How To Fix Ingrown Toenails: 8 Tips To Prevent, Ease & Treat
This pesky nail issue can start small, but grow into a painful and chronic condition if left untreated. The problem is, however, they can be hard to treat and manage—and often take professional intervention. Here's what to do if you have an ingrown issue or suspect you are developing one.
What is an ingrown, and what are the causes?
Put simply: These are nails that grow into the skin rather than sitting atop the nail bed. The severity may range from a mild discomfort to painful throbbing and infection. They have a wide range aesthetically, too: An ingrown may appear as small as a mini indentation of the nail on the side to full-blown curving of the nail. (Image search at your own risk.) They can get so severe that they cause infection, especially if you are one to mess with and pick at the ingrown.
"Ingrown toenails can be caused by tight shoes, improper nail trimming, and genetics," says podiatrist Greg Cohen, DPM, FACFAS. Tight shoes may mean pointy-toed heels to running shoes, so always be sure that your shoes fit properly. Improper nail trimming usually means that you are cutting too short (which allows for more opportunity for the nail to grow into the skin), as well as cutting it at an angle or rounded. You may be tempted to give your mani playful shape, but keep your toes basic and straight across. Podiatrist Michael Galoyan, DPM, agrees: "Cutting your nails incorrectly is by far the most likely reason—around 80%. One reason is people cut their toenails too short and when it grows back the edges press against the growing nail and cause the ingrown. The second reason is people who may not necessarily cut the nails too short but tend to round off the edges because the sides may feel more brittle or yellow."
And finally, given that the annoying condition can be an inherited one, it may not be anything you've done wrong: Some people just get them more regularly. "Often it is a combination of all three," Cohen adds.
In any case, it's best to start remedying the situation right when you suspect you have one or are developing one—as is the case with most things, prevention is easier than treatment:
Find better footwear.
As one of the main issues with ingrowns is footwear, you should look into your shoes and make sure they are not too tight. Yes, this means the obvious pointy-toed high heels or dress shoes, but you need to be suspect of your workout sneakers and running shoes as well. Always make sure these shoes are properly fitted, as you are moving around more and putting harder pressure on the feet during workouts—which can result in ingrowns.
Another thing to consider: If one foot tends to get the ingrowns with more regularity, perhaps that foot is the larger of the two. It's very common to have slightly different-size feet, but as we purchase shoes in a singular size that may leave one foot slightly more compressed than the other. It's perhaps an annoying fix, but try getting your shoes in two different sizes and order from stores that allow size variations.
Finally, you can get protective inserts or toe separators to help. "[You can use] toe protectors to help separate the toe from hitting the shoes on one side and the adjacent digits on the other side," says Galoyan.
Cut the nail straight across.
Cohen notes that the best shape for healthy toenails is straight across—no curves, no angles, no ovals. If you get your nails done professionally, be sure to inform your manicurist of your desired shape beforehand. If you do it at home, be sure to invest in a nail clipper that has a straight edge, as many tend to be curved. The straight edge will make it easier to achieve your shape yourself. Always be sure to keep the nails on the longer side. If you cut them too short, you create more opportunity for the nail to grow into soft skin.
Nadine Abramcyk, owner of New York City–based clean nail salon tenoverten, agrees: "When you overcut the nail at the edges, so they curve down instead of being straight across, you create the opportunity for the nail to grow into the skin."
File a divot in the center of the nail.
If you've kept bad toenail habits for too long, you can try to coax your nails back to health with this toenail trick from Abramyck. "Right in the middle of the nail, just file down a little bit. Think of a heart—you know how it has a little divot in the center? Like that." Take your nail file at a 30-degree angle and work down no more than a centimeter. Regularly flip the sides of the file so you get an even divot. "This tricks your nail into growing toward the middle rather than out into the skin," she says. Then, when your nails grow out enough, you can trim them straight across again, sans divot. This way you're not always walking around with a mini triangle in your nail.
Soak in an Epsom salt foot bath.
Let's say you're too late on prevention. What's next? "When an ingrown nail occurs, you can't really stop it from growing in per se, but you can sometimes prevent infection by soaking the toe or toes in Epsom salts mixed with lukewarm water," says Cohen. The footbath will help relieve some of the pain associated with severe ingrowns.
Use apple cider vinegar.
Use an antibacterial ointment.
Despite your best efforts, ingrowns can easily become irritated and inflamed, so be sure to tend to it with an antibacterial ointment to kill the infection-causing bacteria; Cohen says to do this twice a day. If you are one to stick to natural formulas only, don't worry, there are plenty of natural antibacterial creams available: Curoxen is a popular organic and derm-recommended choice.
Do not attempt to remove at home — it makes it worse.
We know how tempting it can be to pick and prod at these sorts of issues. It's so tempting to whip out tweezers or clippers and get to work. If you get one piece of advice from this story: Don't do it. "One should never try to perform 'bathroom surgery' by attempting to remove the ingrown portion of the nail," says Cohen. "This can lead to infection and even more serious complications if the person has underlying medical issues, such as diabetes or poor circulation."
Visit a podiatrist.
"It's important to see a podiatrist as soon as possible if an ingrown toenail is painful or becomes infected. Signs of infection include pain, redness, swelling, and pus coming from the corner of the nail. Ingrown toenails can be easily treated by a podiatrist using a minor in-office procedure," Cohen says.
When it comes to ingrown toenails, prevention is the best medicine. Always adhere to proper nail hygiene and look at your footwear (especially workout sneaks). If an ingrown does become an issue—it happens!—make sure it doesn't get infected, and visit a podiatrist to help.
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Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.