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A Quick Primer on Cuticles

Maintaining the integrity of your cuticles is important for your nail health.
Maintaining the integrity of your cuticles is important for your nail health.
©iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

Much like cable television or your home's hot water heater, cuticles are often taken for granted when they're in good working order, only to be appreciated for their true benefits once something goes terribly awry. Unfortunately, few of us practice diligent nail health all the time, biting our nails and cuticles because of stress, nerves or just to have something to do.

You know what and where your finger and toenails are, but some people have trouble pinpointing exactly where their cuticles begin and end. Known in medical circles as eponychium, cuticles are the thin area of flesh where the skin of the fingers and toes meets the nail. If they aren't properly cared for, cuticles easily become flaky, itchy or just plain annoying.

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Although they might not look very functional or important, cuticles are the last line of defense between your nails and nasty bacteria, viruses and fungi. In essence, cuticles protect the nails as they form and grow, serving as an effective seal between the skin and nails, keeping them healthy and protected from illness-causing visitors.

This is important because, although they're a small part of your overall body, nails protect the delicate skin underneath. If you didn't have healthy nails, it'd be pretty difficult to do just about anything, from scratching an itch to holding a pen. Heck, even popping open a soda can would be hard to do! Plus, any infection -- even if it starts somewhere as innocuous as your finger tips -- can cause an abscess or get into your bloodstream and wreak havoc on the rest of your body. It's unlikely that this will happen just from picking your cuticles, but not impossible, by any means.

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Hands and feet bear the brunt of a lot of manual labor, which can easily wreak havoc on your cuticles. For example, frequent exposure to water or chemicals (when you wash dishes, garden or clean house, for example) can dry out your skin and cause your cuticles to crack, peel or dry out. Wearing rubber or latex gloves is one of the easiest ways to protect your hands from the activities they're exposed to every day. Of course, you can't wear gloves all the time, so use your best judgment and you should be on the right track.

Next, repeat the following mantra to yourself as many times as it takes to sink in: Never cut, pick or bite your cuticles. Doing so can wreak havoc on your nail bed and result in tiny cuts that allow fungi or bacteria to cause an infection of the cuticle (paronychia) or of the nail (onychomycosis), which can turn into seriously icky business. Not only can a nail infection require medical attention and antibiotics, it can also permanently mess up your nails, making them much less attractive and functional than they were in their prime.

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Paronychia typically causes cuticles to become red, inflamed and painful. Serious infections can even produce pus that's yellowish in color. The nail might also start to change in appearance, becoming discolored or shaped abnormally. Sometimes it's possible to use an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment to correct the issue, but oral medications may become necessary if it really gets out of control. It can take weeks or months for damaged cuticles and nail beds to get completely back to normal following such an occurrence, since nails typically grow very slowly.

You moisturize your face, hands and feet, so why not your cuticles?
You moisturize your face, hands and feet, so why not your cuticles?
©iStockphoto.com/ThinkstockiStockphoto/Thinkstock

Sometimes dry skin happens, no matter how diligent you are with your moisturizing and skincare regimen. Fortunately for those of us with less than perfectly hydrated hands, there's no shortage of options when it comes to moisturizing cuticles. From plain and simple to fancy-schmancy, here are some easy ways to breathe new life into your cuticles.

The first potential solution might be as close as your kitchen pantry! Simply rub warm olive oil directly into the nail bed for a green way to moisturize cuticles naturally. Cooking oil is another excellent, although less aromatic, option.

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Next, avoid the unnecessary purchase of too many products by letting your eye cream double as cuticle moisturizer. Just rub a little on and reap the results. It's all just lotion, after all!

If your cuticles are looking a little overgrown, opt to exfoliate instead of cutting them. A store-bought or homemade exfoliator, coupled with a moisturizer, is very effective at sloughing away excess skin. One easy DIY exfoliator is a simple combination of oil, sugar and water mixed in a small bowl. Once you've gently scrubbed and rinsed, grab a pair of cotton cloves and slather moisturizer on your nail bed. You can even keep them on overnight if you want to achieve maximum results.

If you're out and about and you notice that your cuticles have seen better days, fish some plain old lip balm out of your purse for a quick fix. Pretty much any hydrating product will do in a pinch, like Vaseline or Aquaphor.

Of course, store-bought cuticle oils are also effective at rehabilitating wayward cuticles, if you prefer the reassurance of having a product that was designed and tested for this specific use.

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Sometimes, even companies with excellent reputations put out products that are later found to have detrimental effects. Given the many recalls that have occurred over the years with medications, skincare products and various other items, it's a good idea to do some research before purchasing anything you're going to come into direct contact with.

For example, products containing acetone can be really hard on cuticles and nails alike, causing them to quickly become dry, itchy and more prone to breakage. Cosmetic appearance aside, many acetone-based jojoba oil and removers produced in 2007 or before contained formaldehyde and/or formaldehyde resins. Both have been proven to be damaging to nails; plus they're toxic, to boot. Take care to read the fine print to ensure that any nail care product you select is acetone- and formaldehyde-free.

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It's also worthwhile to note that all commercial cuticle lotions are not necessarily created equal. In general, lotions containing plant-based ingredients are better equipped to hydrate your nails and cuticles, rather than inadvertently dry out or irritate them. Check labels for specific mentions of almonds, avocados and vitamin E, in particular. Products containing coconut or jojoba oil are also ideal for nails, or you can pick up them up in their natural form for similar results.

As with most other types of products, it's often not necessary to shell out big bucks to achieve the results you desire. Once you've identified the best item for you, don't hesitate to shop around for the ideal price. Dollar stores and sale item-laden drugstores are known to carry many of the same or comparable products as nail shops, salons or spas, but at vastly reduced prices.

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Sources

  • Infection Control Today. "APIC Issues Infections Prevention Strategies When Visiting the Nail Salon or Tattoo Parlor." May 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.infectioncontroltoday.com/news/2012/05/apic-issues-infection-prevention-strategies-when-visiting-the-nail-salon-or-tattoo-parlor.aspx
  • Kelsey, Sarah. "30 Basic Beauty Tips You May Not Know (But Should)." May 16, 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/15/top-beauty-tips_n_1519127.html#s=979851
  • Kenny, Caitlin. "The 14 Best Summer Beauty Tips." Shine from Yahoo! Canada. May 10, 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/14-best-summer-beauty-tips-160000338.html
  • KidsHealth. "Your Nails." 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://kidshealth.org/kid/htbw/your_nails.html
  • Mayo Clinic staff. "Fingernails: Do's and Don'ts for Healthy Nails." Mayo Clinic. Dec. 8, 2011. (June 17, 2012). http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nails/WO00020
  • Miller, Merryl. "Braving Winter Conditions to Garden." June 3, 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.dailymercury.com.au/story/2012/06/03/braving-winter-conditions-to-garden/
  • Nail-aid. "Six Top Tips for Healthy Cuticles." 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.nailaidcares.com/cuticles.php
  • Park, Sabrina. "Taking Care of Your Cuticles." BangStyle. May 21, 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.bangstyle.com/2012/05/taking-care-of-cuticles/
  • Tague, Angela. "Dry Nails and Natural Moisturizing Oil Treatments." 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.dailyglow.com/dry-nails-and-natural-moisturizing-oil-treatments.html
  • Tague, Angela. "Natural Remedies for Dry Fingernails." 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://www.dailyglow.com/natural-remedies-for-dry-fingernails.html
  • The New York Times. "Paronychia." 2012. (June 17, 2012). http://health.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/paronychia/overview.html

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