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 fortnightly manicure, or perhaps you prefer to paint your nails at home. Regardless, it's unlikely you dwell for very long on the health of your nails. Unless, that is, something is looking a bit off.
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 as 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.
What causes 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 the skin condition psoriasis can also be a common cause.
"External irritants can be anything from harsh soaps to detergents and cleaning products," Lou 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 Alice. "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.
There is concern, too, about people doing their own gel manicures at home. Why? It's very easy to end up not curing the gel polish properly, 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, Alice 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 Alice. "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 can you 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. Lou 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.
Is onycholysis preventable?
"Prevention is key," says Alice, "and therefore it's best that you avoid doing gels at home." Alice can't stress enough how important it is to make sure you seek out a professional who is insured, has their certificates and uses a professional-only brand that is made in the UK, Europe or the USA — 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, Alice 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 moisturised.
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