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What are Hangnails?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 21, 2024
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A hangnail is a small piece of skin from around the nail that is coming off. One usually happens because the skin is dry, or because a person bites his nails. Moisturizing and other techniques easily can prevent these skin tags, and the removal process is fairly simple. Pain and infection can occur, however, and superstitions sometimes play a role in how a person handles the condition.

Definition

Each fingernail and toenail has a cuticle, or area of slightly hardened skin, around it. A hangnail is a small section of this hardened skin that has separated from the rest of the cuticle. The section of separated skin is usually long or triangular in shape.

Causes

A principal reason people get these skin tags is because the cuticles become overly dry. Without proper moisture, the skin is more susceptible to cracks and splits. Nail biting is another frequent cause. The teeth put pressure on and tear the skin around the nails, causing separations to occur.

Prevention

Medical experts recommend using a good, hydrating and moisturizing hand lotion twice a day and before nail work to minimize the drying that causes hangnails. Some professionals also recommend soaking the hands or feet in an oil and water solution for about 15 minutes each day. A manicure or pedicure often provides a simple soak of this type. Using gloves for activities such as washing dishes or housecleaning also prevents moisture loss from chemical exposure. Humidifiers may offer some relief, as well, particularly in drier climates or winter.

When nail biting is the culprit, a trick that sometimes works to prevent problems is to paint the fingernails. The nail biting habit tends to remove some of the polish, so an individual becomes very aware of when and how much he is biting. If the nail polish is applied professionally at a salon, the cost of the polish job often is additional motivation not to put the fingers in the mouth. For safety, it is best to use a non-toxic polish with this prevention technique, especially with children.

Removal

The first step to remove a hangnail is to disinfect a pair of cuticle scissors in alcohol to reduce the chance of accidental infection. After this is complete, soaking the afflicted finger in warm water softens the cuticle and prevents additional tears from occurring during the removal process. Cutting off the tag of skin is the third step. Doctors suggest applying an antibacterial lotion and putting on a bandage once the removal is done.

Manicurists can remove hangnails at a salon if a person doesn't feel comfortable doing it himself. These professionals have considerable experience with nail care. A good manicurist will sterilize the scissors she uses and use an anti-fungal spray to prevent infection. She also will try to be as gentle as possible so as not to further damage the skin around the tear site.

Complications

People with hangnails might not even notice they have them in some cases. When the loose skin catches on clothing or other items, however, the tear can be pulled quite harshly. This can further rip the skin and make the issue worse. It also can result in pain.

Even a small hangnail opens a person up for infection. One that looks very red or is filled with pus is most likely infected. When the infection is very painful or is associated with a fever and a lot of swelling, a visit to a doctor might be needed. Without treatment, the infection could spread underneath the nail and damage it.

Superstitions and Myths

The nails and cuticles have found their way into different superstitions and stories around the world. These superstitions still affect how people treat hangnails today. For example, under Japanese superstition, people get these skin tags because they have a mean aunt. These types of superstitions sometimes need to be addressed before a person can get rid of the hangnail problem.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon343553 — On Jul 31, 2013

I have this problem on all my fingers and I hope this information helps me. My middle finger on my right hand is extremely sore and I think I'll follow the advice, considering my fingers do feel a bit tense when I bend them.

By anon263284 — On Apr 23, 2012

I don't think that they can do much really, and don't people go there for bladder infections and verrucas and spots and stuff, not a small, insignificant speck of skin? Well, I think I'm just going to use cuticura dry skin intensive hand and nail cream, with glycerin and allantoin.

By asyoder210 — On Dec 10, 2008

well when i get a stepmother's blessing, i prefer to take my ax and just chop the finger off. they just annoy me so much that i prefer to not even have the finger at all! but i do apply a light layer of antiseptic after i cut it off to avoid infection. ya know that saying "git-r-dun"? well, i prefer to gitrdun by just chopping it off! so far i've only had to cut off three fingers! typin is reeeal hard! but i felt a need to post my opinion! thanks www.wisegeek.com you gave me a new perspective on how to handle my stepmother's blessing!

By anon19735 — On Oct 18, 2008

I find that nail clippers allow me to make a closer cut than manicure scissors. Be sure to apply a light cover of antiseptic afterwords to prevent infection if raw skin is exposed.

By anon1799 — On Jun 15, 2007

what do doctors do when you have a hangnail?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a BeautyAnswered contributor, Tricia...
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