Hangnails! We all have ‘em. Who needs ‘em? What even are they? These are just some of the questions we are forced to ponder once the colder weather comes in and slowly but surely murders our hands. If you’ve been wondering why you’ve recently felt the need to bite, tear, or snip away those weird tiny stalks that have suddenly turned up on the edges of your nails, fear not: IFLScience is here to help.
What are hangnails?
Let’s start with the basics: what actually is a hangnail? Despite what its name suggests, it’s not a nail – and it doesn’t really “hang” either.
“The term hangnail is actually a misnomer, as it is not the actual ‘nail plate’ that’s hanging but rather a portion of the cuticle that has separated,” dermatologist Dana Stern told Women’s Health. She likened the cuticle – that’s the clear layer of skin that surrounds the nail – to the grout in your shower at home: it acts as a seal to protect the break between nail and skin from infection.
A hangnail occurs when this “grout” gets cracked somehow – we’ll get to that later – and peels away slightly, leaving you with an annoying, and often slightly painful, piece of skin hanging out at the side of your nail. And before you ask: yes, they can turn up on your toes – but more often than not, you’ll see them on fingers.
What causes a hangnail?
Hangnails can turn up for a variety of reasons, but basically they happen when you injure the skin in some way. It probably won’t be something dramatic – even staying in the pool too long can do it.
“They can result from a variety of things, like biting your nails, a bad manicure, dry skin, using harsh soap and detergents, cold temperatures, and ‘waterlogged’ hands,” dermatologist James Collyer told GQ. “Any of these things makes the skin fragile and susceptible to cracks.”
Why are hangnails a problem?
Well, first, they’re annoying.
“Hangnails hurt,” Collyer pointed out. “There are a lot of nerve endings in the fingertips.”
But more importantly, they can cause inflammation and infection in the nail – especially if they’re not taken proper care of.
"Without the [cuticle] seal, water and moisture, and inevitably infections, can more easily enter the nail unit,” explained Stern. “Any compromise to the cuticle or skin barrier will make you more prone to infection.”
How do I GET RID OF a hangnail?
This is something all dermatologists agree on: you should not rip or bite off a hangnail.
“There’s nerves and blood vessels under the hangnail,” family medicine specialist Neha Vyas told Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials. “So you can cause your own bleeding, infection and pain.”
Stern concurs: “If the hangnail is pulled or bitten, it can tear and you can end up removing not just that portion of cuticle but also normal, healthy skin,” she said. Instead, she recommends you “swab the area with a bit of alcohol, cut it at the base with a clean cuticle nipper, and then apply a bit of bland ointment.”
And it’s important not to go further than the base of the hangnail, Collyer said. He also advises covering the hangnail with a band-aid if it’s still catching on things – otherwise, you’re just going to end up back at square one.
How do I stop getting hangnails?
The best cure is prevention, and the best way to deal with a hangnail is to never get one in the first place. The easiest way to do that is just to look after your hands properly. “Do not clip too close to the cuticle when trimming your nails,” Collyer advises, as well as suggesting “soaking your hands once a week for 10-15 minutes and then immediately applying balm.”
The best and easiest way to prevent hangnails, though, is simple: just moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!
“Moisturizing can help prevent hangnails,” explained Collyer, “particularly when you [use] an ointment or balm since they hydrate and shield skin better than cream or lotion.”
“Dry air and frequent hand-washing can cause you to be more likely to get a hangnail,” agreed Vyas. “Using moisturizer daily can help.”