What happens if you cut your nails too short?
Dr. Dana Stern, Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology, The Mount Sinai Hospital, says that the biggest risk of cutting your nails too short is infection—but it’s even worse if you bite them too short. “The oral cavity can introduce many organisms to the nail that are not normally supposed to be there,” she explains, noting that putting your fingers in your mouth can also expose your mouth to viruses and bacteria that can result in colds and cases of flu (hence why the CDC recommends keeping your hands away from your face altogether). “When nails are cut too short, the exposed, unprotected nail bed is more trauma prone and so there is more risk for entry of organisms.”
Although sickness isn’t guaranteed, if you cut or bite your nails too short, you can pretty much guarantee one thing: It’s going to hurt. “The nail has many functions, one being a protective armor for the underlying nail bed,” Stern says. “The nail bed is the soft tissue structure under the hard nail plate and it is loaded with nerve endings and a rich vascular supply composed of tiny capillaries. When the nail is cut back too short, the bed is exposed and small incidental trauma can cause significant discomfort because there is no longer a protective nail there.”
A common concern of cutting and biting nails too short is permanently altering the nail bed, potentially preventing the nail from growing back. The good news is, that’s unlikely.
“The underlying irritated, painful nail bed will heal very quickly (a few days) if it is kept clean and well hydrated,” Stern says. “The nail will continue to grow back (time dependent on how short it was cut and individual growth rates) and eventually reach the tip of the digit. The nail will always grow back because the matrix (nail growth plate) has not been disturbed.” It’s like cutting hair. Just because you decided to try a bob or buzz doesn’t mean that long locks are off the table for good.
That said, if a large chunk of your nail is gone for an extended period—Stern says a year—permanent damage to your nail bed can occur. “The nail bed will thicken as a natural protective measure since there is no nail plate to shield it from trauma,” she explains. “This process can result in the nail bed tissue changing so that it will no longer accept a nail to adhere to it. This phenomenon is relatively rare and occurs with prolonged nail separation or extended periods with very short nails where the tip of the nail bed is chronically exposed for years.”
What to do when you cut your nails too short
Since nobody wants to endure the pain associated with too-short nails, it’s helpful to know how to proceed after a nibbling sesh or accidental deep trim. According to Amy Ling Lin, founder of Sundays, a nail-care brand and studio in New York City, there’s one thing anyone with too-short nails should start doing immediately: Practice good nail hygiene—because nobody wants to deal with an infection from bacteria seeping into the skin around the nail.
"I would suggest soaking your hands in warm water with a small slice of lemon a couple of times a day to keep your nails clean," she says. "Lemon is a natural antibacterial and antiseptic—however, I wouldn't suggest having too many lemon slices, as it might cause your fingers to sting."
Cuticle oil can also help. A little goes a long way when it comes to soothing your nails and giving you some relief. "A natural cuticle oil, such as jojoba oil, is very moisturizing and a mild solution to help relieve pain without irritation,” Lin says. “You can apply it numerous times a day."
(Looking for a more streamlined way to care for your nails? Whether you’re on the hunt for cuticle pain relief or a remedy after you cut your nails too short, Dr. Dana’s Nail Renewal System is a great 3-step kit to have on hand.
After your nails are clean and moisturized, your next step is vowing to never get into this painful situation ever again. The best way to do so is to quit trying to grow them out—for now, focus on keeping them nice, neat, and short. Doing so will help prevent you from biting them in between trims. Plus, shorter nails are less likely to break on their own.
How to stop biting (or picking at) your nails
The first step is to keep them short.
"If you have issues with biting, I suggest keeping them short," Lin says. "Having long nails is heavy on the cuticles, which will make them weak. You don't want extra weight on it. A nail-biter has a compulsive need to remove any longer nails, so it's easier to keep them short."
As far as how short to cut nails and how often to trim them, Stern says it varies on the person but, generally speaking, once a week is sufficient. “Typically for those who don’t like the white tip of the nail to extend past the tip of the digit, a weekly file or trim of the fingernail is adequate to maintain the desired length,” she says. “Toenails grow slower and so require less frequent trimming.”
Other ways to prevent nail biting? Per Stern’s suggestion, bitter nail lacquers (designed specifically for nail biters), cognitive behavioral therapy, and in some cases, psychiatric meds (because the habit can become such second nature that prescription interference is necessary) can help.
Before going to those extremes, however, we urge you to consider making time for regular manicures, or DIY them at home. (And if you think you can’t do them yourself, you clearly haven’t discovered the Olive & June Mani Systems yet—trust us, you’ll want to.) If your nails are pretty and polished, you might not be as tempted to chew them. If it worked for me, it'll work for anyone.
How to treat a nail that is infected
Some pain is normal when you cut a nail too short. However, if that pain and tenderness lingers for days and is accompanied by swelling, pus, or redness, Stern says you likely have a nail infection on your hands.
“When we speak of this type of nail infection, it is the soft tissue that develops the infection (skin surrounding the nail or nail bed that is underneath the nail) and this type of infection is referred to as an acute paronychia,” she explains. “Acute paronychia usually occurs from bacteria entering the skin surrounding the nail and requires medical attention.” (That is to say, call your doctor.)
These types of infections can affect both toenails and fingernails. “Acute paronychia on the fingernail commonly happens from tugging on a hangnail or cutting the cuticle,” Stern says. “The cuticle is the nail’s natural protective seal and so removing it will provide an entry point for organisms. For toenails, infections can also enter through a compromised cuticle and can sometimes occur from ingrown toenails where the sharp nail plate embeds into the surrounding nail fold and because there is an entry point, bacteria enters.” (Psst: Ingrown toenails can occur when a toenail is cut too short—so avoid it at all costs.)
With that in mind, nail biters can feel a tiny bit less stressed, for as Stern pointed out, infections are most likely to arise around the cuticle—not the tips of the nails.
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