What Causes Hangnails and How to Avoid It

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When a friend told me she was having trouble with hangnails, to be honest, I hadn’t heard the term before. Once she explained it to me, I realised that I have a problem with them too.

I bet you have a hangnail right now – take a look at your fingernails. Hangnails are those little slivers of skin at the side of your nail. Personally, I pick at them without even realising it, not noticing until someone points out my finger is bleeding (awkward!).

Although hangnails aren’t serious in themselves, they can be painful and in the worst case scenario they can even become infected. After learning this, I wanted to eliminate hangnails from my life, and it worked! Read on to learn what causes hangnails and how to avoid it.

What is a Hangnail?

As I mentioned above, hangnails are small slivers of torn skin at the side of your nail. Although their name implies involvement of the nail, a hangnail isn’t part of the nail itself.

A finger.

Hangnails normally only involve dry skin at the side of the nail or the cuticle. Occasionally, a narrow piece of nail can also split away, remaining attached at the base. This type is extra painful!Hangnails usually start out small and painless but problems begin when you pick at them or they catch in your clothing or hair. This often causes bleeding.

Don’t forget, they are still attached to the live part of your nail bed so pulling them can be incredibly painful.

Once the cut deepens, you’ve got an open wound that is susceptible to infection, which can become serious. (source)

What Causes Hangnails?

Hangnails are extremely common. The simple truth is that most of us don’t take good care of our fingers and nails.

The main reason for hangnails is dry skin. You may notice that hangnails occur more frequently in winter as cold weather makes your skin dry.

Other causes include picking at or biting your nails or the skin around your nails, cutting your cuticles or injury to the nail. (source)

Even if you think your manicure routine is on point, if you are overzealous it can also cause hangnails. Frequent of nail polish remover or clipping your nails along the sides rather than just the top will often result in hangnails.

How to Avoid Hangnails

The best way to avoid hangnails is to stop them developing in the first place. The main premise behind this is to address the cause, i.e. dry skin. Here are some of the top tips for avoiding hangnails:

1. Apply a Hand Cream

If you don’t already use hand cream, why not? I’m sure most of you apply an expensive moisturiser to your face at least once a day. With all your hands do for you, don’t they deserve the same treatment?

Hand cream.

My favourite hand cream is this one from Neutrogena. Not only is it quite cheap but it really does the job. The package says “Norwegian Formula”, maybe that’s why it’s so intensive – weather is cold in Norway so I’m sure they’ve figured out how to beat dry skin.

The other thing I love about this product is that it’s unscented and absorbs quickly. With scented lotions, I find they can irritate my eyes if I rub them throughout the day with my moisturised hands. Thinner formulations can also leave an oily stain on my clothes if they don’t absorb quickly.

I recommend using a hand cream as often as you can remember. I have them scattered about the house – in my handbag, by the sink, in the car.

Applying at night is a must as this is the best time for the cream to work undisturbed. Unfortunately throughout the day we wash off most of the cream within a few hours. (source)

2. Use Cuticle Oil

If you’ve ever had a professional manicure, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The technicians will usually use a silky, luxurious oil right at the end of the treatment. It’s often made in house with their own unique formula.

You don’t have to go to the salon for this benefit (although it is a nice treat!). You can buy a commercially produced oil – I got this one from my local salon.

Another option is to make your own natural version with ingredients such as almond or jojoba oil. If you’re worried about infection, add a drop of eucalyptus oil for its antiseptic powers.

Simply massage this oil into clean cuticles a few times a week and your hangnails should become a thing of the past. I do it every time I cut my nails so about once a week.

3. Protect Your Hands

So we’ve covered adding moisture to your hands, but there are some things you do everyday that actually leach water from your skin, leaving it dry and making your nails brittle.

I’m talking about working with chemical products. No, I don’t mean those of you with lab jobs (but in that case you need to take extra care!) but simple chores like washing the dishes with dish soap or bleaching the counters without wearing gloves are a disaster for your hands.

Dirty rubber gloves.

Always wear gloves when doing household tasks like this. Household chemicals are very harsh and will dry out your skin.

If you’re a swimmer, make sure to throw a tube of hand cream into your swim bag too as chlorine is another troublesome chemical for the skin.

4. Use a Gentle Soap

It’s not just household chemicals which dry out your hands. Normal soap can do the same.

Think about how many times you wash your hands every day. It must be at least 20! Choosing a gentle, moisturizing soap can go a long way towards preventing hangnails.

I use Simple soap at home – it’s great for my son’s eczema too. When I’m out, I have my trusty tube of hand cream with me so I can quickly apply some after washing.

5. Quit Biting Your Nails

I bit my nails from my teens into my early 20s. One day I just stopped, for no reason. I guess it was linked to the stress of my high school and university studies.

If you are still in the habit of biting your nails or picking the skin around your cuticles, it’s worth making the effort to stop.

Biting your nails transfers bacteria both ways. If you have a hangnail, you’re letting bacteria from your mouth enter the wound.

You’re also taking bacteria in from your hand to your whole system through your mouth, making it easier to pick up colds, flu and stomach upset.

6. Keep Your Nails Well Groomed

I’ll be honest, unless I’ve got a special occasion like a wedding or anniversary outing, I rarely manicure my nails. I just clip them straight across with a nail clipper so that they don’t get in the way.

However, if you find yourself getting hangnails all the time, it might be worth putting a bit more effort into it. If you have the time and money, visiting a salon occasionally can go a long way.

A person's nails with polish on them.

Let them know your problem and make sure they don’t cut your cuticles as this will aggravate the issue.

Only use salons that have a current license and only choose licensed technicians. Ensure that your nail technician sterilizes all tools used to prevent infection.

If you prefer the do-it-yourself route, it’s easy to give yourself a manicure or pedicure at home. Cut your nails straight across and file the edges for a rounded corner.

Soak your fingertips in cuticle oil (discussed above) and push back the cuticles gently with an orange stick. Finish off by massaging in the cuticle oil and allowing it to dry.

7. Avoid Nail Polish Remover With Acetone

Manicures are a great idea, but if you’re changing the colour of your nails every few days it’s not good for your nails’ health.

If you must use nail polish remover, use it infrequently and look for an acetone-free formula.

8. Inspect Your Nails Regularly and Cut Short Hangnails

You’ve probably caught on by now that it’s a good idea to pay a bit more attention to your nails. If you’re following the points above ie. DIY manicures and applying hand cream, you’ll notice hangnails before they get too bad.

If you see the beginnings of a short hangnail, clip it off with a nail clipper or small scissors before it has the chance to catch on something and get worse.

Make sure not to cut too close to the nail bed or you will cause bleeding.

9. Soak Your Nails

A person soaking their nails in rose water.

Another way to treat your nails to some R&R is to do an occasional soak. I do this sometimes after big events when my nails are in bits from polish and remover.

Soak your fingers in coconut oil, olive oil or any similar oil of your choosing. Wrap your hands in hot towels to allow moisture to really penetrate.

Keeping the skin around your nails soft will undoubtedly keep hangnails at bay. (source)

10. Use Vitamin E

If you don’t know about vitamin E’s benefits for skin then you’re missing out. My pharmacist recommended it to me a long time ago for dry skin and I’ve been using it ever since.

Simply apply a few drops of vitamin E oil to your nail bed or developing hangnails and they’ll be healed in no time

How to Get Rid of Hangnails

If it’s too late for prevention and you’ve already got a hangnail or ten, don’t worry, treating them is easy. Take the following steps:

1. Soak Your Fingers in Warm Water

To soften your skin, take a bowl of warm water and soak your fingertips for around 5 minutes. You can add some tea tree or eucalyptus oil to the water for antibacterial effects.

2. Clip the Hangnail

Carefully clip off the hangnail with a nail clipper or small scissors. Do not clip too close to the live skin.

Nail clippers.

3. Apply an Antibacterial

If your hangnail is bleeding or even if it’s not, applying an antibacterial is always a good idea to prevent infection. Medicated products such as Germolene or Savlon are great for this. Just ask at your local pharmacy

If the skin is broken, apply a band-aid over the top to keep dirt and debris out.

4. Moisturise, Moisturise, Moisturise!

The antibacterial ointment or cream from step 3 will keep your skin moisturised directly after cutting the hangnail but for the next few days you should apply something more intensive to the area such as petroleum jelly.

Rub a small amount of vaseline into your cuticles and the skin surrounding your nails at least once daily (night time is best).


As I’ve already mentioned, hangnails themselves are more of an irritant than a health risk. However, they can, in rare cases, result in an infection called paronychia.

Paronychia is a skin infection that occurs around the nails. It varies in severity and in the worst cases can lead to abscesses, permanent changes in the shape of the nail or even whole body infection. (source)

If you suspect that you have a severely infected hangnail, head to your doctor as you will probably need a prescription for antibiotic tablets.


Never cut your hangnails when the skin is dry as it can lead to further tearing.

If the skin around your hangnail is red, swollen and tender, or if you notice any pus, you definitely have an infection.

Start out with a medicated antibacterial cream (Germolene or Savlon) and cover it with a plaster or gauze dressing. Change the dressing daily. If you don’t notice an improvement in a couple of days or if symptoms are severe, you need to see a doctor..


Hopefully this article has given you all the information you need to deal with and prevent hangnails. They are a bother but once you settle into a regular nail care routine you can usually eliminate them completely.

Now that you know what causes hangnails and how to avoid it, follow as many of the steps above as you like. Your hands will thank you!

References: 1, 2, 3, 4

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