Why Do My Nails Smell When I File Them?

Decorating your nails is awesome stuff. You can let your creativity flow and be as original as you want. But sometimes when you file your nails, the smell that comes out of the powder is really bad. All of us, at some point in our lives, have wondered why it smells like something is burning when we are filing our nails. So why do my nails smell when I file them?

When you cut your nails, you are breaking disulfide bonds in the protein keratin. The sulfur-containing protein is responsible for giving nails their hard and tough texture.

But when you file your nails, keratin breaks down into smaller fragments that release volatile sulfur compounds into the air (including hydrogen sulfide and methyl mercaptan), causing nail odor.

5 Reasons Your Nails Smell When You File Them

Here are some of the reasons why you have bad odor while filing your nails:

1. Nail polish

One of the common things that make nails smell when filing is nail polish. Most people who have been in the habit of painting their nails for years or decades have experienced something similar.

Nail polish that contains formaldehyde will definitely smell when filing nails. So will nail polish remover containing acetone and other chemicals that dry out your nails, cuticles, and surrounding skin. Filing your nails causes the acetone to evaporate, which can be what you smell.

2. Keratin

When you file, you are basically removing the top layer of your nails. This is called keratin and is a protein that consists of 18 amino acids, one of which contains sulfur. So when you file and remove the top layer of your nails, it is this sulfur-containing amino acid that gets exposed and starts to react with oxygen and therefore forms hydrogen sulfide which has a smell similar to rotten eggs.

3. The Nail Filing Dust

Regularly filing your nails can create a lot of dust. It’s a big reason why it’s important to do this over the sink since you want to avoid inhaling the dust or having it land on your skin and cause irritation. If you file your nails in this way, you might smell the dust as soon as you start filing.

4. The Substance Under Your Nails

Another reason can be if you have an oil or lotion on your skin when filing your nails. When you have these products on your skin it will make it easier for the nail dust to stick to your skin instead of falling off. This will then lead to a foul smell because the oil/lotion has water-repellent properties and therefore traps the nail dust on your skin making the sulfur-containing amino acids react with oxygen and form hydrogen sulfide.

5. Bacteria

Another possible reason is that you have bacteria living under your nails and in your cuticles, which could also be resulting in a bad odor.

Some of these bacteria are removed when the top layer of your nail is removed. Furthermore, you upset their surroundings, causing them to discharge chemicals into the air, which reach your nose. These compounds are responsible for the odor we perceive. When you cut your hair or file down calluses on your feet, the same thing happens (and they also smell the same!).

What Are The Sources of Nail Odour?

Nail odor can be caused by a variety of things. It’s not just about the condition of your nails — it’s also about the condition of your skin and the environment, as well as the products you use.

These are some of the sources of nail odor:

1. Contamination

The root of it all is that your nails are contaminated with bacteria, germs, and perhaps a fungus. Something you’re doing, or something that has happened, is allowing bacteria and germs to collect on your nails. Your fingernails are, believe it or not, the “dirtiest” part of your body, except for your lips. This truly makes logic when you think about it.

Throughout the day, you are continually utilizing your hands and touching various objects. These items, in most cases, are carriers of bacteria and pathogens. Some of your daily tasks, such as touching door handles or doing the dishes, contribute to the bacteria and germs that build up on and beneath your nails. It’s just a part of life.

Unfortunately, it is not always possible to avoid it. Dead skin cells, food residue, actual dirt, oils from your skin, and any chemicals you come into touch with are just a few of the things that your nails accumulate, most of which are out of your control.

2. Lack of proper hygiene

Smelling nails are usually a result of inadequate hygienic practices in terms of nail washing, cleaning, and care. Sweat can accumulate on your nails if you work out or wear gloves for extended periods of time.

3. High temperature

Heated temperatures might encourage the growth and spread of bacteria and germs in or beneath the nails. Exposure and poor hygiene practices create ideal circumstances for germs and fungus to thrive (if not handled)

How to Get Rid of the Smell

Your nails are a great way to show off your personal style, but when they start giving off an unpleasant odor, what was once a striking accessory can become an embarrassing problem.

Here are some tips on how to eliminate nail odor:

1. Use of antifungal Solution

If your nails have a fungal odor, it is most certainly Fungal. The easiest way to deal with this is to use the proper remedy. Nail fungus soak solution is a popular and highly recommended formula. It is especially great for removing difficult-to-remove fungus.

2. Remove excess moisture and dirt

Your nails need to be clean and dry before you apply polish. Use a nail brush to lightly scrub your nails, or use a dedicated buffer to scrape away the gunk.

3. Keep your nails short

Long nails can trap moisture in the air between them and trap bacteria as well. If your nails are long, trim them as close as possible to your cuticles.

4. Wear polish that’s too thick

Thicker polish coats each layer of the nail and helps prevent bacteria from growing underneath it. Thinner polishes allow bacteria to thrive more easily because they don’t have much of a barrier between them and the skin below. Wear only one coat of polish (unless it’s a sheer color), or wear two coats if you want thicker coverage but not as much thickness.

5. Use Essential Oils

Another way to get rid of nail odor easily is by putting essential oils on the tip of your finger and dabbing them on the nail. Let the oils sit there for 30 minutes, then wipe them off with a cotton pad. If you want to really get rid of bad odor, put some tea tree oil on your nails — the scent will help mask what’s causing the smell in the first place. You can also use a cuticle oil and/or cuticle cream to get your nails back to their natural healthy state.

How To Prevent Your Nails From Smelling

Your hands are often the first thing people see when you meet, so it’s important to make a good impression. Some people use various scents in their homes like incense or candles to mask unpleasant odors in their homes.

You can also improve your hand odor by keeping them well-groomed with these tips:

1. Keep a good hygiene

You can prevent your nails from smelling by keeping them thoroughly clean. While you can wash them with soap and water every day, you should use a nail brush (like this one) to scrub underneath the cuticles and remove dead skin cells.

2. Use hand sanitizer

If you have very smelly hands, you can also use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol or citrus oils like lemon, orange, or grapefruit to help neutralize the smell.

3. Use quality nail polish

Make sure you’re using the right kind of polish — only clear nail polish is safe for you to wear on your nails. Other colors risk staining your skin or causing an allergic reaction in some people. It is also encouraged to use a good quality nail polish that does not contain too many chemicals.

You can easily tell if a product is chemical-free or not just by looking at the ingredient list on the bottle. If you see a long list of hard-to-pronounce words and chemicals, it is better to avoid them.

When Should You Visit a Doctor If Your Nails Smell?

If a foul odor on your nails fades quickly and can be linked back to something you touched or did (like filing your nails), it’s probably nothing to worry about.

However, if the odor continues after properly washing your hands, if it spreads to other parts of your body, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms, see your doctor. It’s possible that you have another medical problem that needs to be addressed.


Seeing as nails are composed chiefly of keratin protein, it’s easy to understand why they would smell if bacteria, dead skin cells, or dirt are present. And indeed, when you file your nails, you add a whole new (microscopic) layer of keratin to them. This encourages the growth of bacteria and gives the bad smell something to stick to.

So there you have it. Filing your nails can cause an odor on one’s hands because of a combination of moisture and the presence of trace amounts of some particularly smelly chemicals. So, the next time you file your nails, prepare to smell something a bit funny.

Don’t worry, though—it’s not dangerous and should stop once you wipe away all the filing dust. If it doesn’t, it could be a sign that the cutting surface of your file is too worn for effective use. So replace it with a new one, and don’t forget to wipe it down first with some rubbing alcohol and your nail-filing odors will be good as gone.

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