Nail Growth as a Natural Clock

By Matt Nipe

When searching for a natural clock, it would be important to use something practical that one would have little trouble comprehending, or measuring for that matter. The growth of finger nails as a natural clock fits these criteria.

finger anatomyUsing nail growth as a natural clock is quite simple. As an initial condition, one would use the length of their nails at a certain time, the best being at a point where the nail is cut right to the finger. Using that as a base point, one would then find the rate at which the nail grows, and the natural clock would work until the nail is groomed and clipped short again. Having nails grow long until they need cutting is a reminder that a certain time has passed since their last cutting. This may remind a person of where they were or what they were doing when they last cut their nails, therefore, a natural clock.

For the average person, the rate at which a nail grows is somewhere around 1-2 mm per week. This can allow for several weeks of using the natural clock. Yet, after too long, not grooming your nails can become a hindrance to everyday activities. Therefore, nail growth as a means to naturally tell time cannot be used for several years without sacrificing the ability to do common human functions. When nails grow very long, they begin to curl and spiral, as well, making it more difficult to measure.


This is a picture of Shridhar Chillal from India, who had grown his fingernails for 48 years. He wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, and felt that this was his best chance. When measured in 1998, they measured 20'2". He now struggles with a permanently disfigured hand, and nerve damage resulting in deafness in his left ear.

The strengths of using nail growth would be that it is easily measurable and quick to find. Also, it is a good way to keep track of relatively short time periods. Weaknesses to this natural clock, however, are very intricate. For one, nail growth is not uniform for each person in the world, so duplication between two people would be almost impossible. Also, each finger grows its nail at a different rate, with longer fingers growing their nails more quickly. Lastly, as stated earlier, fingernail growth will not be able to keep time for long periods.

When observing that different people grow nails at different rates, it is important to note that there are several factors in determining the rate. Age plays an important role in nail growth. As people age, the rate of their nail growth slows down, so a child grows his nails faster than an adult. Also, poor nutrition can decrease the rate of nail growth. If a person does not consume proper minerals (calcium and manganese are two important examples), the nail growth can slow to a different rate.

vampireJohnny Carson once said, "For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls taper off." This is a common misconception. Fingernails do not continue to grow after life has ceased. The myth stems from an optical illusion; when a person dies, the body dehydrates, causing the skin around the nails to pull back, giving the appearance of nail growth. This illusion was also once a very important piece of vampire "hunting." People would dig up a corpse and think that the corpse was a vampire, because it appeared that it was still growing its fingernails.

The final thought on using fingernail growth as a natural clock is that although it is practical, it is hardly uniform, and cannot be used for long periods of time. If, however, a person measured an exact rate for the growth of his/her fingernails, and only used one finger to keep track of, it could work.