How to Get Rid of an Ingrown Fingernail

Ingrown fingernails are zero fun. Here, experts break down why you keep getting them, plus how to get fix an ingrown fingernail once and for all.

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Of all the words of wisdom you've heard from friends and family over the years, you've probably been warned at least once to avoid footwear that squishes your toes together, no matter how stylish those pointed toe flats of the 2000s were — sorry. After all, forcing your digits into a crowded space in the name of fashion could cause a grody ingrown nail.

And while that guidance rings true, no one likely told you that your toes aren't the only place you can develop ingrown nails. While less common than ingrown toenails, ingrown fingernails can happen, and it's something to be mindful of, particularly when it comes to manicures, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. So what causes them, and how do you treat an ingrown fingernail so it never comes back? Here, pros break it down.

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Ingrown Fingernail Symptoms and Causes

An ingrown nail is exactly what it sounds like: A nail plate that has curved downward and grown into the skin bordering the side of the nail, says Dr. Garshick. "When that happens, it can trigger inflammation because your body is reacting to something being there that normally shouldn't be, so it can lead to redness and swelling," she says. "And the longer it goes on, the more painful it can be."

If bacteria gets into the wound, such as through repetitive exposure to wet, unclean environments (think: washing the dishes), it's possible to develop an infection, adds Melanie Palm, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Art of Skin MD in San Diego, California. In turn, the inflamed area might start weeping or releasing pus, according to an article published by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care.

Ingrown fingernails can happen without cause (rude!), but in many cases, they're caused by improper nail trimming, explains Dr. Garshick. Cutting the nail too short, such as removing the entire distal edge (the white part of the fingernail tip), can cause trauma to the nail, and this injury can make it more likely to grow into the skin rather than straight out, says Dr. Garshick. Similarly, rounding the nail's edges when trimming, rather than cutting them straight across, can potentially increase the chance the nail grows back a bit crooked, she adds. (Related: The Best Nail Strengtheners for Brittle, Weak Nails, According to Experts)

Folks who are constantly working with their hands or washing them frequently may also be more likely to develop ingrown fingernails, as the skin itself may be more irritated and inflamed than normal, says Dr. Garshick. "If the skin itself is more swollen, it can sort of go into the path that the nail wants to grow, and that can also cause an ingrown fingernail," she explains. "So it can be the nail growing into the skin, or the skin kind of getting into the way of the nail growing." (Related: 5 Ways to Make Gel Manicures Safer for Your Skin and Health)

How to Get Rid of an Ingrown Fingernail

Some ingrown fingernails may resolve on their own, but even just the initial swelling around the nail can oftentimes become uncomfortable and make it difficult to carry out your typical day-to-day activities, says Dr. Garshick. So if you can't type on your keyboard without wincing, take it as a sign to book an appointment with your derm. "It's generally best if you are experiencing any discomfort to just see a professional," she explains. "They may not necessarily say you need to cut it or do something of that nature, but they may recommend an antibiotic ointment, a vinegar soak, or some kind of way to prevent any type of infection in the area." And by getting on top of your condition early, you'll also "decrease the chance of surrounding tissues, skin, or the nail permanently growing back abnormally," adds Dr. Palm.

Another reason to visit your doc: What you're dealing with may not truly be an ingrown fingernail, but rather paronychia, says Dr. Garshick. Paronychia is a skin infection around the nails, often caused by bacteria or yeast, and just as with ingrown fingernails, can result in redness and swelling, she explains. "Sometimes it can be a result of an ingrown nail, or sometimes the ingrown nail can result from the paronychia," she says.

Regardless, there are a few other instances in which you'll want to see your doc ASAP, such as when a pus pocket has developed on the affected area or its weeping fluid, says Dr. Garshick. "Those would definitely be reasons to see the dermatologist because that can certainly be a cause for concern of infection and something that would need to be addressed, either with draining or antibiotics," she says. Folks with diabetes should also get their ingrown fingernail checked out early, says Dr. Palm. This is because diabetes is linked with poor blood circulation, which slows down healing time for wounds (such as ingrown nails) and may increase the risk of developing an infection, according to UCLA Health. (Related: How Diabetes Can Change Your Skin — and What You Can Do About It)

In-Office Ingrown Fingernail Treatments

How your doctor treats your ingrown fingernail all depends on the severity. When a nail is just slightly ingrown (meaning there's redness and pain, but no pus), your provider may gently lift the edge of the nail and place cotton or a splint under it, which separates the nail from the skin and encourages it to grow above the skin, according to the Mayo Clinic. They may also suggest an antibiotic ointment to ward off any potential infections until it heals, says Dr. Garshick.

If you're dealing with a painful ingrown fingernail with discharge, your doc may remove the nail's lateral edge (aka the side) from the cuticle to the tip, she explains. During this procedure, called a chemical matrixectomy, your provider will place a band around your digit to restrict blood flow, numb the area, gently lift the ingrown portion out from under the skin, and cut and remove the side of the nail from tip to root, according to the Foot and Ankle Center of Arizona. They'll then apply a chemical solution to the base of the nail (called the matrix), which prevents the nail from re-growing in that area. "We just completely remove the [affected] side," says Dr. Garshick. "It's minor in the sense that it's narrow — it's not like the whole nail comes off with that — but it's basically helping to [prevent] the nail from even growing into that edge of the skin."

At-Home Ingrown Fingernail Treatments

When you're dealing with a barely-there ingrown and are dead set on toughing it out, there are a few at-home remedies you can try, but it's important to take a "less is more" approach, says Dr. Garshick. Applying cold compresses can help relieve the inflammation, and sliding dental floss in between the nail and the skin, after soaking your hands in warm water for 15 minutes, can help lift the ingrown edge out over time, she says. "If you continue to do that twice a day for a week or two, you're helping to facilitate the nail to grow above the skin, so instead of growing into it, the floss kind of redirects it," she explains. "It reminds it, 'Okay, I should be lifting up and then growing out.'"

More importantly, don't break out your clippers. "It's often not recommended to cut your own ingrown nail because sometimes when you do so, you recreate the same issue," she explains. "You'll be cutting it on an angle, so it can still grow back in that same direction." Remember, if your symptoms worsen or you're experiencing any amount of discomfort, chat with your doctor about your ingrown fingernail treatment options.

How to Prevent Ingrown Fingernails

Your best bet when it comes to preventing ingrown fingernails — and all the agony they cause? Cut your nails straight across, and avoid rounding the sides or trimming them too far back, which may encourage the nail plate to grow into the skin, says Dr. Garshick. Maintaining proper nail hygiene (i.e. not picking, peeling, or biting the nails or the skin around them) is also key, as any of those acts can cause inflammation that can make you more susceptible to ingrown fingernails, she adds. And to keep any potential infection-inducing bacteria at bay, make sure to wear rubber gloves while performing tasks involving wet work, says Dr. Palm.

If you constantly wash your hands, have sensitive nails, or experience hand dermatitis or nail peeling, consider adding Vaseline (Buy It, $12 for 3, amazon.com) or Aquaphor Healing Ointment (Buy It, $14, amazon.com) to your skin-care routine to fend off ingrown fingernails. "This will help continue to keep the skin around and on the nail plate itself strong and healthy," says Dr. Garshick. "I would say as long as you can get it in once or twice a day, that's great, so [applying] at bedtime is perfect." Besides, if slathering on hydrating lotion and not going overboard with the nail clippers is all it takes to reduce your risk of developing a gnarly ingrown fingernail, it's well worth the routine change.

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