Ultimate Guide to Nail Care
fingernails, toenails, and the skin around the nail
If your nails could talk, what would they be telling you?
Caring for your nails, cuticles, and surrounding skin on your distal phalanges (the tips of your fingers and toes) is important for keeping fingernails and toenails healthy. Read our creative nail care tips and nail health warning signs.
The desire for beautiful nails fuels salons and the cosmetic industry. But it’s one thing to have pretty, colorful nails and another to have healthy nails. Nail health should be a priority not only for cosmetic purposes but also for functional and health reasons. That’s why it’s essential to know how to take care of your nails and to have the proper tools for nail care.
The appearance of nails, including fingernails and toenails, is not only aesthetic. Abnormal nails and nail beds can signify something nail-related or a clue that something bigger is going on, like an underlying disease that needs a health professional’s attention. The nail and skin experts at DefenAge address everything you need to know about proper nail care below so you can maintain healthy fingernails and toenails.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Nails
Healthy, natural nails have a smooth surface and a consistent pinkish-white color. The tips are smooth and free of jagged edges. If the nail is healthy and strong, it won’t bend easily or feel brittle. But changes in texture, color, nail strength, and the skin around the nail can be a sign of unhealthy nails or even an underlying condition.
A simple nail care routine can keep nails looking beautiful and healthy. But nail care only goes so far. Knowing what to look for that might warrant follow-up by a dermatologist or other healthcare professional is important, too.
How to Take Care of Your Nails Properly
Is a nail care routine part of your weekly grooming regimen? What is a good nail care routine, anyway? Here’s how you can start taking better care of your nails.
Trim Regularly — and Carefully
Trimming your nails regularly and maintaining a reasonable length is key to avoiding injury. It’s important to know how to trim your nails to avoid the risk of things like hangnails — injuries that cause pieces of skin to hang loose around the fingernail bed.
It helps to prepare nails by softening them. So, a good time to trim nails is right after a shower.
What Are Good Tools to Take Care of My Nails?
Using a nail clipper or nail scissors, trim fingernails by cutting somewhat straight across the nail. Then come back with an emery board or nail file to gently round the nail’s edges, so there are no rough or jagged areas that might catch on something and injure the nail. When filing, go in the same direction rather than back and forth, which can weaken the nail.
Don’t Cut Your Cuticles
The purpose of your cuticles is to protect the nail root from infection and more. Cutting the cuticle or removing it generally does more harm than good. If needed, gently push back the cuticle after a shower or washing (when the skin is softer), using a nail instrument that isn’t sharp.
Polish With Care
Polished nails might look good, but applying and removing nail polish can be hard on nails. Here are simple tips for healthier nail polishing practices:
- Take breaks from nail polish. Sometimes, nails become yellowed or discolored from polish. Taking a break by not applying polish for several weeks should help the nails return to their natural color.
- Use a base coat when using nail polish. The strengthening varnish helps prevent nail staining from polishes, and the coat of clear gloss can add nail shine and protection.
- Use an acetone-free remover. Part of the problem with nail polish is having to remove it using acetone-based nail polish removers. These can damage the skin and dry out nails, so opt for an acetone-free remover.
- Consider an alternative to traditional polish. An alternative to traditional nail polishes might be “non-toxic” nail polish, marketed as being free from five ingredients — formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde resin, and camphor. But while chemicals like these can be absorbed in the body after nail polish use, there isn’t clear evidence that using non-toxic nail polish has health benefits.
- Limit your use of gel polish. While gel polish lasts longer than traditional nail polish, removing it can damage the nails, surrounding skin, and cuticles. Wearing gel nails in the long term can cause nails to become brittle and weak. So, for the health of your nails, consider wearing gel polish occasionally, for shorter periods, and having a professional remove them.
Continuously practice good nail grooming and cleanliness, whether your nails are polished or not.
Protect your fingernails by wearing gloves when using cleaning products with chemicals. These can dry out the hands and nails, causing long-term damage.
Keep Your Nails Clean and Dry
Keep the areas under and around the nails clean. One safe option is to use a wooden or rubber manicure stick and use it to gently clean under the nail tip. Don’t forget to keep the nail care products you use to groom your nails clean or disinfected.
Don’t Bite Your Nails
Biting your nails is a bad habit that can transfer bacteria to your gums and rip the skin on your fingers. In addition to not biting your nails, you should also avoid using them for tasks like opening soda cans, which might damage the nail, nail bed, or surrounding skin.
[source:Tips for healthy nails (aad.org)]
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How to Properly Care for Toenails
It’s important to trim your toenails and keep them short to avoid trauma or injury. Use a straight-edged toenail clipper to cut your nails straight across. You can use an emery board to gently round out the edges (but don’t round them too much, as this could cause an ingrown toenail). Like with fingernails, be sure to file in one direction — not back and forth.
Why Are My Toenails So Thick — and What Can I Do?
Thickened or discolored toenails could indicate a fungal infection. Consider going to a dermatologist or podiatrist to remedy the problem — and don’t try and cover up the concern with nail polish because it could make things worse. For thick, difficult-to-cut toenails, try to soak your feet in warm salt water first. That should soften the nails for easier grooming.
Wear Properly Fitting Shoes
Wear shoes that fit. Shoes that are too tight or too short can lead to toenail issues, such as ingrown toenails. Don’t try to fix a painful ingrown toenail by digging out the nail from the skin. It could get infected, and self-surgery could make matters worse. It’s best to see a podiatrist or other health professional.
Keep Your Feet Covered in Public
Fungal infections can get in your toenails and cause things like athlete’s foot. To help prevent that, wear flip-flops at public pools and in public showers.
Clean Your Toenails Regularly
Prevent dirt from accumulating under the toenail tips by gently cleaning them with a wooden or rubber manicure stick. Don’t use sharp tools for nail care. They can cause injury and make you vulnerable to infection.
Avoid Cutting Toenail Cuticles
Don’t cut toenail cuticles. They are a protective barrier against infection. Even pushing them back too much can cause cuticles to thicken.
[sources for these tips:Tips for healthy nails (aad.org), Pedicure Pointers | Tips for Healthy Feet | Patients | APMA]
How to Protect Nail Health at a Salon
Having manicures and pedicures at a salon can be stress-relieving “me time.” Keeping these safety precautions in mind can prevent some of the health risks associated with these spa treatments, so they remain positive experiences.
Start by making observations and asking the following questions:
- Does your nail technician have experience and the required (and current) licensing to provide manicures and pedicures?
- Is the station area clean? Are the tools for nail care disinfected with each use? (That might be a question you have to ask.) Some salons allow clients to purchase their own nail care products for manicures and pedicures. That might be a good option for those who get frequent nail treatments at spas.
- Does the technician’s workstation look organized and professional?
- Did the nail technician wash their hands before treating your nails?
- Look at the pedicure foot bath before putting your feet in the water to make sure it appears clean, and ask how it is disinfected between clients.
It might be tempting to shave your legs before a pedicure, but it’s best to leave the shaving for later. Shaving your legs 24 hours or less before a pedicure could result in tiny skin injuries that put you at greater infection risk.
Fingernail Dos and Don'ts
Below are some additional tips for maintaining healthy and functional nails.
- Keep fingernails dry and clean while keeping hand skin clean and moisturized. After nail grooming, wash and moisturize your hands, including your nails, to promote healthier skin and tissue and prevent dry, cracked skin. [10 Luxe Hand & Body Cream | Anti-Aging Firming Lotion | DefenAge]
- Practice good nail hygiene. That includes:
- Applying gentle soap to a clean toothbrush and gently scrubbing nails and nail areas to rid nails and surrounding skin of dirt and dead skin cells.
- Trimming regularly with proper fingernail trimming tools for nail care.
- Trimming nails straight across and using an emery board to gently and slightly round edges.
- Cleaning nails under the tips with wooden or rubber nail care products (nothing sharp).
- Incorporate Age-Repair Defensins®
- Defensin-molecules revitalize brittle, dry nails by helping to activate our body internal regenerative mechanisms.
- Expose nails to harsh chemicals, including those in dishwashing detergents and cleaning products. When applying nail polish remover, only apply it to the nail. [15 Tips for Healthy, Strong Nails - The Best Nail Care Tips (goodhousekeeping.com)]
- Purchase costly supplements that claim to help make nails stronger without talking to your dermatologist first. Many have not been scientifically shown to work, and others might be harmful. For example, biotin (vitamin B7) is widely marketed in nail and hair supplements. What many don’t know is that the FDA issued a warning about biotin in 2017. The warning concerns interactions between biotin and some laboratory tests, including heart function and thyroid function tests. [Safety Concerns of Skin, Hair and Nail Supplements in Retail Stores - PMC (nih.gov)]
- Bite your nails. It often starts in childhood, but nail biting can continue into adulthood. The nervous habit is worth stopping for a few reasons, including hygiene (nails can be dirty), as well as the risk of damaged skin, nails, and teeth. Dermatologists recommend quitting the nail-biting habit by keeping nails trimmed short, applying a bitter-tasting nail polish (these are available over the counter), and identifying triggers so you can replace the nail-biting with a healthier response. [source: How to stop biting your nails (aad.org)]
- Pull off hangnails. Nail picking or paper cuts might cause a hangnail, which is a tiny piece of skin hanging loose next to your nail. You might be tempted to rip it or pull it off, but that will only exacerbate the problem by increasing the risk of infection, inflammation, and pain. An at-home treatment approach is thoroughly cleaning the area and using scissors or nail clippers to gently cut the loose skin. Apply antibiotic cream or ointment to the area. If it doesn’t improve, see a healthcare professional for treatment.
- Have cuticles removed. The cuticle serves to seal the area at the nail’s base. Removing it leaves one vulnerable to pain and infection. And, when (or if) the cuticle grows back, the overgrowth might be worse. [15 Tips for Healthy, Strong Nails - The Best Nail Care Tips (goodhousekeeping.com), Overgrown Cuticles: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention (healthline.com)]
- Ignore nail changes or other problems.
Nail Concerns to Look Out For
There are many nail changes that could be warning signs of diseases, conditions, deficiencies, or unhealthy habits.
These are a few:
- Discoloration. A greenish/black color might mean the nail is infected. Yellow nails can result from nail polish or smoking. Nail discoloration can also signify other health conditions or concerns.
- Dark streaks under nails. Dark streaks or lines in fingernails could indicate a type of skin cancer called melanoma.
- Nail bleeding, redness, swelling, or pain around the nail. This could signal an infection.
- Changes in nail shape. Nails that thicken and overgrow are called Ram’s horn nails. They could be hereditary or related to a disease, such as psoriasis.
- Changes in nail strength, resulting in splitting, brittle, soft, or thin nails, could suggest an iron deficiency or an imbalance in nail moisture. [Brittle Splitting Nails - American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD)]
- Separation of a nail plate from the skin (or nail lifting from the skin) could result from things like a fungal infection, injury, or underlying disease.
- Large Fingernail Ridges can be a sign of aging or iron deficiency.
Start Experiencing Healthier Nails
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