If you want to see something amazing--and a little bit gross--you should check out the left hand of Shridhar Chillal, a native of Poona, India. He's been growing the nails on the left hand since 1952 and is the reigning Guinness Book of World Records fingernail champ.
As of 1998, Chillal was sporting an aggregate of more than 20 feet of nail! Four of the nails hang down in long, curly strands. But the thumbnail is coiled up neatly like a snake. (Look in the Guinness World Records 2001 book or go to http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com and search for fingernails.) One cannot see these nails without being . . . moved.
Twenty feet of nails. On just one hand. Could any of us do it? Or does Chillal have something special? Extra tough keratin, perhaps? Supersonic growth rates?
We had to know, so we called Dr. Richard Scher, a nail maven at Columbia University (and author of a book called "Nails"). Scher said that any one of us could probably grow nails like Chillal's if we were so inclined. You could. I could. My daughter could. (Over my dead body.)
By and large, Scher says, people's nails grow at a genetically programmed rate of about 3 millimeters a month. (Our toenails--the sluggards--are programmed to grow at about one-half to one-third that rate. Nails may break, especially if they're not kept properly moisturized, but they don't fall out like hairs. "So you could let your nails grow 6 feet if you never cut them and completely protected them," Scher says.
Of course, the playing field is never totally flat in this life. Some people might lack the stick-to-it-iveness to coddle 5-foot talons (it reportedly takes the world female fingernail champ, Lee Redmond, 48 hours to paint her nails). Some might whine that their nails get in the way of frivolities such as eating, sleeping and dressing.
Plus there are small variations in nail strength and growth rate that might make all the difference in that bid for a Guinness win.
Nails, says Scher, grow faster in warmer climes. They grow faster during pregnancy. Young people's nails grow faster than old codgers' nails. People who have psoriasis have faster nail growth; people with a condition called yellow nail have talons that grow more slowly.
And let's not forget the thyroid gland. Overactive thyroid? You've got a nail growth advantage! Sluggish thyroid? You might want to choose another world record to strive for.
Hairy Tale--the Long Version
Even the zippiest thyroid in the world, however, won't make fingernails grow like hair, which--next to bone marrow--is the fastest-growing tissue in the body. According to Guinness, the longest documented head of hair was nearly 17 feet long in 1997. And--stupendous records aside--there are definitely differences in how long people can grow their hair.
Kevin McElwee, a hair scientist working in Germany who runs a hair science Web site (http://www.keratin.com), told us a bit about it. Hair follicles (where hairs are grown) go through different phases, he says.
There's the "anagen" phase--the time when the follicle is busy making hair. That can last from 500 to 1,800 days, during which time the hair is growing at about 0.3 millimeters a day.
Then there's the "telogen" phase when growth stops and the hair gets shed.
Then the cycle starts all over again.
Some people have follicles that stay in the anagen phase indefinitely and keep growing and growing and growing. That's what might lie behind the amazing seven Sutherland sisters, whose hair reached the floor and who touted a miraculous quack hair growth treatment early last century. Genes, not snake oil, were the likely cause of their amazing hair, McElwee says.
Finally, as long as we were on the subject, we had to find out if hair and nails really keep growing after people die. They don't, says Scher. All that happens is that the skin retracts a bit, giving the impression of a little extra growth.
Another myth bites the dust.
If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, email@example.com.