It might seem like the simplest of tasks, but cutting your toenails is a ritual which should be done carefully.
‘The most basic mistakes can lead to painful and often serious problems such as ingrown toenails and infections,’ warns Fred Beaumont, of the Institute of Chiropodists and Podiatrists.
Since you depend on your feet, make sure you give them the care they need.
DO THE PREP
Never use scissors on toenails, as they are much thicker than fingernails and scissors may twist, tear or rip them.
Ritual: Cutting your toenails needs to be done with care
Invest in a pair of large, good-quality nail clippers designed for use on the feet, such as Tweezerman Power Toe Nail Clipper (around £31).
‘You need to ensure the two blades on the instrument work with equal pressure to deliver a good, clean cut,’ says Mr Beaumont.
Hygiene is key. Wipe each of your toes with an alcohol swab before you start. Sterilise the clippers either by wiping with an alcohol swab or boiling them in water.
It’s OK to share clippers with other members of the household, but always ensure they are sterilised before each use. Otherwise, if one person of the family has a fungal infection, you’ll all get it. Spread out newspaper, tissue or paper towels on the ground to catch the clippings.
WATCH YOUR TECHNIQUE
Sit on a chair or on the floor, holding the toe clippers in one hand, grasping your foot with the other.
There is no need to soak your feet in water beforehand – ‘The nails are so tough, it makes no difference to their texture,’ says Mr Beaumont – but make sure there is plenty of light to see by. If you’re short-sighted, wear glasses.
Beginning with the big toe, cut nails straight across so they are square-shaped and not curved at the edges. ‘Rounding them off is likely to cause ingrown toe nails,’ explains Mr Beaumont.
‘The only people allowed to cut them in a curve are ballet dancers because they have to stand up on their points. But they will get them cut professionally.’
Don’t trim the nails too short, either, as the skin may become tender and inflamed. ‘After all, your nails are there for a reason,’ he adds. ‘They protect the ends of your toes.’
Next, use a nail file to smooth them down. Mr Beaumont recommends so-called fake diamond nail files (available from Diamancel, around £29) which will cut the nail before they break skin. As with the clippers, sterilise the file before using it.
When you’re finished, scrub all the instruments in hot water so they are free of clippings.
Rubbing moisturiser into your toes is unlikely to improve the condition of your nails. But a good, reasonably-priced one such as Johnson’s Baby Lotion (around £2.55 for 500ml) will help soften the surrounding skin.
Likewise, coloured or clear nail varnish (which, arguably, strengthens the nails) is optional.
AVOIDING INGROWN TOENAILS
The most common causes of ingrown toenails are jagged splinters or spikes of nail which burrow into the side of the toe, causing the skin to become swollen and tender. The problem can be brought on by wearing shoes which are too tight.
Some people are more prone to the condition because they were born with involuted nails that naturally curve into the toe.
But anyone who leaves it too long between cutting their nails – people’s nails grow at a different pace, but Mr Beaumont recommends doing it at least once a month – is at risk.
‘It can be excruciatingly painful,’ he explains. ‘I always tell my patients that the reason Al Jolson went down on his knees to sing Mammy was because he had an ingrown toenail. He was in absolute agony!
Mr Beaumont says the damage can be reversed – but never by risky home surgery using sharp scissors or needles. This could lead to a nasty infection. Instead, you should call in a foot specialist.
‘They’ll often section off the nail by taking off the side after injecting local anaesthetic,’ he says.
”Then a very strong alkaline solution is applied to treat the underlying tissue to prevent that part of your nail growing back.’ Topical or oral antibiotics may also be recommended.
Remarkably, it takes an average 90 weeks for a destroyed big toenail to grow back fully. Left untreated, ingrown toenails can lead to a serious bone infection called osteomyelitis. In rare and extreme cases, people have had to have their toes amputated.
One of the best ways to avoid ingrown toenails and bacterial infections is to let your feet ‘breathe’ as much as possible.
‘Go barefoot at home as often as you can,’ advises Mr Beaumont. ‘Socks, shoes and slippers are never 100 per cent clean, making them perfect environments for growing bacteria.’
WHEN TO CALL IN THE PROS
Ingrown toenails need specialist treatment, but it’s advisable to have someone else cut your nails if you are so obese, heavily pregnant or short-sighted you can’t see your feet.
If your nails are especially thick – common among elderly people – or you experience pain when you cut them, consult a professional.
Diabetics have to be extra careful, because the circulation and nerve supply to the feet can become impaired by an ingrown toenail. Nicks in the skin around the nail may get infected and, in rare cases, form an ulcer and become gangrenous.
For more information, visit the Institute of Chiropodist and Podiatrists’ website at <cite>www.iocp.org.uk. </cite>Before you book an appointment with an expert, check they are registered with The Health Professionals’ Council at <cite>www.hpc-uk.org.