Though you may only think about your cuticles when you get a manicure, they're not just hanging out on your hands. They serve a purpose, and they need your TLC.
Your cuticles are part of your skin. They sit atop your nails' growth matrix, which is the part of your nails that grows.
Cuticles are "there for a reason, like a barrier or a protection for the nail matrix," says Richard Scher, MD, a Cornell University dermatology professor.
To keep that protection strong, follow these six tips.
1. Don't Cut Your Cuticles.
Dermatologists say there's no good reason to cut the cuticles.
Cutting them could open the door to infection or irritation. "If you remove the cuticle, that space is wide open, and anything can get in there," Scher says.
Cutting your cuticles can also lead to nail problems, such as ridges, white spots, or white lines.
If you get a bacterial infection in that area, it can hamper that fingernail's growth."That's not particularly aesthetic, as well as being uncomfortable," says Ella Toombs, MD, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist.
2. Go Orange.
If you're hoping to make your nails appear longer, you can push your cuticles back gently with a wooden orange stick instead.
"Cuticles don't want to be cut," Toombs says. "They're supposed to be soft, and cutting can make them hard, more likely to fracture. If you cut it, it has an increased tendency to split off."
Some people who cut their cuticles regularly are afraid to stop, because they worry that their cuticles will grow and grow, giving their hands an unsightly look. Experts say this simply won't happen, and switching from cuticle clippers to an orange stick is a smart move.
"It's a myth, the same way that they say that shaving will make your beard grow faster, but letting the beard grow in will make it slow down," Scher says. "Neither is true. Cutting the cuticle doesn't make it grow faster. Nothing you can do can change the rate of growth."
Although the cuticles don't feel like the soft skin on the rest of your hands, they're composed primarily of skin, so it's essential to keep them moisturized.
"Cuticles get dry. They crack, peel, and flake, just like the skin does," Scher says. "A good moisturizer for the cuticles is important, just like for dry skin. Any skin moisturizer will work fine for the cuticles. When you put it on your hands and there's some left over, rub it into the cuticles."
Most dermatologists recommend thick moisturizing products, such as ointments or creams, for the best results. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends petroleum jelly (Vaseline) as an inexpensive way to care for the cuticles. But some doctors say that using a thick product like petroleum jelly throughout the day isn't always practical, so there are alternatives to use when you're active.
"Ointments are harder to wear during the day, because they're messy," says Bruce Robinson, MD, clinical instructor of dermatology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "You can use them at night when you aren't touching papers in your office. Lotions can be used throughout the day, because the hands don't get as greasy, but lotions aren't as moisturizing as creams and ointments."
A hot wax treatment, which may be offered at the nail salon, is another good way to moisturize the cuticles, according to Toombs. Special oily wax is heated until it melts. People dip their hands into the warm, oily wax, then put on plastic gloves and a mitt to seal in the heat, which they wear for 10 to 15 minutes.
"After you take it off, the hands, nails, and cuticles are softer," Toombs says. "It's a wonderful treatment for nails and cuticles."
Whatever method you choose, be sure to moisten your hands regularly.
"The more frequently you lubricate the hands, including the nails and cuticles, the better they will be," Toombs says.
4. Avoid Rough Manicurists.
Many people see their dermatologist when they develop red, sore spots around their nails or cuticles caused by a skin infection called paronychia.
"Often, patients come in to me when they went to a new nail salon and had a very aggressive nail technician," Scher says. "Usually, they have an infection from over-vigorous manipulation, which usually manifests as redness and soreness. Antibiotics may be necessary."
Before getting your nails done, tell your manicurist that you only want your cuticles pushed back very gently with an orange stick, nothing more. If they push the cuticles too vigorously, ask them to stop right away.
5. Steer Clear of Drying Agents.
The hands, nails, and cuticles can dry out from frequent dish washing and from nail polish remover containing acetone. So, experts recommend wearing gloves for dish duty and using acetone-free nail polish remover.
"Whether washing clothes or dishes, you really need to wear vinyl gloves," Toombs says. "That's a good time to put the lubricant on. Having the gloves on keeps the oil on the cuticle and nail plate, and it protects them from the drying effects of water."
6. Keep Your Hands Out of Your Mouth.
"Your mouth is a dirty area, and saliva is an enzyme that breaks down skin," Robinson says. "You can get an infection if you violate the cuticle."
So if you have a habit of biting your nails or nibbling on your cuticles, work on kicking those habits for prettier, healthier hands.