Nail Care

How to *Actually* Clean Those Dirty Toenails, According to a Podiatrist

Rachel Lapidos

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve become hyper-aware about fighting germs. We’re sanitizing our home spaces, washing our hands more than ever, and even cleaning up our groceries. One thing that’s likely not cashing in on this get-clean-ASAP frenzy? Your toenails.

Even if you’re barefoot for most of the day or just wearing house shoes and only walking between the rooms of your home, the area underneath your toenails can still collect all sorts of gunk. “Toenails can get very dirty, and more so if you’re barefoot,” says podiatrist Jacqueline Sutera, DPM, a Vionic Innovation Lab member. “This happens because your toes are more directly exposed to elements such as dirt, dust, oil, food, lint, hair, and carpet fibers.” Your toenails are also susceptible to trapping sock lint, moisturizer, nail polish, and nail and skin debris, she adds, noting that she has removed all of these items from patients before.

While your fingernails are also prone to getting all sorts of debris stuck underneath them, you wash your hands way more than you wash your feet (and toenails). “We pay more attention to our hands on a daily basis, but buildup underneath toenails can lead to pain and sometimes infection,” says Dr. Sutera, pointing to fungal infections, nail damage, or ingrown nails as risks that come with ignoring your toenails. But you’re more prone to these issues if there is some sort of damage to your nail bed already, says Dana Stern, MD, a board-certified dermatologist that specializes in nail health. “Generally, the nail plate is hard and protective, so it prevents excessive dirt and organisms from entering beneath the nail,” she says. “But this all predicates upon the fact that your nails are in fact healthy, at an appropriate length, intact, and firmly adherent to the bed.”

Want to make sure that area beneath your toenails is gunk-free? Keep scrolling for expert-approved tips.

How to have (and maintain) clean toenails

Keep ’em short: When you give yourself a pedicure, make sure to cut your toenails short. “Keeping them short by cutting them straight across and leaving a tiny bit of white tip is important,” says Dr. Sutera. “If nails are too long, more build-up will occur.”

Be gentle: While you should clean your toenails, Dr. Stern notes that overly aggressive cleaning with a tool like a metal nail implement or orange stick can pry the nail off of the bed. “This then creates an opening where dirt and debris will collect,” she says. Instead, she suggests using an orange stick to gently clean the area. “Or you can dig your nails into a bar of white soap in the shower to help pull out subungual dirt and debris,” she says. Dr. Sutera recommends using a nail brush, and doing this a couple times a week.

Keep those cuticles: You may hear that you shouldn’t cut your cuticles when getting a manicure, but this is especially the case with your toenails. “The cuticle is the nail’s natural protective seal, and protects the entire nail unit from entry of water and organisms,” says Dr. Stern. The best way to keep it groomed? “Give your feet a good soak in order to soften the cuticles, then push them back gently with an orange stick or cuticle pusher.”

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