Nails are really important because they protect our fingers and toes. The health of your nails can also be a reflection of your internal health, so don’t be surprised if your doctor looks at your nails during a routine physical. Proper nail hygiene can help you avoid pesky problems like hangnails and proper nail care is part of an overall professional appearance. While you probably don’t think about your nails too much, problems that develop on the nails or in the surrounding skin can be super aggravating, especially since it takes 6 months for a fingernail to grow out, and often over a year for a toenail to grow out. Even a small infection in the skin near the nail or the inflammation from a hangnail can be quite painful because we use our hands and feet for literally, just about everything.
Preteens and teens often like to experiment with self-expression using their nails. As you get older, you may become increasingly interested in trying nail polishes, gel nails, or acrylics. Some nail health problems, such as nail biting, may be more complex than simple nail care and could point towards deeper issues, like anxiety. Try some of the tips and tools below to develop healthy nail habits from the start that can help promote lifelong nail health.
As a preteen or teen you should be consistent with your nail care and execute safe techniques for trimming and washing your nails. If performing these tasks pose a challenge, reach out to a trusted adult or caregiver who can help you maintain good nail hygiene.
Nail Self Exam
Checking in on your nail health is as easy as 1-2-3!
Step #1 – Check the skin around the nail.
The skin around the nail should be smooth and not red, inflamed, or painful. If the skin near the nail is inflamed, there could be an ingrown nail, an infection in the skin, or an irritated hangnail. You should also take a look at the cuticles, the thin rings of skin that make contact with your nails. The cuticles should appear smooth and even. When they are rough, uneven, frayed, or inflamed, they may be traumatized from picking or nail biting, infected, or in need of moisturizing.
Step #2 – Next, take a look at the color of the nails.
All nails should be predominantly white in color with some pink or red skin showing through, due to blood vessels in the nail bed (the delicate skin underneath the nail plate). You may or may not see the lunula on all nails — that is the crescent shaped white area near the cuticle. The lunula overlies a collection of cells called the nail matrix, which is where the nail grows. Most of the nail matrix is hidden under the skin past the cuticle and is not visible from the outside.
If nails appear yellow in color, this could be a sign of a fungal infection or could be due to staining from certain nail polish colors.
Occasionally, there can be brown, black, or tan streaks in the nail. These are usually natural findings in the nail and nothing to worry about, but if these color streaks expand, change colors, or extend onto the skin of the cuticle and finger, you should consult a dermatologist.
Sometimes a dark spot can be visible in the nail due to bleeding underneath the nail plate, such as after a really long run or other trauma to the nail. Normally this will resolve on its own, but you should check to make sure it is growing out with the nail.
Step #3 – Finally, inspect the nail plate itself.
The nail plate is the visible hard material that we know as our nail. Just like our hair, the nail is made from keratin and is therefore technically not still “alive.” It grows out as the cells of the nail matrix produce the nail and push it out. The nail plate should be smooth and firm. Linear dents or grooves in the nail can be due to repetitive trauma from picking at the nail or cuticle. Brittle, weak nails may be hereditary but can also occur with poor nutrition, picking at or biting the nails, and exposure to excessive water and chemicals (like nail polish remover). If the nail plate has indentations, pits, or other abnormalities, it may be time to check in with your doctor.
Here are some basic do’s and don’ts when it comes to nail care.
Keep your nails clean and trimmed fairly short. The longer the nails are, the more likely you are to deal with breakage and other issues.
When trimming your fingernails, trim straight across or with a slight curve, following the shape of the fingertip.
When trimming your toenails, going straight across is best to prevent painful ingrown toenails.
Take care of any hangnails that may arise.
Wear flip flops in the gym shower or locker room as well as in public pool facilities in order to prevent fungal infections of the toenails or feet.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of nutrients. Nails often reflect our internal health so good nails start from within.
Avoid excessive water contact and dry your nails completely after washing.
Don’t pick at the nail, bite the nail, or push the cuticles back. These things can affect nail growth (sometimes permanently) and put you at risk for infections.
Don’t traumatize the nail with excessive styling. Just as over-processing or styling our hair can lead to damage, excessive filing, painting, and otherwise styling the nails can seriously impact nail health. It’s usually best to minimize the use of nail polish remover to twice a month, as it can be quite harsh on the nail. And especially avoid the use of artificial nails — these are SURE to damage the nail.
Don’t wear shoes that are too narrow or fit improperly.
Don’t wear dirty socks or gloves, or share unsterilized nail tools like clippers and files. All of these things can lead to nail infections.
Nail polish is a common way that people decorate their nails. There are several types of polish techniques, with variable risks for nail health. Often the more that is done to decorate and modify the nails, the more damage results.
Traditional nail polish does not last long and is easily removed with acetone-based nail polish remover. The acetone in the remover is drying and damaging to the nails and the darker nail polishes can discolor the nails, so it is best to give your nails breaks from polish. There are also some concerns about the toxic nature of some of the main components of nail polish and whether these harmful ingredients can be absorbed into the body.
“Non-toxic” nail polish does not contain ingredients like formaldehyde, toluene, dibutyl phthalate, formaldehyde resin, or camphor. These toxic ingredients found in traditional nail polishes may have negative health effects and can also cause a type of allergic rash called contact dermatitis. The newer, “cleaner” polishes may provide a safer alternative to traditional polish.
Gel polish uses UV light to make a special type of polish undergo chemical changes that cause the color to last for much longer. Buffing the nails prior to putting the gel color on the nails can leave nails brittle and damaged. The removal process is also destructive to nails. This type of manicure is best done intermittently at most, but is unlikely to cause major damage when used for special occasions only.
Powder dip polish and some press-on nails involve the use of a bonding glue, acrylic powder, and an activator. This type of manicure causes extreme damage and is best avoided completely.
Top 5 Common Nail Conditions & Solutions
Ouch! Ingrown nails are common and super uncomfortable. When the nail becomes ingrown, the skin surrounding the nail gets inflamed and can become chronically infected. The best solution for ingrown nails is to PREVENT them from happening in the first place.
When cutting your fingernails, you can follow the arc of your fingertip or cut horizontally, but avoid creating a sharp curve at the tip with super short edges.
When cutting your toenails, it is best to cut straight across. Curving the toenails puts you at risk for developing ingrown nails.
You also need to make sure that your shoes fit well and are not too narrow for your feet.
Fungal Nail Infections
The medical name for a fungal infection of the nail is onychomycosis. Infection of the nail with fungus frequently occurs after the skin of the foot becomes infected with fungus (tinea pedis or athlete’s foot). Trauma to the nail that incurs the nail lifting off the nail bed (called onycholysis) makes it easier for a fungal infection to occur. Again, prevention is key for this nail issue.
You can help avoid fungal infections of the nails and feet by wearing flip flops in communal showers or pool areas (like at the gym or in the locker room) and using only sterilized tools and clean facilities when getting manicures or pedicures. But what can be done once there is a “fungus among us?”
At-home remedies can include soaking the affected nail in vinegar water for at least five minutes every day or applying Vicks VapoRub daily.
You can also try a number of topical antifungal products, some of which are made in a nail lacquer formula.
Remember that it takes at least 6 months for fingernails, and usually at least 12 months for toenails to grow out, so you may not see results right away.
If at-home remedies don’t solve the problem, you may need to see a dermatologist.
Dry, brittle, or splitting nails are often the result of excessive trauma to the nails during manicuring, buffing, or gel/acrylic nails application. Chemicals in nail polish and nail polish remover are frequent culprits for brittle nails. If none of these nail modifications are being used, hobbies or work can sometimes lead to nail trauma. Work that requires lots of water exposure to the nails can cause significant damage.
Protective gloves may be useful during certain types of “wet-work.”
A balanced diet with plenty of protein is important for the health of the entire body, and the nails are no exception.
Avoid picking at the nails or the cuticles because this can affect nail growth and strength.
You can also keep the cuticles well moisturized with oils or other emollients.
Hangnails are small (and often PAINFUL!) torn pieces of skin that appear on the side of the nail or cuticle. The resultant break in the skin can leave you at risk for an uncomfortable infection near the nail called paronychia. Preventing the problem is often the best treatment.
Your best bet is to avoid picking or biting the nails or cuticles, avoiding excessive trauma to the nails, maintaining hydration of the cuticles and hands with gentle moisturizers, and drying the nails completely after exposure to water.
If you do develop a hangnail, wash the area, cut the small piece of skin with a cuticle cutter, and apply a thick gentle ointment (like Aquaphor) or antibacterial ointment (like Bacitracin).
You can get a dark stain that appears in your nail due to a collection of blood under the nail plate. This could occur suddenly (like if you drop something heavy on your nail) or slowly without you even noticing (like from repetitive trauma due to long distance running in ill-fitting shoes). If the trauma occurs suddenly (for example, you just slammed your finger in the car door), you may need to see a doctor to have the blood drained and the fingertip evaluated for a crush fracture. This could be the case if the pain from the injury continues to increase or stays severe after the initial few minutes. If you did not notice the trauma that caused the bleeding under the nail or the pain subsides quickly you can just wait to see how the nail grows out. The nail will sometimes fall off after a traumatic event and if this happens you may want to use a bandage to protect the delicate nail bed.
During puberty, sweat glands, including those in the armpit area, become more active making a person sweat and possibly smell more. Although anyone can have strong body smells at times, the hormones released during puberty seem to wake up these smells, especially in the armpit, feet, and genital areas.
Tips for handling body odor
Remember that sweating is a natural part of being a person. Sweating helps regulate body temperature, especially when we exercise.
Wash your body parts regularly with soap and warm water, including your feet, armpit, and genital areas.
Consider washing your armpits or bathe more often, especially after exercise or playing sports.
Products that help minimize or mitigate armpit odor include deodorant, antiperspirant, or home remedies.
Deodorants are usually pleasant-smelling products that are made to cover up unpleasant smells.
Some deodorants contain antiperspirants, which contain chemicals to help a person stop sweating.
If you choose to use a product in your underarm area, test it on your forearm for 48 hours first. Doing this will make you sure that your body is okay with the product and you are not allergic to it.
Home remedies are natural products that include ingredients sometimes found in a person’s home, like lemon juice. To explore homemade deodorant recipes, check out Tree Hugger.
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