What causes hangnails, exactly?

But what causes hangnails, exactly? Well, let Dana Stern, M.D., board certified dermatologist and Nu Skin’s nail expert, enlighten you.

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 Stern. “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.

There are a few main hangnail causes, Stern says:

If you get hangnails all the damn time, you're more prone to getting a cuticle infection, too. “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.”

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.

“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!

Want to stop getting hangnails? 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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