Toenail Terror in the Foot Bath

OK, we all know how we are supposed to trim our toenails, right? Always straight across. eHow says:

> Cut toenails straight across and avoid cutting them too short; otherwise, you might get ingrown toenails (a condition in which edges of toenails push into the skin).

Just to make this absolutely clear, let me provide a visual aid:

Right Wrong

Recently I went on a trip to Wuyuan with some other ECNU students, and I went to our hotel’s foot bath with a friend. At one point during the soaking/greasing/kneading process they asked if I wanted my toenails trimmed. I said sure. Why not?

It wasn’t until a few days later that I even noticed how they trimmed my big toenails:

Before After

I sure hope I don’t get ingrown toenails because of how those clowns trimbed my toenails! So if you ever get a foot bath in China, watch out.

[Incidentally, another thing I should warn you about is pictures of toenails. I used Google Image Search to search for toenails (and other variations), and I got quite a few eyefuls of some naaaasty stuff. Interestingly, when you search for toenails in Chinese on Baidu (脚趾甲), you get only pretty toenails, interspersed with hot chicks, puppies, sunsets, pandas, cherries, and other happy images. If this is the CCP’s vision of a cleaner internet, I think I like it. Anyway, that’s why I had to draw my own toenail images.]

John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I wonder if this is one of those ‘urban myths’. I mean logistically, engineering wise, growth patterns, et al…how DO I say this?…I mean does it really make a difference? I have actually been wondering about this for the longest time.

    Thanks for only providing illustrations.

  2. Just simply tell them u dont wanna ur toenails trimmed when u go to a footbath. And that’s what I usually do. Or show them the right way.
    The reason why people cut it in the wrong way is it makes the shape look better. I think most Chinese girls still prefer the wrong way but they leave it a bit longer in case they got ingrown toenails.

  3. Lantian,

    Are you saying you think ingrown toenails are an urban myth? Or that cutting toenails the wrong way will lead to ingrown toenails is an urban myth? Maybe you could do a little experiment on your own toes and let us know the result? 🙂

  4. Rebecca,

    I will certainly do that in the future. It’s just one of those things that you don’t think about until something like this happens.

  5. John, I’ve been trimming my nails the “wrong” way for my whole life with no problem.

  6. It’s definitely a myth that is particularly entrenched in the U.S. of A. Hence the ‘babe’ pictures you see on the ‘net of women with inch-long claws – clipped square.

    I have been clipping my finger- and toenails round for forty years – and really short at that.

  7. Lantian Says: April 7, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    Oh, I’ve definitely seen in-grown toenails-no myth there! I once watched a procedure where the doc decided the whole nail just had to be removed, yup–basically you just rip it up. And nope–the patient didn’t seem ‘comfortable’, a needle stuck under your nail to inject novicane still HURTS.

    I bring this up b/c there ain’t NO WAY I’m going to experiment on my toes! So anyway, yah–I wonder if the whole cutting nails straight is an urban (American) myth. We’ve already seen two posters with empirical evidence that cutting a curve doesn’t necessarily lead to in-grown toenails. And I can’t see any engineering principle or reason why straight makes any difference. My fingers are all cut curved, no possible ingrown nails there. Is it only the big-toe that this applies to? The questions just grow and grow–like a myth!

    This all leads to possible myth #2. Pushing back the cuticles. Okay, look before I get flooded with queries—it comes up b/c I’ve read the same blurbs as John about how one is suppossed to take care of the nails. I’m not even too clear on what cuticles are. But don’t mess with mine!

  8. And Sinosplice hits a new low…

    That’s what you get for being so bourgeois!

  9. well, I agree with Mark. You’ll be perfectly fine John. 🙂

  10. same thing happened to me when I was in Thailand and got swindled by one of the many beach ladies giving massages and stuff. She trimmed my nails exactly as you said and I’ve paid the price ever since besides which I was definitely overcharged. It took me months to correct what she had done. i’ll never let another person cut my nails again. If you need to make “adjustments” I found soaking the toe in extremely hot water for a while then going at it with knives and scissors was a pretty painless solution.

    All those that disagree with John on this are also disagreeing with what experienced pediatrists will tell you. After this happened I talked to a pediatrist friend who confirmed that cutting square is the right way and that cutting curved really increases the chances that the nail will grow sideways into the skin.

  11. Square or rounded toenails aside…I’d be more worried with the dirty clippers they are using. BYOC 🙂

  12. Yup a new low. And I think the shape of your big toe is ugly.

    It’s good to know, though, that you pay attention to the shape of the nailcut. Or do you?

  13. The reason that cutting them rounded causes ingrowing toenails is because it is difficult to cut a truly rounded edge. There is often a pointed piece of nail left at the side which isn’t seen and which would be painful to dig out. This spike then moves forward into the flesh as the nail grows, setting off local inflammation and a site for bacterial infections. So if you want them short, then square it is. Once the nail edge has grown past the edges of the toe you can cut it to any shape you please.

  14. Never would have pegged you as a metro-sexual, but now you’re all worried about how your toenails have been shaped? Do you iron your jeans now, too?

  15. OK. Thing is, cutting the nail square is good, but ingrown toenails really has much more to do with heredity. Trust me. 🙁 Shoes are important too. Don’t try to cheat into a size smaller. 🙁

    If you have a wide nail-bed, you’re liable to get ingrown toenails, according to my doctor. Therefore, doctors try to correct the problem by making two slits down the sides of the nail and yank the two outside sections out completely, even underneath. Supposedly they won’t grow back there. In fact, they can grow back, repeatedly, and grow back very ugly.

    If you have a problem with ingrown toenails, you must wear properly sized shoes. And if you don’t want to get them, wear properly sized shoes. In my opinion that is a much better solution than having your toenails ripped out repeatedly.

  16. Mark, Annie, Grace (and whoever),

    In the past, I have trimmed my toenails “the wrong way,” and I have gotten minor ingrown toenails. It is painful. Trimming straight across solves the problem.

    It’s easy to find podiatrists recommendations to trim toenails straight across online. If it is indeed a myth, can you provide some links?

  17. interesting how Baidu and Google offer complete different views of the same thing. I agree with you: for once, only once, I agree the CPCs way of surf.

  18. Lantian Says: April 8, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    To quote Colin Powell, never trust the experts. Quite ironic isn’t it.

    Anyway, just b/c a podiatrist ‘says’ it’s so, why am I to believe him/her? I’m of the generation that is quite comfortable questioning/second-quessing the docs.

    Some very plausable rationales have been given:
    1. (Andrew) pointed piece of nail left at the side. Makes a lot of sense and I can see that.
    2. (Al) wide nail-bed. This hints at some plausible ratio of width to stress factor.
    3. (Al) properly sized shoes, ie. side-pressure and scrapping on toe

    And I think the recommendation that makes the most sense so far is from our ‘expert’ Andrew, ‘nail edge has grown past the edges of the toe’. As you can see, this minimizes the curved vs flat ‘myth’.

    Ah ha! I think I have found the truth…

    The illustrations and detailed explanation makes sense,
    ‘The most common cause of ingrown toenails is improper trimming. Cutting your nails too short encourages the skin next to the nail to fold over the nail.’

    So it’s not flat vs curved, it’s really ‘don’t cut it too short’. So this leads to a very practical course of action for John. Wear open-toed sandals or flip-flops and let the nail grow out. Wearing the sandals will reduce the risk of the shoes encouraging the foot to grow that extra callous that would then push down on the nail and instigate downward growth. Once you’ve gotten the nail long enough, cut it straight across. The straighness being necessary on the toes b/c if you had a jutting out curved middle part while wearing shoes, then the shoe would press and cause the nail to do unhappy things.
    To lay your concerns aside. I think it’s been several days since the pedicure. So they did it ok if you don’t have inflammation. As in the link above mentions, it’s if the cutting on that edge is done with ‘malice’ then the trauma causes unhappy skin, inflammaton and a vicious domino-effect. I’m thinking also any sports that exert a lot of stress on the foot should be avoided until the nail has grown out to a proper length, just past the nailbed/toe, and not jutting out to too far, thus receiving stress from shoes.

    This is in contrast to finger nails which if you’d like you could grow out. I’ve noticed many Chinese guys have long or a long finger nail without the fear or compliment of being called a ‘metro-sexual’.

    Yes, all this helpful info on a Saturday afternoon.

  19. Yeah… well, uh… I guess I could upload photos of my big toes and link to them. Would that be ample support for my claim of getting by fine clipping them the “wrong” way? I can’t say much for podiatrists, though, since I’ve never been to one.

  20. In Spanish, we don’t have different words for toe and thumb, is “pulgar” in both cases. I always wondered why English has two different words…

    Now I can see… Toes are one of your favourite topics for conversation! Of course you need a different word.

    I’m looking forward a post dedicated to thumbs. Maybe the big nails that some Chinese grow there? Although most of them make that in the little finger.

  21. I’d be more than happy to slap a couple pictures up here of my right big toe which is currently getting over a super-painful ingrown toenail. I hadn’t been aware of this whole debate on the proper way to cut your toenails, but I must now throw all my support behind the “straight-cut” faction. I think I’ve always just cut my toenails in a curved fashion because that’s the shape of my toe anyway and it seemed natural. I now regret this habit and am willing to submit a self-criticism. If my big toe ever recovers from the mess I’ve made of it cutting out the sharp, scraggling edge that I missed so long ago, I will ALWAYS cut my toenails straight across.

  22. owshawng Says: April 9, 2006 at 8:54 pm

    Ingrown toenails are painful, but so what? Just go to a podiatrist and have them remove a slice of the nail from tip to the nail bed. I have to have this done every 3 to 5 years on my right big toe. Mine was caused by an accident. I stubbed my toe and the toenail snapped off at the base of the toe. Ever since, my toenail grows a fishhook like piece that starts at the base of the toe. Fun. Next time I go I want to bring a camcorder and some popcorn when it gets sliced out.

  23. owshawng Says: April 9, 2006 at 8:57 pm

    I’d be much more concerned about catching a nail fungus that cannot be removed or hepatitis from the dirty equipment that a pedicurist might use

  24. John, I love you (your blog anyway), but stop being such a wuss.

  25. so did ur toe ever grow back to look the same? what did you do to get it back like that?

  26. I always advise my patients to follow the curve of the top of the toe. The end of the toes and the nails are not square so you don’t need to cut them straight across. If you do, there is a possiblilty of the ends ingrowing also. Therefore, it is adviseable that when you cut the nails always trim the after a bath or shower when the nails are softer, and use nail clippers not scissors, and if you are diabetic please take extra care and inspect the feet everyday.

Leave a Reply