Have we all been neglecting our fingernails? Okay, maybe just some of us? These slabs of keratin do a lot for us, so here’s how to keep them clean and healthy.
Trim your nails
The length of your nails is a personal preference, but many of us find it’s most practical to have nails trimmed short with maybe just a bit of white showing. When your nails are short, they’re less likely to break or bend, and easier to keep clean. I also find I make fewer typos when my nails are short, so there are benefits all around.
For the best trimming experience:
Use a real nail clipper or nail scissors, rather than hacking away with whatever sharp object you can find.
Ideally, trim when your nails are wet (after the shower, for example)
Trim the nail by taking several small clips around the edge, rather than trying to do the job with one big chomp. For fingernails, follow the shape of the nail in a gentle curve.
If trimming leaves sharp edges, sand them down with a nail file. Some trimmers have a nail file built in, or you may prefer an emery board.
Toenails have a few extra considerations. First, consider buying a toenail trimmer, which is heavier duty than a standard fingernail trimmer. Instead of trimming them in a curve, cut them straight across. This reduces the chance that the edges of the nail will dig into your skin as they grow, causing an ingrown toenail.
Be careful with the skin around your nails
If your fingertips are full of raggedy skin, it’s okay to trim—carefully. Hangnails are made of dead skin, so it’s safe (and won’t hurt) to cut them. And if you want to lightly trim your cuticles, you can—although most dermatologists and podiatrists would prefer you didn’t.
The problem is that it’s easy to injure your actual, living skin when you’re trying to trim a hangnail or cuticle. Rip off a hangnail, and you can end up with a tiny open wound. Cuticles serve a specific purpose: sealing your skin to your nails to keep out dirt and germs. Cutting them off thwarts that purpose and increases your risk of infection.
To take care of the skin around your nails:
Moisturise! Your skin and nails benefit. (Don’t overthink this—any lotion is fine.)
Wash your hands (or feet) before trimming hangnails or caring for your cuticles
Instead of cutting cuticles, you can get the skin wet to soften it, and then push them back. At a salon, they’ll use an orange stick to do this; at home, you can use a q-tip or whatever is handy and clean.
Don’t rip off hangnails; cut them carefully. A hangnail nipper is the best tool for the job.
If your skin is red or inflamed, treat it like any open wound: clean it and cover it with a bandage if you can.
Avoid the most damaging types of manicures
Nail polish isn’t always bad for your nails, but there are a few things to know:
Nail polish remover is hard on your nails. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends not using it more than twice per month.
When you remove nail polish, that’s a perfect time to rub a moisturising lotion onto your nails.
Red and orange nail polishes can discolour your nails. Use a base coat (a layer of clear polish) underneath to prevent this. If they’re already yellowed, stop using the polish and they’ll return to normal in a few weeks.
Gel manicures are problematic for a few reasons: they use acetone as a remover, they use a UV lamp to cure, and they can cause physical damage to your nails if they don’t cure properly or if you chip or pick at them. The AAD has tips for minimising the damage if you do like to get gel manicures.
That UV lamp they use to cure gel manicures won’t give you a sunburn, but it does emit UVA rays, the kind that can cause wrinkling and ageing of the skin over time (plus increase your cancer risk). To keep your skin safe, apply some broad-spectrum sunscreen to your hands before your appointment.
A fun fact I learned while researching this is that nail polishes with strengthening ingredients can make nails stiffer, but also more brittle—so, paradoxically, they may make you more likely to break a nail. Covering up brittle nails with artificial nails can also damage your real nails, so the AAD doesn’t recommend that either. Better to let your nails breathe free and give them a chance to heal.