The first thing to know about hangnail treatment is also the hardest: Don't pick! I would know, because I seem to always have a hangnail. And even though I am armed with the know-how and the products to prevent hangnails in the first place, I still manage to overwash my hands, or head outside in the bitter cold without gloves. And I pick.
That’s why, today, I’m giving the floor to dermatologist James Collyer, MD, of Modern Dermatology in Seattle. Since I can’t seem to follow my own advice on hangnails, I’m going to entrust him with educating us all on the topic. He gave me some handy advice on how to heal hangnails—as well as prevent them so that we never have to suffer again.
But first things first: How the hell do hangnails happen, in the first place? “Hangnails occur when small portions of skin get a tear near the cuticle,” Collyer says. “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.” (Like when you’re in the pool too long.) "Any of these things makes the skin fragile and susceptible to cracks.”
One more imperative question before we dive into the remedies: Why the hell do hangnails hurt so much? “Simple: Because there are a lot of nerve endings in the fingertips,” Collyer says.
How to Avoid Hangnails in the First Place
Preventing hangnails starts with clipping your nails properly.
“Do not clip too close to the cuticle when trimming your nails,” Collyer says. If you have overgrown cuticles and want to push them back and clip the excess, then start by softening the cuticles in warm water. Then you can push them back using the extension on your nail clippers (it’s designed to lift and loosen the cuticle). Clip slowly, or if you’re deft with pointy-tipped manicure scissors—and somewhat ambidextrous—then use those to snip away at the excess skin. That, or buy the specialized, angled cuticle clippers that handle the task.
Or just treat yourself to a manicure, man.
Secondly, you need to keep your mitts moisturized, while also preventing situations of severe moisture depletion.
“Moisturizing can help prevent hangnails, particularly when you see an ointment or balm since they hydrate and shield skin better than cream or lotion,” says Collyer. “A healing balm applied on cuticles and nails will keep the skin from ever cracking.”
He also recommends soaking your hands once a week for 10-15 minutes and then immediately applying balm.” And, of course, don’t soak for hours at a time in the pool, don’t wash up in scalding hot water, and don’t go outside in the cold without gloves.
How to Remove Hangnails (Safely)
Hangnail treatment starts with what not to do. Here’s the advice I need to tattoo on the backs of my hands: “Don’t bite or rip your cuticles off!” Collyer urges.
To safely and smartly remove hangnails, do this instead: “Wash your hands, then use sterile scissors to cut cuticles down to the level of skin but not deeper,” he says. “Then apply the balm or ointment. Wounds that are kept moist heal best.”