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Question Of The Month

"Why do humans have toenails?"

Recently, a child asked us an interesting question that most people probably don’t think about very often. Of the question was “why do humans have toenails?”

While the initial response is to answer with some sort of cynical statement about being able to wear nail polish on your toes, we realized that there actually isn’t a whole lot of scientific research out there to be found that answers this question satisfactorily when you are consulting the internet. The majority of results that are returned whenever you search for this question on Google are from web sites like this one, that are dedicated to the treatment of fungal infections of the toes, or toenail fungus. We found that even consulting the online encyclopedia Britannica gave us a response that only partially answered the question. According to the encyclopedia, humans and primates both have nails on their fingers and toenails that are much like the hoof or claw of other animals. Generally, claws or talons are used for hunting or defense of some kind in animals. In the case of human beings, the nails really do seem to serve a function only to assist us in scratching ourselves or minor help in picking up small items. There is a certain amount of an argument that can be made about the nail actually protecting the tip of the finger bone that lies under it, however most people who have lost a fingernail or toenail permanently find that the skin grows together and provides protection that is almost equally adequate.


Now that we have answered what fingernails are for and what their purpose is to human beings, we are still left with a bit of a quandary as far as the purpose of toenails. If we share usages most closely with primates instead of other animals, we must realize that the toes of primates have an additional purpose than ours do not. Primate toes function almost equally to fingers, and serve about the same purpose with regards to climbing and utilizing the feet, exactly the same way that the hands are used. Human beings do not have the ability to utilize their toes in this regard, which makes the answer to the question not have the same applicability to humans as to primates.

Monkey Toes

The only real answer that everyone agrees upon, scientists and podiatrists included, is that the toenails really do seem to be an evolutionary leftover, and show that human beings are still in a state of the evolutionary change. Essentially, as we evolve as a species and certain elements of our physical makeup become less and less important due to the world we live in, the climate, and a necessity to use our body to secure food or shelter, we begin to see those parts begin to shrink and be lost or replaced. This is one of the arguments for why the little toe to is so small, because while the toes do provide assistance in standing up bright and balance when walking, but little toe itself serves all nearly no function. As evolution dictates that this digit is not necessary, it becomes less and less prominent until it disappears altogether, and the toenail on the little toe is almost nonexistent already. Toenails are probably in much the same state, where they were once more necessary and are in the process of being removed from our bodies as a species.

Therefore, it can be assumed that the purpose of toenails, aside from a small amount of additional protection to the toe tips, is "there is none." Toenails are simply a leftover from a time when they were necessary, and now we find that they are not only un-necessary, but also could provide more problems than they are worth. Toenail fungus is actually difficult to treat because of the natural protective layer of the toenail, and allowed to grow and thrive because treatment is hindered by the toenail itself. We find in cases like these that the toenail provides protection for infection, while providing almost no benefit to speak of.

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