aging in our hair and nails.
If you begin noticing changes in your hair and nails, see your dermatologist immediately.
Function of hair and nails
Hair and nails serve various functions. Hair protects the skin against environmental hazards like the sun, produces oil to protect and moisturize the scape, and aids in thermoregulation. It also helps with sensory perception.
Nails protect the sensitive skin on the tips of our fingers and toes. They also enhance sensation.
Hair and nail changes with age
As with every part of our body, hair demonstrates signs of aging, such as greying, thinning, becoming drier, slowing growth, and changes in texture. These changes begin to manifest in the 30s and progress slowly. Greying of the hair results from hair follicles producing less melanin, which gives the hair color. It starts on the top and sides of the scalp, with the body, groin, and face greying last.
The thickness or density of the hair decreases with age. It happens to most humans. The anagen growth phase of hair becomes shorter, and some follicles stop producing hair altogether. This condition is referred to as male- and female-patterned baldness.
The texture of the hair changes as well. The individual hairs become thinner and finer on the scalp. Women get coarser chin hairs, and men get coarser ear, nose, and eyebrow hairs. Scalp hairs also become drier and duller in appearance because less sebum is being produced.
Similar to hair, nails also change with age. They will grow slower, become more brittle and yellow, and even develop ridges. Nails become harder and grow inwards, causing pain and disfigurement.
Why do hair and nails change?
As we age, hair and nails change in response to internal and external forces. Internal factors include genes, hormones, and certain medical conditions. Our genes are pre-determined to cause specific changes in our hair and nails, and it is very little we can do about it. Hormone fluctuations, such as during pregnancy and menopause, will cause hair and nails to change density and texture. Medical conditions, such as PCOS and thyroid disease, also impact the growth of our hair and nails.
While there is not much we can do to alter internal forces, we can influence external forces to some extent. External factors include stress, medications, nutrition, smoking, UV radiation, and hygiene. Finally, an easy fix is changing poor hygiene habits.
Stress causes an increase in cortisol, which can damage the follicles and inhibit hair growth.
Many medications, such as blood pressure meds, chemotherapy, and anticoagulants can interfere with hair growth. Chemotherapy and oral retinoids can harm nails.
Poor nutrition, such as diets lacking protein and antioxidants, will inhibit proper hair and nail growth.
Poor lifestyle choices, like excess alcohol consumption and smoking, can adversely affect the hair and nails.
Avoid daily, excessive heat from styling tools, aggressive brushing of your hair, UV damage from the sun, and chemical dyes, which damage your hair follicles. Protect your nails from UV damage, chemicals, and the use of harsh tools, like a Dremel.
Protect your hair
There are various hair care practices you can try to help your hair look as good as it can during the aging process.
Wash and condition your hair with gentle products, and do not over wash your hair. Shampoos with zinc can help soothe your scalp.
UV damage from the sun can cause a decreased production of melanin, which can prematurely grey your hair, damage keratinocytes, and cause decreased hair production. You can protect your hair from UV damage by wearing a hat to cover your hair.
Keep your hair dryer 6–12 inches from your hair and use lower heat settings.
Avoid excessive use of hair spray, which can dry out your hair.
Make sure your diet is high in protein and antioxidants to encourage hair growth. Many vitamin supplements may help hair grow.
Avoid smoking and alcohol, which can damage your health and your hair.
There are also medical treatments available to help hair grow. Over-the-counter Rogaine will help hair grow, but it requires daily application forever. Prescription Propecia pills also help men grow hair and prevent hair loss; however, its use has been linked to erectile dysfunction in some men. PRP (platelet-rich plasma) and PRF (platelet-rich fibrin) can help men and women regrow hair. These procedures involve removing growth factors from the blood and reinjecting them into the areas of hair loss. Finally, hair transplant surgery is a great option as well.
If you are trying to get rid of unwanted hair that accumulates with age, there are some options. You can pluck, shave, apply depilatory creams, or wax the hairs at home. You can have professional waxing, threading, electrolysis, or laser hair removal.
Protect your nails
Proper nail care practices can go a long way to avoiding premature nail aging.
- Keep your nails short and filed.
- Apply cuticle oil to hydrate the area around the nails.
- Avoid chemicals like acetone to remove nail polish.
- Select nail polishes without formaldehyde.
- Avoid using UV light to cure nail polish, as it can damage nails and cause skin cancer.
- Eat a diet high in protein, biotin, and antioxidants. There are vitamin supplements specially designed to help hair and nails grow.
Changes in hair and nails are inevitable with age. We can positively influence external factors and avoid premature aging; however, we can do little to alter our genes. If you begin noticing changes in your hair and nails, see your dermatologist as soon as possible. The sooner you take action, the better it will be for your hair and nails in the long run.