Take a good look at your fingernails. Maybe they're long, beautifully rounded and perfectly polished. Or maybe they're blunt and naked, ready to work in the garden.
Now take a closer look -- not at your nails, but at your cuticles. Look at the base of your nail -- the area where the nail meets your skin. You should see a white crescent called the lunula. The cuticle is the piece of skin that overlaps the hard nail and touches the lunula. You may be wondering what they do, or why you need them. If you get frequent manicures, they may be smooth and even, pushed back as far as they'll go. If not, they may be ragged and torn, or creeping up on the nail. But either way, you'd be wise to pay some attention to these little scraps of skin.
The cuticle plays an important role in the health of your nails. They provide a protective cover for the tissue that grows new cells that build the nails. As you know, your nails are constantly growing -- that's why you have to keep clipping them. They are made of a hard type of protein called keratin, which serves as a protector for your fingertips [source: Mayo Clinic]. The cuticle protects the new, soft keratin as it emerges onto the nail. As the protein ages, it hardens. Look farther down your nail, toward the tip. There, you'll find the oldest part of your nail. If it's healthy, you'll find that it's very stiff.
Taking care of your cuticles is important because it can lead to stronger, healthier nails. Also, if you neglect them, your cuticles can cause some problems, including painful infections [source: New York Times]. It is easy to prevent these infections, but you need to invest time in some basic nail care. That means knowing about the beauty care products that can help -- and hurt -- your cuticles and the habits that can be damaging to your nails, your cuticles and your health.
Read on to find out what causes the most common cuticle infections.
In caring for your cuticles, you need to protect against infection. In addition to causing pain, redness and even blisters around the cuticle, these infections can also lead to unsightly problems in the nails themselves, such as discoloration or abnormalities in the nail shape [source: MedlinePlus]. When the infection is in the cuticles, it is called paronychia, and infection of the nail itself is called onychomycosis [source: New York Times]. About 12 percent of Americans deal with fungal nail infections, and they are more common on toenails than on fingernails [source: AAD].
Nail infections usually begin with the cuticle. When this delicate layer of skin surrounding the nail is damaged, bacteria and fungi -- two primary causes of cuticle infections -- can move into the living tissue. Yeast infections and dermatophyte infections are two common fungal problems that affect nails. Yeast infections occur more often in fingernails, and the dermatophyte infections are usually found in toenails. Too much exposure to water and certain chemicals can weaken the nails and cuticles, creating an opening for infection [source: AAD].
If you suspect either a bacterial or a fungal infection in your cuticles, head to the doctor. Your physician can usually tell at a glance if you have paronychia. Since your nails may be thick, topical treatments such as creams or ointments may not be able to penetrate to the source of infection. In this case, your doctor might prescribe oral antibiotics or anti-fungal medicine to clear it up [source: AAD]. Most nail infections will respond well to treatments, but in rare cases, the infection could spread to the blood or bones [source: MedlinePlus].
Some people may take scissors to their ragged cuticles, but read on before you snip.
Using Cuticle Scissors
So, your cuticles are looking long and ragged. You're tempted to whip out those spiffy cuticle scissors that came in the home manicure set your aunt gave you and give them a nice trim. Not so fast.
Even if your manicure kit comes with instructions about how to trim your cuticles, don't take that advice. Leading health experts, including The American Academy of Dermatology, the American Cancer Society, the New York Times Health Guide and the Mayo Clinic, send a single message loud and clear: Do not cut your cuticles.
Cutting and trimming the cuticle can too easily break the protective barrier that your skin gives you and provide an entrance for germs, especially bacteria and fungi. Once bacteria and fungi enter the cuticle, it's likely that you'll soon have a cuticle infection [source: New York Times].
To find out ways to make your cuticles look nice and stay healthy, check out the next page.
Healthy nails are dry and clean, not moist, bacteria-friendly homes. There are simple steps you can take to maintain beautiful and healthy cuticles.
First of all, you don't want the cuticle covering half of your fingernail. Carefully push it back with a soft washcloth after you shower. A gentle push will not tear the skin, which should prevent infections since the cuticle is left intact. But never push too hard or too harshly [source: Buffalo].
Next, be careful about your daily habits so that you don't damage your cuticles. In other words, cutting, biting or picking at them is not a good idea. Although carefully and routinely pushing the cuticle back is fine, pushing them back with too much pressure can cause damage. You can also cause damage by unconsciously playing with or digging into the cuticle with your fingers [source: Samman]. Never tear a hangnail off -- carefully cut it with clippers or cuticle scissors [source: Mayo Clinic]. If your hands will be wet for a long time, or if you are using detergents and chemicals, use rubber gloves to protect your cuticles [source: New York Times].
Thirdly, it's best to try and keep the cuticles and the nails strong. Frequently put lotion on your cuticles -- they need moisturizing just like your skin does [source: Mayo Clinic]. Use sharp clippers or scissors to regularly trim your nails. To keep your nails strong, cut them straight across with a gently rounded tip -- filing your nails into a point weakens them [source: AAD]. If you use a nail hardener, make sure it does not have toluene sulfonamide or formaldehyde on the ingredient list -- these can irritate the skin and sometimes turn it red [source: Mayo Clinic].
Taking care of your cuticles is important for maintaining a healthy appearance and avoiding infections. For more information on nail care, visit the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Academy of Dermatology. "Nail Fungus and Nail Health." 2008 (Accessed 10-6-09) http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/common_nail.html
- Buffalo, Jody. "How-tos for Cuticle Care: Expert Advice on How to Keep This Fragile Skin, and Your Nails, Healthy." Shape Magazine, December 2004 (Accessed 10-21-09) http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0846/is_4_24/ai_n6357607/?tag=rbxcra.2.a.44
- Mayo Clinic. "Acrylic nails: Can they harm your natural nails?" 1-29-08. (Accessed 10-6-09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/acrylic-nails/AN01261
- Mayo Clinic. "Nails: How to keep your fingernails healthy and strong." 11-30-07. (Accessed 10-6-09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nails/WO00020
- MedlinePlus. "Nail Diseases." 10-1-09 (Accessed 10-07-09) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/naildiseases.html
- MedlinePlus. "Paronychia." 4-17-09 (Accessed 10-6-09) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001444.htm
- New York Times. "Paronychia." Reviewed 4-12-07. (Accessed 10-6-09) http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/paronychia/overview.html
- Samman, P.D. Journal of Cosmetic Science. "Nail formation and some nail disorders." 23 405-413 (1972) (Accessed 10-6-09)http://journal.scconline.org//pdf/cc1972/cc023n07/p00405-p00413.pdf