How much time do you take to cut your fingernails? How much care do you take to get them the right length and the right shape? The answer to both questions is likely “not much” — nail-clipping is just one of those body maintenance jobs we usually do periodically without even thinking about it. So, it’s time to start thinking about it.
There really is an optimal length to cut your fingernails. “You do want a nail to extend past your finger pad,” says dermatologist and author Dr. Rajani Katta. “You need that protection. [But] if you grow it too long, that’s a concern, because then it’s more likely to get ragged and torn.” She suggests leaving 1-2 millimeters of the nails’ white rim (it’s called the lunula, which is Latin for “little moon”) when you cut them. That leaves them long enough to be useful, like helping you turn a page of a book, but keeps them from getting in the way, like when you’re typing on a keyboard.
You can trim all of the lunula off without causing a problem, but cutting off any more is more difficult — and painful — to deal with. When you cut your nails so short it becomes painful to touch things with your fingers, you’ve accidentally uncovered the skin underneath your fingernail, a.k.a. the hyponychium. The reason your finger hurts so damn bad is because the hyponychium is loaded with nerve endings, which aren’t designed to handle being out in the open.
There are also health concerns, naturally. “It increases your risk for infection, and especially what we call an ingrown nail,” says Katta. “If you don’t have enough fingernail to protect you, or if your cuticles are damaged, you can get bacteria or yeast in there, and then [your finger] can get red and swollen and infected.” The best thing to do is clean the area around your nail and dry it, then regularly add an antibiotic ointment and put on bandages until the nail grows out again. If the pain persists or gets worse, or you start to see pus, it’s time to see a doctor.
Another way to help prevent possible infections is by keeping your fingernails clean. The gunk under your nails contains bacteria and fungi, and they need to be dealt with. A thorough clipping will get rid of a lot of it, but make sure to clean under nails for any dirt or gross stuff left behind. Then, clean and disinfect those clippers so you don’t bring that same junk back to your fingers next time. Then you’ll know you’ve — are you ready? — nailed it! (Sorry.)