Tips & Techniques, Wellness / Self-Care

How to heal and prevent Hangnails

Hint: Don’t rip them off.

words by: Adam Hurly
Apr 30, 2022

No, it’s not just you: We all experienced a significant uptick in hangnail hauntings over the past couple years. With all of that extra hand washing and disinfecting, our poor mitts (clean as they were) were also dried from wrists to fingertips. That creates a prime scenario for hangnails, to nobody’s surprise—but it’s not the only factor behind these painful, unsightly fingernail tags.


The agony doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve got a hangnail, it can be extremely difficult to get rid of, much less to ignore it as it tries to heal. (Resist the urge to pick and bite at it, please!) On top of that, those suckers hurt, since they’re squarely positioned by various nerve endings. That only hastens the urgency to rid of them, which risks doing so incorrectly.


You’re in the right place to remedy both ends of the problem. Read on to learn how to heal and prevent hangnails, once and for all.


How to heal a hangnail

Healing a hangnail often starts with safely and carefully removing it first. But be careful, please.


Start with a warm hand soak to soften the skin. Then, only if you have enough skin to snip away (without peeling it back more, ouch), use cuticle-snipping scissors to remove the offender while skin is still soft.


Regardless of whether or not your hangnail is (or appears to be) infected, it’s important to apply antibiotic ointment to the wound at this moment, just to seal it off and neutralize any possible critters that took residence inside the cut.


Moving forward, apply a nutrient-dense occlusive hand ointment to the area every few hours for the next few days, to trap in moisture, to block out bacteria, and to promote faster healing. (Having it layered in ointment will also prevent you from picking or biting at it, which is imperative.) Ideally, your balm or ointment of choice will pack lots of nourishing properties like Vitamin E to help reinforce the skin’s barrier defense functions — echoing the above — meaning moisture stays in, bad stuff stays out.


Read the next section to ensure that your everyday habits, behaviors, and environmental factors aren’t risking the hangnail’s second coming, or sprouting new ones altogether.


How to prevent a hangnail

It will surprise nobody that the best way to prevent hangnails is to keep your hands hydrated. But that also means minding the situations that compromise moisture, like washing and disinfecting the hands, doing dishes, swimming, sleeping in a dry/heated or air conditioned room, and so forth. The easiest way around this is to hydrate frequently, and to keep sources of moisture near all sinks, and in your backpack on the go.


During the day, you’ll want to hydrate with something lighter, like a lotion, whereas in the evening, before bed, it’s wise to coat the fingers in something more occlusive, like a hand balm, which will trap in the moisture much longer. Balms can be heavy and even sticky if you’ve still got a few hours of work or are preparing dinner, etc. So keep the hydration light while you’re still active and dense as you deactivate for the night.


The type of soap you use can also contribute. Prioritize ones that promise simultaneous moisture—honestly, you won’t meet a single dermatologist who doesn’t love Dove for this very reason. You almost always have a hydrating option, even among your dishwashing soaps.


Oh, and wear gloves in wintertime, if it wasn’t obvious already.


In addition to these measures, you also need to be careful about how trimming your nails and cuticles. Hangnails can happen more easily when you trim the cuticles and snip away at the skin between them and the rest of the finger. The best way to trim the cuticles, then, is to soak them in warm water first, to soften them, and then gently use sterile cuticle-snipping scissors to eliminate the excess skin around the nail perimeter, but nothing more. (You can use the cuticle pusher to help lift and loosen this skin, too).


Always apply a hand balm or ointment to the area after trimming to fortify the skin and seal in moisture. This will help heal any potential wounds and prevent aggravation and skin splitting due to dryness.


Cuticle-snipping scissors should be on your list when you hit your one drugstore for grooming essentials.


Photo via Getty