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Is it bad to cut your cuticles?

Personal Hygiene Image Gallery Well-maintained nails and cuticles are beautiful to behold. Damaged or abused cuticles, however, can spell trouble. See more pictures of personal hygiene practices.
© iStockphoto.com/kirza

You use your hands so much throughout each day of your life that it's easy to take your fingers and fingernails for granted. Without healthy fingernails, though, your sensitive fingers would be missing their only armor against daily use and abuse. And strong, pain-free fingernails require smart cuticle care.

Cuticles are an oft-forgotten part of the human anatomy. This strip of skin appears at the base of each fingernail and toenail, sealing the spot where your nails connect to your body. As personal hygiene habits have changed throughout various cultures, many people developed the habit of cutting their cuticles. Most often, this practice is performed in an effort to improve personal beauty as part of a routine manicure. But many people bite or pick at their cuticles as an absentminded or nervous habit. Both behaviors can be problematic.

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Cutting your cuticles in the name of beautification may have adverse consequences. Chewing away at your cuticles while filling the resulting cuts and tears with bacteria won't improve your nail health, either. Many doctors are convinced that cuticle cutting or general mistreatment increases the chance of inflammation and infection.

In addition, cutting your cuticles can cause the overall condition of your fingers and hands to deteriorate. Some people develop acute or chronic infections at the base of their nails that require medical treatment. Those who experience repeated infections may end up with distorted, warped and ridged fingernails.

In other words, overworking or outright abusing your cuticles may cause serious pain and suffering. Keep reading to get the scoop on why cuticles are so important, how their mistreatment may affect you and how you can become a conscientious cuticle caretaker.

Biting and picking at your cuticles may cause a painful infection.
Biting and picking at your cuticles may cause a painful infection.
Getty Images

It's hard to understand why cuticles are so important unless you know their purpose. Cuticles are just one of several structures that keep your fingernails strong and healthy.

But what exactly is a fingernail? Fingernails are made of layers of keratin, a protein that's also found in your skin and hair. Horses have keratin in their hooves. Rhinoceros horns are made of keratin, too, but it's much thicker than the nails found on your body. The biggest and most obvious part of your fingernails -- the part that you trim -- is called the nail plate. Nail folds are the skin that borders your nail plate on three sides. The term nail bed refers to skin just beneath the nail plate.

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Cuticles (also called the eponychium) overlap your nail plate at the bottom your nails. As the cells that make up your fingernails age, they harden. Then they're pushed out from under your cuticles by newer cells, and you see the older cells that make up the visible portion of your fingernails.

Your cuticles aren't a pointless part of your finger structure. They help shield new keratin cells from harm as they age and add length to your fingernails. The manner in which cuticles overlap your nail plate also helps seal the gap between your skin and nails. Without this seal, your fingers would be more susceptible to intrusion and subsequent infection by bacteria and viruses.

Many people use specially designed cuticle cutters to trim their cuticles. Usually they do this to neaten the overall appearance of their fingers and hands. The cuticles are soaked in warm water or cuticle-softening chemicals to soften them, and then sharp, stainless-steel cuticle cutters are used to trim back the thickened portion of the cuticles to make them less obvious and more uniform.

Using great care, some people successfully remove the tips of their cuticles where there are no living cells without harm. However, cutting or biting into the portion of the cuticle -- containing living or dead cells -- that's protecting the developing nail plate can cause paronychia, an infection around the base of the nail fold.

Paronychia may manifest itself in symptoms such as pain, swollen and reddish tissues and pockets of yellowish pus. Warm water soaks and antibiotic creams often defeat these infections, but if they worsen, oral antibiotics may be necessary.

Professional manicurists may help you get perfect nails, but make sure they don't damage your cuticles in the process.
Professional manicurists may help you get perfect nails, but make sure they don't damage your cuticles in the process.
Mike Marsland/Getty Images

There are a few simple ways to prevent infections and inflammation related to cuticle problems. The simplest is to just be nice to your nails and your fingers in general.

Don't bite your fingernails, and don't rip at the cuticles with your teeth or fingers. Also, protect your fingers from damage while you're performing work that stresses your skin and avoid using your nails as tools to pry and prod objects.

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If your hands are often wet during the day, or if you handle harsh chemicals, consider using rubber gloves to keep your skin from drying and cracking. Keep your hands and nails moist and soft. If your skin is chronically dry, use lotion to keep your skin supple and smooth.

Perform nail maintenance as part of your regular hygiene routine. Trim your fingernails and use an emery board to smooth them; doing so reduces the chances that you'll snag and tear a nail, which could harm the nail bed. And never, ever yank a hangnail from your finger. You may gain the temporary satisfaction of removing an annoying flap of skin, but you'll likely harm living cuticle tissue, too. A tender hangnail may result in an even more painful tear or infection that lasts for days or even weeks.

If you visit a manicurist, press them for details on nail and cuticle care. Many professionals attack cuticles with aplomb, cutting away all of the toughened material that they find because it detracts from an overall beautiful and polished set of nails. But other manicurists advise gentle cuticle care. They softly push the cuticles back and then apply an oil to keep the cuticles flexible and less prone to drying and cracking, but that may lead to tearing. The only time these pros actually cut the cuticle is when your fingers display hangnails that may snag and cause a tear that's far worse than damage done by careful trimming.

Whether you prefer tidy, cut cuticles, or you just generally ignore these parts of your fingers, cuticles are critical to finger and fingernail health. If you treat your cuticles and fingernails to a lot of home or professional manicures, keep tabs on any pain or swelling, and be kind to your fingers; the same goes for anyone who bites his or her nails and cuticles out of habit. Take care of your nails and cuticles, and your fingers will remain free of pain related to cuticle infections.

For more information on your nails, skin care and other related topics, scratch your way over to the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Nail Fungus & Nail Health." (Oct. 2, 2009) http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/common_nail.html
  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. "Paronychia Nail Infection." (Oct. 2, 2009) http://www.aocd.org/skin/dermatologic_diseases/paronychia_nail_in.html
  • Bruno, Karen. "Women's Hand And Nail Care." WebMD.com. (Oct. 2, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/strong-nails-hands
  • KidsHealth.org. "Your Nails." (Oct. 2, 2009)http://kidshealth.org/kid/htbw/nails.html
  • Mayo Clinic. "Nails: How To Keep Your Fingernails Healthy And Strong." (Oct. 2, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nails/WO00020
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  • Merck.com. "Paronychia." (Oct. 2, 2009)http://www.merck.com/mmpe/sec10/ch125/ch125d.html
  • WebMD.com. "Paronychia (Nail Infection)." (Oct. 2, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/paronychia-nail-infection

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