Cuticles: How to Safely Care for Your Nails

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Your cuticles are an essential part of your nail structure. Located at the base of each fingernail and toenail, cuticles protect the nail matrix, the part of the nail that grows. Cuticles are made of keratin, the same substance that forms your nails (and hair).

Proper care of the cuticles can promote nail health. Here’s what you need to know about cuticle care and how to prevent infections around the cuticle.

Woman removing her nail polish
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To Use (or Not Use) a Cuticles Cutter 

You can find cuticle scissors and cutters online and in nearly every beauty supply store and pharmacy. Most nail salons and manicurists have cuticle cutters at the ready as well. But it is not a good idea to cut or trim your cuticles.

According to the Mayo Clinic, cuticles “seal the skin to the nail plate, so removal can lead to nail infection.” Think of it this way: Your cuticles are a protective barrier that keeps germs out of your system. If you cut, trim or pick at your cuticles, you create tiny openings that can allow bacteria and other germs to enter your body.

Instead of cutting or trimming the cuticles, some people recommend using a wooden orange stick to manually push them back. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), though, advises against this practice. Their advice: “Leave your cuticles alone. Cuticles protect the nail root, so it’s important to avoid cutting your cuticles or pushing them back.”

Nail experts do not recommend cuticle removers—commercial products that contain chemical exfoliating ingredients that break down keratin and dead skin. Some people experience skin irritation from ingredients in cuticle removers, especially if they allow the product to remain on the skin longer than directed. To decrease the likelihood of irritation, most products contain low concentrations of exfoliating ingredients. In fact, the amount is so low that it’s debatable whether the products work as advertised.

If you schedule a manicure or pedicure, you may have to tell your manicurist to not apply cuticle remover or cut or push back your cuticles, as trimming or pushing back cuticles is standard practice at many nail salons.

Cuticle Oil for Healthy Cuticles 

Like your hair, skin and nails, cuticles can become dry and brittle. Dry, brittle cuticles are prone to cracking and may feel rough and scaly, which may tempt you to pick or pull at your cuticles, even though doing so may lead to infection.

Regularly moisturizing your cuticles can keep them soft and supple. Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) is a “budget-friendly way to soften rough, dry cuticles,” according to the AAD. Hand or body lotion is another option; simply rub some into your cuticles after applying elsewhere on the body.

You may choose to use cuticle oil. This product usually contains natural oils, such as almond, avocado, jojoba, or sunflower oil and moisture-binding agents like aloe vera or glycerin. You can safely apply cuticle oil multiple times per day, though numerous applications are not necessary. Applying cuticle oil or moisturizer to your cuticles before bed can be highly effective.

Signs of Cuticle Infection 

You probably already know the signs of cuticle infection: pain, swelling and tenderness around the nail. The area may be warm to the touch and red or discolored; in some cases, pus (a whitish or yellowish substance) may build up under the skin or ooze slightly.

If you notice signs or symptoms of cuticle infection, take action. The Cleveland Clinic recommends soaking the infected area in warm water for about 15 minutes a few times per day. You may also want to cover the area with a bandage in between soakings, both to protect the area and to prevent yourself from picking your cuticles.

If symptoms get worse (or don’t improve in a day or two), contact your healthcare professional. Sometimes antibiotics are necessary to clear up the infection.

Proper care of your cuticles can prevent infection.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Dec 13
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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