Person with nails
There are several reasons why you get a hangnail, one of them being dry skin. Don't try picking a hangnail: It aggravates the tiny shred of skin further. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Forget paper cuts, there's a new fingertip tormentor in town: the hangnail! It has nothing to do with your nails but is a small, torn piece of skin that develops next to your fingernail or toenail. It's often described as a ‘jagged’ or ‘stiff’ piece of skin that can be painful, especially when touched or caught on something. It's a small, raised piece of skin that's torn and separated from the main skin layer.

The reason behind these tiny terrors

These jagged pieces of skin cause discomfort and annoyance as your fingers have several nerve endings in them. As a result, the skin is very sensitive. Image Credit: Shutterstock

As Nitin Nair, a specialist in dermatology and medical cosmetology, Aster Clinic, Al Nahda explains, dry and brittle skin creates the perfect breeding ground for hangnails. It could be the result of a variety of reasons, including constant biting of your nails, harsh chemicals from nail polish removers or swimming in a chlorinated pool or even clipping the cuticles down too closely to the nail bed.

A manicure, as pretty as it can make your nails look, can also cause hangnails, explains Claire Law, a Dubai-based dermatologist. “Sometimes, the technicians can try to push the cuticles back, which further weaken the connection between the skin and the nail,” she says. Moreover, those who bite or pick at their cuticles, are prone to hangnails as well, as much as those with skin diseases eczema or psoriasis. Add harsh soap, cold or hot water to this mix of reasons, you find yourself with skin that is rather fragile and susceptible to such cracks.

And why does it hurt so much? Your fingers have several nerve endings in them, explains Law, and so as a result, the skin is very sensitive.

How to avoid hangnails

Person clipping nails
Be careful on how you clip your nails. Keep applying a soft, healing balm. Image Credit: Shutterstock

There are ways to banish these menaces. Firstly, nail care is key.

As Law says, when trimming your nails, do not clip too close to the cuticles. In case your cuticles are overgrown and you want to push them back and clip the excess, soften the cuticles in warm water. After this, you can push them back using the extension on your nail clippers. Be gentle, especially if you are using sharp scissors. “You can also buy specialised, angled cuticle clippers,” she says.

Secondly, and perhaps a rather crucial point, ensure that your fingertips are well moisturised. “Whenever you wash your hands, even with soft soap, you’re ridding the skin of its natural moisture. So apply the moisturiser again after washing your hands, preferably one without strong fragrances that can irritate your skin,” says Law. Moisturising usually can prevent hangnails. Lotions, balms and ointments can all help combat hangnails, as it keeps your skin protected and hydrated. You can apply balm on your cuticles and nails, which will keep the skin from cracking. You can also try soaking your hands for 10 to 15 minutes, and then applying a softening, healing balm. However, don’t soak them for hours, and definitely not in hot water.

If you want to crank it up a notch with a tough moisturising routine, you can apply a thick moisturiser and sleep with cotton gloves. This will help your fingers absorb the moisturiser, easily.

Wishing the hangnail away

Here’s what not to do: Don’t keep picking at it. Don’t bite off your cuticles, however tempting it might seem. “There are nerves and blood vessels underneath that hangnail,” explains Nair. So attempting to bite those hangnails off, may cause bleeding or worse, infection of the area. Moreover, using your teeth to bite off a hangnail, could even lead to bacterial infections.

Now that we have established what not to do, here’s what you can do is. Wash your hands. After you do so, you can use scissors to cut cuticles down to the level of the skin, carefully. Don’t go deep, he advises. “You may cause bleeding, if you cut the hangnail too deep. In case this happens just apply pressure on the area to control the bleeding,” he says. You can then apply balm or ointment. If you keep the wound moist, it has a better chance of healing.

Don’t bite off your cuticles, however tempting it might seem. There are nerves and blood vessels underneath that hangnail. So attempting to bite those hangnails off, may cause bleeding or worse, infection of the area.

- Nitin Nair, specialist in dermatology and medical cosmetology, Aster Clinic

Law also advises soaking your fingertips in warm water and vinegar, which could keep the bacteria away. For this solution, you can add white vinegar to three quarters of a cup of water. As your skin softens, you can snip off the hangnail with cuticle scissors. Ensure that the tool is clean. After you have trimmed the hangnail, you can apply a balm like petroleum jelly to the wound. This helps your skin to hydrate and feel protected. Ointments can be far more advisable than lotions and creams, as they might not cause an allergic reaction.

If you don’t wish to trim the cuticle, you can cover it with a bandage for around a week, till it heals. “This will prevent further tearing, otherwise it will constantly be in touch with something or the other and get further inflamed,” says Law. You might end up with a bigger wound, compared to what you started with.

However, sometimes a hangnail can lead to inflammation of the cuticle, which is called the paronychia, the experts explain. At this point, if your finger is red and inflamed, it is better to see a doctor instead.