We teach our kids basic hygiene, such as washing hands and brushing teeth, but we often neglect to teach them the importance of taking care of their nails. It’s not just about keeping them clean, however (although that’s a great start!); it’s also about preventing damage and helping you discover any underlying health concerns that may leave clues on the nails.
Read on for tips on helping your child develop healthy nail habits.
- Keep nails trimmed. Short nails stay cleaner and break less often. Why is this important? While the “gunk” under the nail is most commonly just keratin debris, it can also include dirt and bacteria. Longer nails provide more surface area for bacteria to collect. Dermatologists recommend that an adult trim a child’s nails until the child is about 9 or 10 years old; after that, children can trim their own nails if they feel comfortable doing so.
- Trim nails after taking a bath or shower. Nails are softer then, so trimming is easier.
- Use a nail clipper or nail scissors to trim nails.
- Cut fingernails almost straight across. Round a little at the corners to keep the nails strong.
- Cut toenails straight across. This reduces the chance of getting an ingrown nail.
- Smooth rough edges with a nail file (we recommend our Precision Glass File for a more gentle, sustainable alternative to emery boards, which can leave microtears on the nail)
- Cuticles protect the nail root, so it's best to not cut the cuticles.
- Keep nails clean: As mentioned above, it’s essential to clean under the nails, but there are some methods that are safer and more effective than others. Hand washing is key - make sure to include the tips of your fingers and nails when teaching your child proper hand-washing skills.
In terms of using tools, I don’t love nail brushes, which can’t be sterilized and can potentially harbor bacteria and other organisms. Cleaning under the nails with a tool like an orange stick can be effective, but make sure to be extra gentle - overly vigorous cleaning can cause the nail to separate from the nail bed (onycholysis).
- Hydrate the fingernails. Nails need moisturizing to keep them healthy and flexible, especially when the air is dry. When nails aren’t hydrated, they can split more easily. The best time to apply hydration is immediately after washing the hands or after taking a bath or shower. Nails absorb oils and ointments better than creams and lotions.
Limit the use of nail polish remover to once or twice a month.Nail polish remover is extremely drying. Try to find a remover without acetone, which is especially dehydrating to the nails.
- Take care of hangnails right away — and the right way. Chewing or tearing off that hanging bit of skin can cause an infection. To take care of a hangnail, I recommend washing hands well with soap and water and then using a clean cuticle nipper or nail scissors to cut off the hanging bit of skin at the base.
- Prevent toenail problems with good nail care. Just because toenails are often out of sight does not mean they should be out of mind. Follow these tips:
- When buying shoes, leave wiggle room for toes. Cramped toes can lead to painful ingrown toenails.
- Change socks daily. Dirty socks can lead to toenail infections.
- Wear flip-flops rather than going barefoot in public places. Walking barefoot in public places (think: beaches, pool decks, locker rooms, hotel bathrooms) can lead to a toenail infection, athlete's foot, or plantar warts.
- Check your nails. Children's nails are usually healthy, but teaching them to check their nails at a young age develops a healthy habit. Checking nails is important because the first sign of health problem can show up in a nail. These signs include a dark streak and a nail that starts to crumble and fall off. If either happens, it's time to see a board-certified dermatologist.