Taking good care of your nails is more important than you may think. Not only do nails protect the delicate tips of your fingers and toes, but they can also tell you about your overall health (source). Neglecting and overlooking your nails can result in a variety of problems that can ruin the aesthetic appeal and more importantly, even threaten your health. Whether you are a manicure aficionado or someone like me, whose entire nail care routine involves clipping them in the shower, one nail problem that we all have faced is hangnails. You may dismiss hangnails as a minor nuisance, but if infected, they can spell a disaster. Of course, I speak from a personal experience and not to mention a rather unpleasant one. I recently had a bout with a particularly nasty hangnail that I won’t even wish on my worst enemy!
Fortunately, I could get things under control just in time, thanks to some fantastic tips and tricks that I can’t wait to share with you. What you are about to read is a definitive guide to care and management of hangnails. We will talk about the problem of hangnails itself as well as strategies to treat and possibly prevent them. Once you read this, hangnail problems would most definitely be a thing of the past! So, let’s begin, shall we?
What are hangnails?
Before we begin exploring the ways to manage them, we must answer the all-important question of what exactly are hangnails? As per the AAD (American Academy of Dermatology), a hangnail is a torn piece of skin at the edge of your nail (source). However, the term hangnail is a misnomer as it is the skin that tears and not the nail itself. Nonetheless, hangnails are quite common and can hurt a lot!
Apart from the pain, hangnails can often tear off and bleed. Various pathogens can enter through the tear and can cause infection. Thankfully, there are many ways to prevent this from happening in the first place. However, even if the hangnails are infected, antibiotic lotions are always there for the rescue.
Symptoms of hangnails
Hangnails are easy to find. After all, they are just pieces of torn skin around your nails. Typically, hangnails are pretty asymptomatic if they are not infected. You may occasionally experience some bleeding and pain. However, if they are infected, the symptoms may worsen. Infected hangnails result in a condition called Paronychia and can exhibit the following symptoms (source).
- Redness and swelling around the infected hangnail
- Pain. It can vary from a mild, uncomfortable pain to throbbing and unbearable
- A warm feeling around the nail
- You may even see some pus-filled blisters if the infection is particularly nasty
Although all the symptoms that we just saw are localized in and around the fingers, if a hangnail is severely infected, the bacteria can find their way into other parts of the body as well.
Another important thing to note is that if the infection is bacterial, the symptoms can appear suddenly. However, if the infection is fungal, it may take several days before you see any of the above symptoms. If you have diabetes, the infection can quickly spread beyond the fingers, and you should take extra care (source).
What causes hangnails?
Have you observed the fact that you get a lot of hangnails during the winter rather than during the summer? Ever wondered why? Well, the answer is quite simple. The moisture content of air during the winter months is lower compared to the summer months. It is the same reason why your skin feels drier during winter. The arid air dries out the skin around the fingernails and causes hangnails (source).
Another common reason for hangnails is biting your nails. If you bite your nails, you run the risk of tearing off some part of the skin along with the nails. It can damage the skin under your nails (called the nail bed) and result in more frequent hangnails (source).
Yet another reason for developing hangnails is harsh chemicals. There are a ton of chemical compounds in everyday items such as detergents, nail polishes and cosmetics that can dry out the skin around your nails causing hangnails.
So, in a nutshell, hangnails can result from any of following causes.
- Dry skin that flakes and peels easily, especially during the winter months
- Biting your nails
- Excessive use of harsh chemicals found in detergents, dishwashers, nail paint removers, hand sanitizers and similar things
- Not exercising precaution while clipping your nails with a clipper and excessive cutting of cuticle
- Sometimes, an injury or trauma can also result in a hangnail
- Chlorine in swimming pools can also dry your skin out and accelerate the formation of hangnails
Now that we have seen the symptoms and reasons for getting hangnails, let’s see how to manage them.
How to get rid of hangnails?
Hangnails are easy to get, there is no doubt about that. Instinctively, you may be tempted to rip them off; I know I am! But wait. Never try to rip them off. If you do, you stand a high chance to causing injury and bleeding. Once the skin breaks, it can lead to infection in no time (source). Not to mention the throbbing pain that often results from ripping off a hangnail in the first place!
Thankfully, there are many ways to get rid of hangnails in a gentler and safer way. There are a ton of medical as well as some effective home remedies to get rid of hangnails. Let’s take a look at some the best ways now.
1. Soak your fingers in warm water
As I said earlier, lack of moisture and dryness are the main cause of hangnails. Soaking your fingers in some warm water can help the skin around your nails get that much-needed moisture. Once the hangnail is softened, you can use a cuticle scissor to clip it off ever so gently. Now, to prevent future hangnails, you can use a small amount of lotion to rub on the skin surrounding the nail. Doing this will moisturize the skin and prevent it from drying out even in the harshest of winters. If you have a large hangnail that is bleeding, make sure that you use a bandage to cover it up and prevent infections.
2. Moisturize your fingernails
Moisturizing goes a long way in treating as well as preventing hangnails. Applying a good moisturizing lotion can avoid the skin from peeling and can reduce the hangnails.
As far as the moisturizers go, any good cream will do. Just make sure that you are applying it gently and frequently. Another great way of moisturizing is by using a variety of oils to gently massage the skin around your nails. Olive oil has excellent emollient (soothing and moisturizing) properties and is an excellent choice (source). Just apply a few drops of the oil on the fingertips. Not only will it soften the existing hangnails, but also will help to prevent any future hangnail formation.
Some of the best moisturizers that are effective in moisturizing the skin around the fingernails include the following.
- Petroleum jelly
- Vitamin E oil
- Massage oil
- Hand lotion
- Olive oil
3. Eat healthy
Eating healthy is the key to a healthy and fit body. It may come as a surprise to you, but your diet also has a profound effect on hangnail formation. You may think of nails as just a bunch of dead cells but they too need proper nutrition to function at their protective best. A healthy diet containing iron, calcium and B vitamins is essential for god nail health (source).
4. Stay hydrated
The importance of hydration couldn’t be overstated. If your body is dehydrated, the skin around your nails starts drying out fast. Drinking 8 glasses of water a day can keep your body hydrated and prevent drying of the skin and formation of hangnails (source).
5. Antibacterial ointments
Although this is not needed in most cases if you accidentally rip your hangnail that causes it to bleed, make sure that you are applying some antibacterial ointment. Apply the ointment and seal off the area with a band-aid.
6. Other home remedies
Some household items can be used to soften and soothe the skin surrounding your nails and get rid of those pesky hangnails. Softening the cuticle and nail bed reduces the chances of you getting hangnails and also gets rid of the dried-out hangnails.
I love a recipe for cuticle softener that uses jojoba oil, eucalyptus oil, tea tree oil and olive oil. You can make this great cuticle softener as follows.
- Mix two drops each of jojoba oil and eucalyptus oil in a small bowl
- Add one drop of tea-tree oil to the mixture and stir to mix the oils evenly
- Add two tablespoons of olive oil that is warmed slightly
You can apply this concoction to your cuticles and the skin around your nails. The essential oils hydrate and moisturize your nail bed to reduce dryness and peeling off of the skin.
If you don’t have any of the ingredients to make this cuticle softener that we just saw, here is a great alternative that you can make using almonds.
Almonds are rich in Vitamin E which is essential for the health of the skin (source). The vitamin E in almonds can help soften the dried-out hangnails and ease pain and discomfort. Almonds also contain some long chain fatty acids that are known to have a soothing effect on the skin as well.
Here is the recipe for an excellent cuticle softener cream that you can make at your home.
- Add some almonds in water and let them soak overnight
- Peel off the skin from the almonds the next day and grind them to a fine, smooth paste
- Beat a tablespoon of honey in the yolk of one egg in a separate bowl
- Now add the egg and honey mixture to the almond ‘cream’ and mix to get an even consistency
Apply this cream on your fingertips before going to bed. Leave it overnight and rinse off when you wake up in the morning. The cream will leave your nail bed and skin around your nails nourished and moisturized. You can use this remedy a few times a week to nourish your nails and keep them healthy and happy.
How to prevent hangnails?
You don’t have to live with hangnails. With proper care and attention, you can prevent hangnails from forming in the first place. As they say, prevention is always better than cure!
Here are some ways you can potentially prevent hangnails from forming.
#1 Quit biting your nails
Not only is biting your nails a nasty habit, but it can also permanently damage your nails and the skin surrounding them. If you bite your nails, you must stop right away! It can be difficult but trust me; it is not impossible. Nibbling on your nails can damage your nail bed permanently and cause your hangnails to bleed and get infected.
#2 Groom your nails regularly
It is important to groom your nails regularly to prevent hangnails. Make sure you are trimming your nails on a regular basis and keeping them in shape. Trust me; you don’t need claws!
If you have out of control cuticles, snip them while they are short rather than picking on them. Just make sure that you are using a sharp pair of scissors while doing it.
#3 Try and limit exposing your nails to harsh chemicals
Your nails are sensitive to harsh chemicals; especially those that tend to draw moisture away. One of the primary culprits for drying out your nails is the chemical Acetone found in nail polish removers. Acetone sucks away moisture from the skin and leaves it vulnerable to developing hangnails (source). If you use nail polish remover, make sure that you don’t leave the remover for too long and don’t forget to moisturize soon after.
Other chemicals present in detergents such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate can also dry your skin out. Protecting your nails from extended exposure to detergents can also significantly reduce hangnail formation. Now, I understand that there is no getting around doing your dishes, but a pair of gloves can help to protect you from hangnails.
#4 Don’t overlook a bleeding hangnail
As I said earlier, a bleeding hangnail is a breeding ground for infection. If you accidentally rip off a hangnail and it bleeds, use an antibacterial cream and a band aid to seal it off. Doing this will significantly reduce the chances of nasty bacterial or fungal infections.
#5 Don’t overuse hand sanitizer
Hand sanitizers are great to clean and disinfect your hands on the go. However, most drug store brands contain a ton of alcohol as a sanitizing agent. Like Acetone from the nail polish remover, alcohol also dries out the skin (source). Although occasional use is fine, avoid overusing it. If you must use a sanitizer, you can invest in a better sanitizer that contains moisturizing agents such as Aloe Vera or essential oils. And yes, make sure that you are properly moisturizing your nails before bedtime.
Although not as common as finger hangnails, toe hangnails can be as difficult to manage if not more. As your toes are mostly covered, they tend to develop fewer hangnails due to lack of moisture. However, the chances of a toe hangnail to get infected are more simply because of its proximity to dirt.
Many people who develop toe hangnail, develop them during the winter months when the air is arid. Fundamentally, there is not much of a difference between a finger hangnail and a toe hangnail. So, the tips and tricks that we discussed to get rid of finger hangnails can be applied to toe hangnails as well. However, because the skin around the toes is thicker, you may have to moisturize it often and more vigorously.
The home remedies such as the essential oil cuticle moisturizer and almond cream that we saw earlier can be used on toes with great results as well.
As far as prevention goes, toe hangnails can be prevented if you adopt a healthy grooming routine. Make sure that your toenails are not out of control and trim them often. Make sure that you are moisturizing your toes as well when you are doing your fingers. And most importantly, don’t try to yank on a toe hangnail.
If your hangnails bleed often, you stand at a greater risk of developing an infection. It is quite easy to spot an infected hangnail by just observing your fingertips carefully. If you observe any of the following, you may have an infected hangnail.
- Swelling and redness around your nail
- Tenderness or a throbbing pain that intensifies if you touch it
- During the early stages of infection, you may also experience a warm sensation around the infected area
- If your hangnail is severely infected, you may also see puss-filled blisters as well
If the infection is not promptly treated, your nails can get permanently discolored. Hangnail infections have also been known to spread to other parts of the body as well (source).
Infection in a hangnail can be due to both bacteria as well as fungi. If you have a bacterial infection, the symptoms usually occur suddenly, sometimes overnight. However, if you have a fungal infection, it may take several days to see any obvious signs of an infection.
Both bacterial and fungal infections can be treated with antibiotic ointments. If the infection worsens, your doctor may even prescribe a prescription strength antibiotic both topically as well as orally.
Managing an infected hangnail
If you suspect an infection in your hangnail, you should be extra careful. You can take care of the infected hangnail by properly cleaning and cutting off the hangnail. Here is a general guideline to manage an infected hangnail at home. Again, this is just a guideline that is meant to be followed if you have a minor infection. Steps in this guideline are not intended to be followed if you have a severe infection with blisters. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what you can do to take care of an infected hangnail on your own.
- Soak the infected hangnail in warm water for 10-20 minutes
- If your hangnail is long, cut it off with a sharp scissor to avoid accidentally ripping it off
- Moisturize the area to prevent another hangnail formation
- Apply a topical antibacterial cream on the affected area and cover it with band-aid
Do the above procedure for a few days. If you don’t have a severe infection, these steps should help the infection go away.
When to see a doctor?
A hangnail that is not infected or painful does not need to be seen by a specialist. However, if you have an infected hangnail that is painful, filled with pus or swollen, you should consult a doctor as soon as you can. The key is to act on the infection quick, so it does not have a chance to take over.
Ignoring an infected hangnail can cause the infection to spread around your nail bed and potentially to other parts of the body as well. As a rule of thumb, you should consult a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms.
- If your hangnail is not improving even after a week of home remedy
- If you observe large, puss-filled blisters
- If there is an excessive swelling in other parts of the finger
- If the nail separates from the nail bed and discoloration occurs
- If you have diabetes; Diabetic patients have a weakened immune system that makes them vulnerable to infections. If you have diabetes and suspect an infection in your hangnail, consult your doctor immediately
The diagnosis of an infected hangnail is quick and easy. However, your doctor may want to send a sample of the pus from the infected hangnail to make sure whether it is bacterial or fungal infection.
Depending on the severity of the infection, your doctor may prescribe a topical antimicrobial ointment or even a dose of oral antibiotics (source). If the blisters are large, the doctor may drain them out to eliminate the risk of further infection to the adjoining areas.
With proper treatment, you should start feeling better in a couple of days. Make sure that you follow up with your doctor to ensure that the infection is completely eradicated.
I hope that the information in this article helped you to understand the problem of hangnails better. Managing hangnails can be difficult, and I know that from a personal experience. However, if you follow the tips and tricks in this article, I am here to tell you that you can get rid of your hangnails once and for all. I am sharing all the information I gathered over the years with the only intention that it will help you as much as it helped me.
I would love to hear your comments and suggestions on the topic as well. What remedies work for you? And if you tried one out from this article, did it help? If you liked what you just read; share this article as much as you can! And as always, stay healthy!