When it comes to your daily beauty routine, chances are you don't think about your fingernails as much as your skin or hair. You might book in for a salon manicure, or perhaps you prefer to paint your nails at home. Regardless, it's unlikely you dwell for on the health of your nails. Unless, that is, something is looking a bit off.
Unfortunate chips and dry cuticles can be easily rectified, but manicurists, dermatologists and people on TikTok are talking about one thing lately: an annoying nail-lifting issue, which seems to be affecting lots more of us: onycholysis.
What is onycholysis?
Pronounced onny-collo-siss, onycholysis is a term used to describe the separation of the nail from its nail bed as the nail stops bonding to the skin underneath. Over on TikTok, the hashtag #onycholysis has gained 44.2 million views and counting, proving that plenty of us deal with the irritating concern.
Consultant Dermatologist Dr. Thivi Maruthappu says that it's actually pretty normal for the very tip of your nail to lift off of the skin on the fingertip. "But," she adds, "some nail conditions can cause this separation to become more obvious, leading to a white or opaque end of the nail." This is compared to a 'normal' nail, which appears pink when it sits flat on the finger.
"The white part of your nail starts to creep down the nail bed and the skin that grows up the nail to support it may start pulling back," explains Alice McNails, a UK-based nail artist. "You may also get a thickening underneath the nail," she continues.
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Common causes of onycholysis
There are many different causes of onycholysis, but some of the main ones to be aware of, according to Lou Stokes, brand ambassador for ORLY UK, are external irritants (such as nail polish remover), trauma (for example, accidentally bumping your hand), infections, or underlying health problems. Research suggests that psoriasis can also be a root cause.
"External irritants can be anything from harsh soaps to detergents and cleaning products," Stokes says. Onycholysis can also be caused by using products that contain high levels of certain ingredients. "Particularly HEMA [hydroxyethyl methacrylate, an ingredient used to make resin," explains McNails. "This is an ingredient which is sometimes enlisted in some gel polishes to make things stick." HEMA is also often used in nail enhancements such as acrylics and lots of people are now finding that they are allergic to it.
The problem with DIY gel manicures
There is concern, too, about people doing their own gel manicures at home. Why? It's easy to cure the gel polish wrong, which means the liquid can make its way onto the skin. When gel polish doesn't cure sufficiently and you have wet gel on your nails or skin for a prolonged period of time, McNails says it could seep into the surrounding skin and result in sensitisation or an allergic reaction.
As a result, the experts report that the nail condition seems to be on the rise as more people are DIY-ing their gels to save money. The wrong type of curing lamp can also exacerbate the condition, says McNails. "Always use the lamp that goes with your gel polish or builder gel, because it has been tested with that lamp and will therefore cure correctly."
In some cases, the nail issue may be an indication of an underlying condition. If you have noticed any changes to the look or feel of your nail or are experiencing any symptoms of onycholysis and it's painful, stopping you from doing certain things or getting you down, Dr. Maruthappu suggests taking a trip to your GP or a dermatologist.
How to treat onycholysis
Onycholysis can last for several months and will typically correct itself when the nail fully grows out. However, once separated, the nail plate cannot reattach itself to the nail bed. Stokes suggests avoiding excessive exposure to water "as the gap between the nail plate and nail bed can create an ideal ground for yeast or bacterial infections."
Dr. Dana Stern, a dermatologist who specialises in nail health, agrees that water is not your friend with a condition like this, as it could get under the nail and into the opening. While it may be tempting to hide the issue with nail polish, Dr. Stern suggests avoiding this entirely. "Actually what you're avoiding is the polish remover," explains Dr Stern in a viral TikTok video. "This is a strong solvent and could cause irritation to that delicate underlying nail bed."
The only real way to treat onycholysis is to remove the lifted nail. "If you have noticed changes to your nail's condition or symptoms of onycholysis, make sure to visit your doctor to make a diagnosis," says Dr. Maruthappu. "A nail clipping may be taken for fungal analysis, too." An expert will then look for the cause and address it.
@leh.nailsbeauty Replying to @Nicola Parmenter after nail separation, nails will eventually get back to normal #nailallergy #allergyawareness #onycholysis #gels ♬ Disturbia GTTG remix - GTTG
Is onycholysis preventable?
"Prevention is key," says McNails, "and therefore it's best that you avoid doing gels at home." She stresses the importance of seeking out a professional who is insured, has their certificates, and uses a professional-only brand — with the matching lamp.
If you think you might be experiencing onycholysis, avoiding nail enhancements, gel polish, or nail varnish is a must, so as not to irritate the exposed nail bed. Recovery time is largely dependent on the individual's nail growth, and it can take four to six months for a fingernail to fully grow out.
Lastly, McNails recommends cutting nails short to avoid further lifting. It's also important to apply cuticle oil regularly to ensure your nails (and the surrounding skin) are sufficiently moisturized.