Nails

What Causes Hangnails and How to Avoid Them

One of life’s greatest nuisances

 hangnail on finger closeup
Credits: "Lost in the cinema at en.wikipedia" (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hangnail_on_left_index_finger.jpg)
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Author:
Steven Lam

Steven Lam

Quick Summary

  • Hangnails are commonly caused by dry skin, nail biting, and poor care for your nails
  • Paronychia is an infection that can result from poor handling of your hangnails

What Is a Hangnail?

If you have ever felt a sharp pain around your nail, most likely it was a hangnail. Hangnails are extremely common and there is a good likelihood that you have had one at some point. A hangnail is a small piece of skin, resembling torn skin near the nail, that is still rooted at the base. These occur commonly on fingernails and less commonly on toenails. 

The reason that they hurt so badly simply comes down to their location. Hangnails can cause inflammation, so the swelling can put pressure on the nerve endings near the nail and cause more pain.

 

The 3 Main Causes to Your Hangnails

1) Dry skin

As much as we may hate to admit it, we do not take care of our nails as well as we should. The most common cause of hangnails is dry skin, especially during the winter months. Hangnails occur more frequently when your skin is dry because it becomes more susceptible to separation.

2) Frequent nail biting

Nail biting can be a bad habit and it is also bad for your nails.[1] Biting at your nails and cuticles can cause an open wound if you become a bit overzealous. Even worse, your mouth is home to many germs and bacteria and introducing those bacteria into an open wound can lead to an infection.

3) Cutting your nails and cuticles too closely

Whether it is cutting or biting your nails, we need a way to make them shorter to avoid really long nails, which can be an inconvenience. Cutting your nails too close to your cuticles can lead to hangnails. The skin and nail are anchored at a specific point on your nail bed and cutting too close can lead to torn skin.

 

Practical Tips to Treat and Avoid Hangnails

Do not yank on the hangnail

The single worst thing you can do with a hangnail is to yank on it. Tearing the hangnail from its anchor point can pull off part of the skin surface opening up a wound for bacteria to enter. Hangnails can be annoying, but pulling on them is not the solution. Leaving them alone will help prevent inflammation and potential infections.

Moisturizing is key

Dry skin is the number one major cause of hangnails, thus moisturizing should be the number one solution. Especially in colder months, taking proper care of your hands and nails can reduce the risk of hangnails appearing. Moisturizing will also help prevent your nails from becoming dry and brittle, which can lead to more problems than just hangnails.

Protect your hands

Work or hobbies that are very hands-heavy can lead to drying or damage resulting in hangnails. Wearing protective gloves to avoid wear and tear during even washing dishes will go a long way in reducing the risk of hangnails.

 

Avoiding The Risk of Infection

All too often, some may feel the urge to rip that little piece of skin off, which leads to an open wound that is susceptible to infection. Paronychia is the result of a breach in the protective barrier of skin that keeps out bacteria.[2]  This infection can lead to inflammation, discoloration, and a whole lot of pain, so it is important to avoid it if possible. Treatment depends on the severity of inflammation and usually consists of multiple methods, such as warm soaks, topical antibiotics, and topical steroids.

Key Takeaways

  • Moisturizing and proper care for your hands and nails can reduce the risk of hangnails
  • Do not pull on hangnails as they can lead to an infection 

* This Website is for general skin beauty, wellness, and health information only. This Website is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. The information provided on this Website should never be used to disregard, delay, or refuse treatment or advice from a physician or a qualified health provider.

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References

  1.  Chang P. Diagnosis using the proximal and lateral nail folds. Dermatol Clin. 2015; 33(2):207-241; PMID: 25828713 Link to Research.
  2. Leggit JC. Acute and Chronic Paronychia. Am Fam Physician. 2017; 96(1):44-51; PMID: 28671378 Link to Research.