Nails are parts of our body, they have a blood supply and they grow. Anything which is part of a living being like this, is susceptible to infection and injury.
Consistent, hygienic practices are the most important part of a Nail Technician’s job. In this article I will talk you through the anatomy of a nail and why it is important we are aware of the risks and how to mitigate them at every stage of the treatment…
The purpose of a fingernail is to protect the end of the finger, including the very sensitive nerve endings which live there. It is vital we protect them by not inflicting any damage on the nail or the surrounding area. The nail begins in the matrix is under our skin. It is kept safe by the proximal nail fold. The nail is made up of keratin cells produced in the matrix, when enough of these cells have been made the older ones are pushed out and create the flat nail shape. If this area is damaged it will cause permanent nail damage.
The cells which leave the matrix are initially soft and they harden as they grow out. The cells keep growing in the shape of the nail bed – this is why your nail shape never changes – until they reach the end, and depending upon nail strength, care and your genetics they will grow past the end of your finger to a certain length.
The nail matrix is protected by the proximal fold; skin just before your nail starts. This part is often mistaken for the cuticle and may be cut or pushed back too much. To do this is actually quite dangerous, as I will explain below. The cuticle is actually the pieces of leftover skin on the nail plate and can be easily scraped away.
The eponychium is the bit which is most often cut away within “cuticle care”. This is actually a very important part, medically, and should be carefully treat as it forms a seal with proximal nail fold, to stop any bacteria from getting into our bodies. As you know, your hands will be very active throughout the day, and exposed to many types of germ, this is why it is vital our nail and the path they provide to our bloodstream, is kept closed and is never subjected to unnecessary cuts.
Every wondered what the white, moon-shaped part at the start of your nail is? This is the Lunula (which is Latin for “little moon”), and is the new keratin cells which will keep growing out to form the nail. These are fresh cells and this area needs to be treat with caution and protected to minimise damage to the growing nail.
Next, for the nail bed and the nail plate. The nail bed is the red, fleshy bit underneath and the nail plate is the hard, thin, clear shield which we usually would call our “nail”. The nail bed has lots of blood vessels which carry oxygen and nutrients to our nail plate and help them grow. A deficient nail bed will cause a weak, brittle, discoloured or mis-shaped nail plate.
The nail plate is translucent – it only looks pink because of the red nail bed underneath – and is jampacked with dead cells, your nail is not “living” but it is protecting an area which most certainly is! As it is technically dead cells, this is why we do not feel anything when we trim our nails or file them etc. The nail plate is there solely to protect the nail bed. It’s mad to think we have all created a multi-billion dollar industry from a small piece of dead cells which are only there to protect our fingers!
The free edge and the hyponychium are at the end of your finger. The free edge is the nail which is growing past the end of your fingertip, it is the bit we all want to grow longer and stronger and it is the bit we trim or file. The hyponychium is the squishy, sensitive flesh which is under the free edge and connects it to the nail bed. It is stuck to the nail plate and acts again as a seal against bacteria. As it is attached to the free edge it is susceptible to damage, especially if the free edge is ripped off, or cut too short. I am sure we have all suffered the pain of a too short nail or a nail being chipped and our hyponychium being exposed. It is not a pleasant experience, I will discuss ways of ensuring this part is treat correctly, below.
As mentioned, the cuticle is a mysterious part of the nail which can often be mistaken for other parts, namely the proximal fold – or the bit which is still attached to your finger skin.
The cuticle is in fact, dead skin which is on the nail plate and comes from the proximal fold. It can be removed by using a cuticle removing agent such as this from Sally Hansen , or by soaking the nails in warm water for up to 10 minutes. Both of these processes will soften the cuticle and will allow for it to be removed with a scraping tool such as an orange stick, or a specialist cuticle scraper and pusher tool. The cuticle is quite literally scraped away from the nail plate. You then push back the skin at the top to create a nice moon-shape which will compliment your treatment.
You can use specialist cuticle trimmers if you have any skin which is hanging off. DO NOT CUT THE PROXIMAL FOLD. This is a technique which is very common on Instagram and yes it does produce a nice, neat finish, but unless it is executed absolutely precisely it is very likely it will cause cuts and grazes which will leave the area exposed to infection. Advise your clients to regularly use a cuticle oil and also ensure you are incorporating one into your treatments.
The free edge is the “long” bit of our nail that grows past our fingertip. It is usually one of the key elements in a nail treatment, as depending upon how long, short, weak or strong your free edge is, it will likely influence which nail treatment you choose.
If, like me (sad face), your nails don’t grow very long and aren’t very strong, you are maybe more likely to go for an extension. In this case, the free edge will be filed right down, to keep the extension stable and leave room for growth. As nail technicians, it is very important we are not taking these nails too short at this stage, and we are leaving 2mm from the hyponychium to ensure this area is not irritated or worse, damaged. This would leave the client open to infection.
I always file nails rather than clip them at this stage, some clients have larger hyponychium than others, and you might not be aware of how far up, under the nail plate it extends. Therefore, if you are clipping the natural nail, you may accidentally clip the hyponychium and frankly the thought of that alone has just given me shivers. If a client has very, very long natural nails you can clip the excess but I would leave 3-4mm away from the fingertip and file the rest.
No matter what nail treatment you are embarking upon, you will need to prep the nail. This mainly consists of removing any prior treatment, whether that is nail polish, nail gel or acrylic, ensuring the nail plate is completely clear for a fresh treatment, removing the cuticle from the nail plate and dehydrating the nail plate to increase the next bond.
When you are removing the previous treatment and clearing the nail plate, there are various ways this can be achieved. The worst would be to remove acrylic by pulling it off (CRINGE!) and then filing the nail plate with an electric file. THIS MAKES ME WANT TO CRY.
But, I know that no nail technician would ever dare! So you’re probably going to remove gel or acrylic using an acetone process, which when carefully carried out with plenty of time and attention should not damage your nail in anyway. Once the nail is clear, however, it may feel weaker. This is because it has been submerged in acetone for sometimes up to 1 hour, it is temporary and sometimes the nail starts to harden within minutes. BUT! This is the time to be extra careful when prepping the nail plate. Use only the softest nail file to remove any excess treatment and be very soft with your movements.
I personally do not use an electric file, but I see their value specifically when removing top layers of acrylic or when shaping new acrylic. If I did use an e-file, I would still never put it anywhere near a natural nail plate. The reason for this is the e-file is cannot be completely controlled by you, you can control the force to an extent but the risk is too great for me and I have seen some nasty injuries and burns from the use of an e-file and my advice would be to stick to a hand file for the nail plate.
Hope this gave some good info, check out my other blogs!