Cuticles can be a pain -- literally. Quite often, parts of them break off, leading to uncomfortable hangnails. But even when you don't have to deal with the nuisance of torn skin, cuticles can still be undesirable. This is because of a growing cultural assumption that the small strips of skin under each fingernail and toenail are unattractive and unnecessary. As a result, many beauty-seekers have their cuticles removed during manicures and pedicures. Of course, there are plenty of people who pull or chew them simply because they don't like for the skin around their nails to become ragged.

Cuticle removal, however, is not completely harmless. We have cuticles for a reason -- they seal the gap between the nails and the skin, helping protect that vulnerable area from bacteria. Potential tears created by biting, pulling and cutting cuticles can lead to infection and inflammation. Not only can such consequences compromise your health, they can also impact the appearance of your nails. Chronic infections around the nail base can cause distorted, warped and ridged nails.

One of the more common infections that can result from broken skin around the nails is paronychia, which can cause pain, swollen and reddish tissue, and pockets of yellowish pus. Antibiotic creams or pills are usually needed to treat paronychia.

To reduce your chances of developing paronychia or another nail-related infection, you have to take precautions with you cuticles -- but you should make sure you take good care of your nails, too. You can achieve both results by incorporating the following tips into your overall hygiene routine:

Keep up with a regular nail maintenance routine that includes clipping your fingernails and smoothing them with a nail file.

  1. Don't yank hangnails. You may carefully trim them with nail scissors (or have a manicurist trim them) if you believe a potential tear could occur.
  2. Ask your manicurist to only push cuticles back -- not remove them.
  3. Keep your hands and feet well moisturized so that your cuticles are more flexible and less prone to drying and cracking. Many professional manicurists will treat your cuticles with a special cuticle oil.
  4. Protect your nails and hands when doing work that stresses your skin.
  5. Don't bite your nails. It will make you more tempted to bite off your cuticles.
  6. Keep up with a regular nail maintenance routine that includes clipping your fingernails and smoothing them with a nail file.

Check out the following page for lots more information on cuticle and nail care.