Hoaxes & Rumors

Fingernails and Hair Do Not Grow After Death

Fingernails and Hair Do Not Grow After Death

Today we take a look at the morbidly muttered myth that fingernails and hair continue to grow after death. Is it true? We’ll break down the science for you.

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Do Fingernails and Hair Continue to Grow After Death?

It is another one of those macabre rumors that casually hovers on the periphery of mainstream acceptance. Perhaps we’ve all heard it at some point in our lives, and perhaps we’ve forgotten where. Nevertheless, we are often eager to repeat the hearsay in melancholic whispers during our most pessimistic of moments. Did you know that fingernails and hair continue to grow after death? The saying conjures an added degree of eeriness to our already overactive imaginations. We attempt to brush away thoughts of mortality, yet the suggestion manifests and casually oozes from the depths of the collective unconscious. Nothing can hold back the reality of impermanence, but science can dispel the myths.

What Does Science Say?

Science can’t make us immortal, but it can be a descriptive antidote to those dark fantasies that plague our imaginations.

“It is a powerful, disturbing image, but it is pure moonshine. No such thing occurs,” said William Maples, a well-known forensic anthropologist.

According to an informative article from the BBC, there haven’t actually been any scientific studies on this subject, but the answers can be deduced from what scientists have observed about the process of death and the growth of fingernails or hair.

At the cessation of life, the heart stops pumping blood throughout the body. Nerves and organs, which require oxygen and glucose transported through blood flow, quickly begin to die within minutes.

Fingernails, which are grown from the germinal matrix at the base of the nail, require glucose to grow. Without glucose, the mechanism of nail growth is impossible. Correspondingly, hair is grown from the base of hair follicles by a division of cells in the hair matrix. This swift division of cells in the hair matrix which results in hair growth is sustained by the fuel of glucose and oxygen. As with fingernails, the deprivation of glucose makes further cell division and hair growth an impossibility.

As Dr. Andrew Weil tersely explained it, “…dehydration of the body after death can cause retraction of the skin around hair and nails, giving the illusion that they have grown.”

How Did This Myth Originate?

As with many myths and urban legends, we will probably never know exactly how and where this mythology originated.

It likely has some basis in optical illusion. The skin of a deceased person quickly begins to lose moisture and dehydrates. This causes the skin to recede which may give the appearance that fingernails and hair are somewhat longer. Hair muscles may also contract which might contribute to the illusion.

Watch a brief video detailing this process:

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) also has an informative web page on medical myths from 2007 which is maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health. The page provides several interesting facts about the possible origin and perpetuation of this myth. They report that the superstition of hair and nails growing after death is mentioned in the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

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According to the BMJ article, legendary host of The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, also reportedly uttered the following joke, “For three days after death hair and fingernails continue to grow, but phone calls taper off.”

Bottom Line

The suggestion that fingernails and hair continue to grow after death is nothing more than a myth which has no scientific basis. Hair and fingernail growth requires glucose, the transport of which is immediately halted at the end of life. As with many of these supposed truths, the origin of this fictitious tale is nearly impossible to pinpoint. Belief in this myth may have some basis in an optical illusion which makes it appear that hair and fingernails have grown on a departed individual due to skin dehydration and retraction.

Updated July 7, 2016
Originally published August 2014

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