What Causes Hangnails, And How Do I Stop Getting Them?

There are very few things worse than dealing with a hangnail. You know, that ripped sliver of nail that’s hanging onto the rest of your nail for dear life, causing a jagged edge that’s surprisingly vicious. Yeah, that thing.

Hangnails are annoying AF, they’re painful, and if you keep picking at them, you’ll end up with a gruesome, bloody Game of Thrones-esque battle scene around your nail bed. Add to that some dry, cracked cuticles? Not cute. And definitely not justice for that professional manicure you spent a pretty penny on.

But what causes hangnails, exactly? The short answer: A lot of things. To help you avoid the plight—even in the depths of winter when a hangnail is most likely to occur, we asked a board certified dermatologist to enlighten you.

Meet Our Expert: Dana Stern, MD, a board certified dermatologist and Nu Skin nail expert

Why do I get hangnails all the time?

In order to understand what causes hangnails, you need to know what that sucker actually is—because it’s not the same thing as a broken nail, says Dana Stern, MD, a board certified dermatologist and Nu Skin nail expert. “The term hangnail is actually a misnomer, as it is not the actual ‘nail plate’ that’s hanging but rather a portion of the cuticle that has separated,” she says. (So you know when the side of your nail looks like it’s peeling? THAT is a hangnail.)

Stern says your cuticle (which acts like a seal to protect your nail and skin from outside infections) serves the same role to your nail that grout does in the shower. Not the most appetizing analogy, but: “Without the seal, water and moisture, and inevitably infections, can more easily enter the nail unit,” she says. So when the “grout” starts to detach and lift from the “tile” of your nail bed, a hangnail is born.

What causes hangnails?

There are a few main hangnail causes, Stern says:

  • You have crazy-dry hands. Dry hands and nails naturally lead to hangnails, says Stern.“Picture a split end on your hair—when the cuticle tissue is super-dry, it will literally separate or split,” says Stern. You get dry cuticles for the same reasons you get dry skin, Stern says (dry, cold weather, excessive water exposure, that sort of thing).
  • You pick your nails constantly. If you’re a nail picker, you could be giving yourself hangnails. “If the cuticle is not removed evenly, a ‘lone portion’ will be more prone to separation,” says Stern. It’s probably safest to leave the cuticle removal to your nail technician when you get a mani.
  • You wash your hands too much (or have a job that requires lots of hand washing). “People who work with a lot of chemicals or are exposed to water very often, like cooks, bartenders, healthcare workers, etc., will be more prone to getting hangnails,” says Stern. Same goes for new moms washing their hands all the time post-diaper change, and hand sanitizer addicts. Basically, the over-washing dries out your skin faster, which could crack or split the cuticle. That said, “some of us are probably just more genetically prone to produce excessive cuticle tissue, too,” explains Stern. (Womp womp.)

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Do my nails have some sort of deficiency?

While it’s not necessarily the most likely cause, frequent hangnails could indicate a protein deficiency, says Stern. Your skin and nails are made up of protein—if you’re not getting enough, your skin may crack and tear, leading to hangnails. So talk to your doc and bump up your protein intake if you also notice other protein deficiency symptoms (like thinning hair, weakness, and brain fog).

What do I do when I get a hangnail?

First off: Do not pick or bite it, Stern says—you’re only upping your chances of further irritating your skin and getting an infection. “If the hangnail is pulled or bitten, it can tear and you can end up removing not just that portion of cuticle but also normal, healthy skin,” explains Stern. “Any compromise to the cuticle or skin barrier will make you more prone to infection.”

Instead, swab the area with a bit of alcohol, cut it at the base with a clean cuticle nipper, and then apply a bit of bland ointment, like Dr. Roger’s Restore Healing Balm, says Stern. Then leave it alone—resist that urge to pick!

How do I stop getting hangnails?

Want to kick this pesky problem to the curb? Of course you do. Stern recommends keeping a cuticle oil or lotion on hand at all times and applying to your nails regularly. And moisturizing more regularly doesn’t hurt, either.

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Daley Quinn is a Connecticut-born, Texas-bred beauty & wellness writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in Family Circle magazine, WWD.com, TheCut.com, TheFinancialDiet.com, and San Antonio magazine. In her off hours, you can find Daley stalking her queen, Vanessa Carlton. 

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