A call for nail clipping histopathology to become an essential component of the routine evaluation of melanonychia: Benefitting patients as a triage and surgical planning maneuver

J Cutan Pathol. 2023 Mar;50(3):279-283. doi: 10.1111/cup.14377. Epub 2023 Jan 4.


We call on dermatologists and dermatopathologists to include nail clipping histopathology as an essential component of the routine evaluation of melanonychia. This manuscript demonstrates a case where an adult woman with broad melanonychia of the right thumbnail declined a nail matrix biopsy, but was amenable to a nail clipping.The nail clipping showed pigmentation, melanocyte remnants, and small cavities in the nail plate. These features have been published previously by our group as a clue to nail unit melanoma within nail clippings.This patient was rapidly triaged for nail matrix biopsy, which demonstrated nail unit melanoma in situ. Every patient with melanonychia can benefit from a nail clipping by examination of the location of the pigmentation within the nail plate for surgical planning, and if melanocyte remnants are detected, the nail clipping also serves as a rapid triage mechanism for nail matrix biopsy to evaluate for nail unit melanoma. Fontana-stained sections will highlight the pigmentation in the nail plate, and its location in the nail plate can easily be described by the dermatopathologist. Nail clippings performed in the setting of clinically apparent melanonychia may show helpful histopathologic findings of pigmented fungi, hemorrhage, external pigmentation, features of other pigmented nail unit tumors, as well as other entities. Nail clipping histopathology can provide extensive information in the evaluation of melanonychia with minimal discomfort for a patient, and little disruption to a physician's clinic flow. With this additional case of a nail unit melanoma diagnosed after initial concern found in a nail clipping, as well as other information in the literature, it is clear that melanocyte remnants found in nail clippings are reliable concerning features related to nail unit melanoma in adults. With knowledge of these histopathologic features in nail clippings and the significance of melanocyte remnants, the dermatopathologist can play a crucial role in the use of a nail clipping as a life-saving diagnostic maneuver. Accordingly, given the potential benefit to patients in this setting, as well as other uses of a nail clipping in the evaluation of melanonychia, we call on dermatologists and dermatopathologists to innovate the routine evaluation of melanonychia through the routine employment of nail clippings for histopathologic evaluation.

Keywords: melanocyte remnants; nail clipping; nail unit melanoma.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Melanoma* / diagnosis
  • Melanoma* / pathology
  • Melanoma* / surgery
  • Nail Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Nail Diseases* / pathology
  • Nail Diseases* / surgery
  • Nails / pathology
  • Nails / surgery
  • Pigmentation Disorders* / pathology
  • Skin Neoplasms* / diagnosis
  • Skin Neoplasms* / pathology
  • Skin Neoplasms* / surgery
  • Triage