Yep, gross and awesome at the same time – dead toenails.  A badge of honor in the running community and quite possibly the mark of record miles or vertical change.  Toenails are often lost for a number of reasons because of how your toes and feet are jammed up in your running shoes.  In my opinion, they are in the same category as blisters – because that’s how it always starts … with a (blood) blister on top the toe but underneath the nail.  Some are avoidable by wearing better-fitting shoes / socks (minimize “swimming” of your feet in the toe box) but others are unavoidable (running downhill, sweating a lot, running through water, etc.).  Blister underneath gives way to dead skin … that skin was previously used to connect your nail to your toe … nail lifts up towards the heavens and is susceptible to being removed.  Below is a short list of steps to follow if and when you are faced with taking those suckers out … learn from my 12+ years of doing it right, wrong, and everything in between.

1. Identify an oncoming blister

Feels just like any other blister except now it’s under the toenail creating more pressure and discomfort as fluid / blood accumulates.

2. Safely remove fluid from blister

Do not be in a hurry to do this right after you run / race, but after a day or so of your blister deadening the toenail skin use a sterile (burning hot) pin to prick and drain the fluid / blood.  Don’t use your dirty fingernails to pull or stretch the skin around as you’ll be at risk of infection.  You might have to drain a few times throughout the day depending how the skin is healing and how your current activity is affecting the area.

3. Clip upper portion

When I see that the upper half of my nail is simply resting on dead skin and I’m able to pry / pull it off the toe itself, I will clip the top portion of the toenail (see picture).  This helps prevent retaining any dirt / infection in an area that essentially has a dead nail resting on dead skin … removing it will also get a jump-start on healing the raw skin / toe underneath.  This raw exposed skin will be VERY tender; I usually wrap in sport tape / band-aids for a few days while I run as you’ll feel every little bump and poke.

4. Wait

This is by far the most important step!  After clipping any nail that is ready above DON’T RUSH pulling out the portion of the nail that is attached in the cuticle of your toes at the bottom.  Chances are that your toe is swollen and fighting off possible infection already from the above steps and this last bond is much slower to die and “let go”.  Wait for redness and swelling to minimize before even attempting to pull off the last portion of your toenail … if it feels like it’s really going to hurt, stop!  Waiting 2-5 days is my experience before moving on to the funnest and last step.

5. Pull off bottom portion

When ready, this honestly doesn’t hurt much at all.  After waiting a few days as outlined above, test to see if the base of your toenail is dead and ready to slide out.  It might take some tugging, but should really come out all in one piece and one motion … left to right.  The connections in the corners of your cuticle might tear some skin and cause some bleeding, but there should be no shooting pain and before you know it, you’ll have a new (awesome) dead toenail in your hand!

Feel free to collect them and/or shove them in your significant other’s face … just because.

27 thoughts on “5 Steps to Safely Remove Dead Toenails

  1. I just got my first one while doing a 10k in some really bad/evil socks. GLad to know I’m doing an ok thing by removing it. How long does it take to grow back? I’ve lost 80+ lbs and was looking forward to wearing open toed and high heal shoes this summer. 😦

    1. Your big toenail can take as long as 18 months to grow back. I just lost my right nail just after growing the other one back, Epson Salt bath here we come!

    1. If it’s black leave it for a couple of weeks because it’s dead and clip it so it’s short then just when it’s ready to fall off then just pull it off slowly and dab the blood (if there’s any blood) throw the dead toenail in the garbage and just don’t show your empty toe

  2. My first blackened toenail. i clipped it don’t do where it was still stuck, which was on the right side of the big toe on my right foot. a new nails started growing apparently, and i’m not sure if it’s already infected or not. what dose it look like when it’s infected and if it is, how can i treat it?

  3. About a year and a half ago I ran a half marathon and killed one of my big toe nails. Basically it quit growing and got the dead look to it. After four to six months, it started growing again, but it was a new toenail underneath coming in. I waited thinking my dead one would fall off, but it never did. A month ago I noticed that it looked like there was a third new nail coming in under the second (as if the second one had died as well). I’m not sure what to do and I have made an appointment with the doctor, but is toenail removal painful? And have you ever heard of or seen this before?

    1. I’ve never seen another one growing under a previous one (or two), but I have noticed that there are different amounts of time before they are really ready to be completely done. I used to force / pull them earlier, but I’ve had time periods of ~5-6 months where a nail has been dead and finally time to come off with gentle tugging. Seeing the doctor is best!!!

      1. I am not a marathon runner but I do ultramarathon walks and I have had a new toenail growing under a dead one quite a few times, although only on my big toes. The new toenail should force the dead one out eventually even if you don’t remove it yourself, though it might take months. If you have any doubts, do consult the doctor.

  4. Both my toenails came off the same way the bottom corners but only half was ready to come off. My mom said my toenails were to long n after we went walkin i came back n my left toenail was off but only half of it pulled up. The next week the right was about to do the same thing so i clipped the free edge down but i still could see the split where eventually it was coming up. I had an event to go to so i polishes over the right toenail despite the split n days later took the polish off n noticed the toenail was a little green. I went ahed n start clippin what i could but its jus like the left toe only half the nail was ready to come off. The other half is very stable on both toes. I go see a podiatrist today but iam wondering should i save my co pay and jus wait awhile. Iam young n this is terrifying i love my toes.

  5. I’m not a marathon runner, the closest I’ve done is 10km but I am an avid hiker and have done hikes over 120km over several days. In 2015, I started doing Muay Thai and MMA and my rate of injuries have increased.

    Recently I had a bruised toe from a low-kick. X-ray showed no broken bones, but it eventually started to bleed and discolour a dark-bluish colour. I “lanced” it and let it bleed a few days later. Eventually, it did become infected which was very much my fault as I continued to train and hike.

    I kept it clean and disinfected, the infection disappeared after some time and the toenail turned a pale white colour indicating it had died. It was also more moveable and when I tapped it, it made a much louder noise then a healthy toenail, it was also brittle.

    It has since been removed and I don’t think I’ll be doing any lower-body leg training soon. But as a first timer it was awesome, and I hope it grows back properly. From what I hear it takes 12-18 months, is there anything I can do to speed up the process?

  6. My toenail (pinky) was hit by the table leg when I was walking for like 2 or 3 times. It turned black. It looks dead. But it still grows, but very slowly. So sometimes I trim it (like how you trim a normal toenail). It’s here for like months. What should I do?

  7. I need real help bad. last night when i was in bed my toenail was killing me so i pulled it off but it kept on pulling to the cubical what do i do? if i pull it out i will bleed like nuts and my cubical will come out

  8. Hi Adam. Thanks for sharing. I have a dead nail too. My goal is to help the new nail in the best possible way (Hoping for it to grow nice). Is that by letting the dead nail stay as long as possible or is it by removing it and let the skin get air? Thank you for your help.

    1. I usually let mine stay until it is pretty effortless and painless to pull it out by the base – although if it is raised and disconnected from the toe I’ll often trim it down before pulling the base out. Thanks!

  9. After my most recent Marathon both second toenails had fluid underneath which I relieved with a sterile pin a few times a day for about 4/5 days. A month later they both fell off painlessly and each with half a new nail underneath. In my experience this is typical. My big toe was bruised underneath and 3/4 of it is dead, I have left it alone (painted it red to replace grisly with glamour😉) and expect it’ll also fall off in a few weeks 😝 but a new one will be part grown underneath by then. In a nutshell: leave them alone, keep them clean and they’ll sort themselves out.

  10. So I do a lot of running which is helpful for my nfl training and both of my big toes are killing me! Just at the bottom of both nails are bruises and when i apply pressure to the skin on the toe, it is really painful and blood seeps out. It has been like this for 2 months and it prevents me from doing intense training sessions. The nails have slightly changed to a yellowish colour and im really unsure what to do. My doctor said theres really nothing he can do but I really want to start training again! any advice?

    I also soak them in hot salted water everyday to avoid infection.

    1. Make sure you have the right sized shoes. My nails will only get bruised and/or fall off after very long trail/downhill runs when my toes are being smashed into the front of the shoes much more than normal. This should not be the case for normal everyday running.

  11. This is best information I have come across Adam, thank you. I am a runner too and have a very dead big toenail from a downhill race in late August. It got infected and I soaked it in epsom salts 2-3 times a day and since then have noticed it getting more and more loose. Right now it is literally hanging on to one side of my toe….95% off. Should I just yank it? or keep it bandaged down until it easily pulls loose from the other side? and does it need special care after?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s