Toenail Problems and At-Home Care Tips

Many of us are guilty of not taking care of our toenail problems. In fact, aside from getting regular pedicures, it can be easy to overlook toenail care. The first step to addressing this issue is knowing how important toenails are and what you can do to keep them in the best condition.

Why Do We Have Toenails?

Much like claws on animals, toenails are a sign of evolution in the human body.

With toenails, humans have an extra shield to protect the toes from damage.

Toenails don’t have a link to significant motor functions, though, unlike fingernails.

What Are Toenails Made Of?

Simply put, toenails are made from keratinocytes and compacted dead cells.

At the base of the toenail, there is a crescent-shaped part known as the matrix.

The matrix is where the nail grows from and is built up of keratinocytes that produce a protein.

With the combination of dead compacted cells hardened by keratin, toenails become stiff and rigid.

Interestingly, the cells in nails are quite similar to that of hair, and as it grows, it begins to die. This is why when toenails are clipped, they don’t hurt (like a haircut).

The development of keratin extensions in nails can be traced back as far as 400 million years ago.

With the emergence of tetrapods, animals began to walk on land, which required extra protection on the hands and fingers.

At this time, it was more likely to see animals with claws rather than nails.

Thankfully, the development of nails provides humans with a protective cap that prevents injuries and infections.

The thickness of toenails helps to protect an ample amount of blood vessels and muscles, as well as flesh.

Another important job of toenails is to help the feet balance and to establish spatial awareness.

In fact, in cases where people have lost toenails, there have been reports of trouble with balance and gait.

baby toenails

Common Toenail Problems

Although toenails are essential for protection, there are many instances where they aren’t sufficient enough.


About 10% of people in the world are affected by toenail fungus at one point or another. It’s far more likely for senior adults (above the age of 65) to develop an infection.

Toenail fungus can present itself in several ways, such as nail discoloration, increased thickness, or brittle nails.

Toenail fungus can lead to more severe health issues when left untreated, especially for those with pre-existing conditions.

Fungus thrives in warm and wet environments, such as locker rooms, pools, and gyms. It can also be quite challenging to get rid of without medical intervention.

Ingrown Toenails

Another highly common toenail issue is ingrown toenails, which are exceptionally more painful than toenail fungus.

In this instance, the nail tends to grow into the skin surrounding the nail.

My experience with ingrown toenails has been as a result of cutting the nail too short. Other common causes include:

  • Maintaining curved toenails
  • Injury and trauma
  • Genetic predispositions
  • Unusually curved or large toenails

An ingrown toenail can quickly turn into an infection if left untreated. Often, pus, swelling, and redness will appear if an infection is prevalent.

Serious Toenail Problems: Nail Trauma

Toenail trauma is likely the most common toenail issue experienced worldwide.

It can happen in many ways, such as stubbing, dropping something heavy on the feet, or wearing poor-fitting shoes.

Depending on the injury, several treatments might be recommended by a doctor.

Trauma is typically associated with torn nails, lifted nails, throbbing nails, discoloration, and bleeding.

appearance of toenails

Clubbed Nails

Nail clubbing occurs when the toes expand and develop a wider appearance, like a club.

Typically, this issue presents itself when there’s an underlying medical condition like cancer, lung disease, or heart disease. It can also be inherited and will develop over weeks or years.

Clubbed nails will present themselves in the following ways:

  • Softened nail beds
  • Widened toenails
  • Downward toenail curvature
  • Floating nails
  • Bulging at the tips of toes

Normal Toenails

It’s easy to distinguish the look of normal toenails from abnormal toenails.

Healthy toenails should have a light pink hue with consistent coloring across the nail. They will also have a smooth appearance without any signs of ridges.

If you have noticeable variations in color or texture, it could be due to health issues.

Shades, spots, or lines could also be signs of an underlying condition that may require treatment.

How to Care for Normal Toenails

Often, toenail issues come about as a result of low maintenance. I’m guilty of disregarding my toenails simply because they’re out of sight and out of mind. If you want to avoid toenail problems, care for yours regularly!

Using a few simple tips, the quality of your toenails can be improved significantly.

Clipping and Filing

By clipping my toenails straight and near the tip of my toes, I reduced the likelihood of ingrown toenails.

Also, when finishing the nail’s edge with a file, I took special care not to curve the nail. Otherwise, it could grow into the skin on either side of the nail bed.

It’s a good idea to invest in specific toenail clippers, as they are powerful enough to safely clip thicker nails.

no toenail problems here

Soaking and Washing

Keeping my feet clean has assisted with smells and overall appearance. I also enjoy a foot soak at least once weekly as a great way to cleanse different types of bacteria.

Tea tree oil and Epsom salt foot soak are my favorites because they are antiseptic, soothing, and assist with inflammation.

Wearing Comfortable Shoes

Shoe sizes can vary based on style and designer.

Making sure that I sized my feet appropriately before purchasing new shoes has made a substantial difference.

My toes are no longer pressed against each other in the toe box and have plenty of movement.

Also, investing in breathable shoes has significantly reduced sweating and odor.

Embarrassing Toenail Problems: Why Do My Toenails Smell?

In most cases, toenails with an unappealing smell could be a result of sweaty feet.

If feet aren’t cleaned regularly, bacteria can build up on the top and bottom of the feet and between the toes.

After thoroughly washing the feet, if the smell persists, it could be a result of toenail fungus.

Toenail fungus has a distinct odor similar to cheese and might produce white gunk under the nail.

If fungus is suspected, at-home treatments should be applied regularly. Consulting your doctor is also recommended.

What to Do About Thick Toenails

Thick toenails can easily be worked on at home using soap, water, natural extracts, and particular files.

As thickened nails are often a sign of toenail fungus, most of the over-the-counter treatments are antifungal.

Step 1: Softening the Nails

The first step to getting thinner toenails is to soften the nail layers using warm water and soap.

It’s also essential to apply nail softener, such as urea, and wrap the toes in bandages overnight.

This process allows the product to work into the hardened layers, so they become softer.

Step 2: Filing

The next step is to use a specialty toenail file to file away layers of the nail gently. Scrapers and scalpels can be used to remove layers of the nail, as well.

Once the filing is finished, applying an antifungal cream or snakeroot extract can help with reducing thickness.

soaking your toenails

Step 3: Weekly Soaks

By maintaining weekly foot soaks, the quality of the nails will improve significantly.

Adding antiseptic essential oils, such as tea tree oil, can also ward off harmful bacteria and fungi.

Diabetic Toenails

Changes in toenails happen more quickly in diabetic individuals due to poor blood circulation in the feet.

If left untreated, toenail problems can lead to ulcerations, infections, and amputations in severe cases.

People with diabetes might also notice significant toenail changes due to unnoticed trauma as well as general susceptibility.

In most diabetics, the first sign of toenail concerns will be discoloration. There could be significant signs of yellowing running from the nail’s tip to the root of the nail bed.

Sometimes, the coloring can be varying shades of brown.

Diabetic feet might experience the following:

  • Onychauxis: Thickening of the nail plate without deformity
  • Onychocryptosis: Ingrown toenails
  • Onychogryphosis (Ram’s Horn): Thickening of the toenail base with severe deformity
  • Pincer Nails: Extreme curvatures that cause cone or trumpet-like nail formation
  • Plicatured Nails: Edges of the nail will fold at 90-degree angles
  • Paronychia: Superficial infections of the skin surrounding the nail plate
  • Onychomycosis: Fungal infections in any part of the nail

Toenail Problems in All Colors

By researching the rainbow of toenail colors, I was able to determine if my toenail problems were fungal or something more serious.

A few examples of the most common toenail colors are white, yellow, and black.

color of toenails indicate toenail problems

White Toenails

White nails can be an indicator of anemia or other liver disorders. If white banding is prevalent, it could signify protein deficiencies as well as liver cirrhosis.

Known as Terry’s nail, white nails with dark-rimmed tips could be a sign of cirrhosis.

White areas appearing under the nail bed could signify a fungal infection requiring medical treatment.

Alternatively, white spotting on the nails can be a result of zinc deficiency or nail bed injuries. In the past, white nails were also indicative of poisoning.

Yellow Toenails

Doctors have found that yellow nails directly lead to problems with the lymphatic system. These health concerns could include respiratory disorders, liver problems, or diabetes.

For smokers, yellow nails are a sign of nicotine staining the outer layers of the nail.

Black Toenails

The most significant cause of black nails is anemia; however, it could also be a B-12 deficiency sign.

More severe concerns include chronic kidney disease, bacterial infection, cancer, and liver disease.

Trauma can be a leading cause of black nails, as well as heavy metal poisoning.

How to Cut your Toenails Properly

The most important thing to remember when cutting toenails is to avoid curving the nail’s sides. Otherwise, the nail may grow through the skin, leading to ingrown toenails.

Ideally, the toenail’s tip should be in line with the top of the skin on the toe.

It can be beneficial to use a file to finish the shape of the nail after cutting.

When filing, ensure the surface is smooth and that the nail’s length remains at the toe line. Be sure to invest in a high-quality pair of toenail clippers to prevent splintering.

clipping toenails

How Long Should Your Toenails Be?

It’s recommended that toenails should be a maximum of one to two millimeters above the toe.

If you keep the nail too long, it can cause ingrown toenails, or they can get caught on something and cause significant trauma.

Square Toenails

Squaring toenails is a fantastic way to prevent ingrown nails from forming. It’s also an effortless style to achieve at home without needing to spend money on pedicures.

After cutting the nail, use a file to create a straight and flat surface on the nail’s tip. Pay close attention to the edges to ensure the nail doesn’t crowd the skin.

This process can quickly be done using toenail files rather than clippers, especially if the toenails aren’t too long.

Overlapping Toenails

Overlapping toenails can be a sign of several ailments that should be addressed by a doctor.

Trauma is one of the most significant causes if your nail has been damaged in the past.

It can also be due to sickness and decreased nutritional intake, leading to deformed nail production.

Overlapping nails occur when the nail cells begin to grow on top of one another.

Depending on the severity of the overlapping, the nail might need to be removed to allow for new growth.

Alternatively, they can be clipped and filed into an appropriate shape to avoid overlapping.

toenail fell off

My Toenail Fell Off

In instances where the toenail falls off, it’s essential not to panic. After all, it happens quite often.

I’ve experienced a few instances where my toenail fell off because of trauma, like tripping over a curb.

There are other cases where toenails fall off due to medications and serious illnesses.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to reattach a toenail that has fallen off. Instead, a new nail will need to grow back, which can take eight weeks or longer.

It’s essential to keep the area clean and dry to allow for proper regrowth.