If you're anything like us, you probably don't think much about your cuticles unless you're being asked at the nail salon whether or not you want them cut. (Spoiler alert: You should say no—more on why in a moment.) But your cuticles actually serve a very important function and play an integral role in the health of your nails. "The cuticle is the nail's protective seal. It's like the grout in between the tiles in your shower, keeping water, moisture, and microorganisms out of the nail unit," says board-certified dermatologist Dana Stern, MD.
Meet the Expert
When the cuticle is removed (as in cut) or compromised, all of these things can get into the nail, causing problems ranging from chronic redness and swelling of the skin behind the cuticle to irregular nail growth, she adds. And while the cosmetic aspect is less important, it still bears mentioning that dry, ragged cuticles simply don't look good and can detract from even the most perfectly polished manicure.
What Is the Nail Cuticle?
The cuticle is the thin layer of dead skin that wraps around the base of the nail, protecting the nail bed from bacteria and other harmful elements that can negatively affect the nail matrix, says nail expert Tina Wang.
Fortunately, cuticle care at home doesn't have to be hard or complicated. Keep reading for six expert-approved tips and tricks for giving your cuticles the TLC they deserve.
Don't Remove Them...
In-salon manicures often involve aggressive cuticle removal with either a nipper or a liquid cuticle remover—both of which are potentially damaging, cautions Stern. Keeping the cuticles intact minimizes the possibility of infection or unnecessary exposure to your nail beds, adds Wang.
...Instead, Push Them Back—Gently
Overgrown cuticles don't look good, and since removing them entirely isn't an option, the best solution is to push them back. But exactly how you do so matters greatly. "Aggressive pushing, for example with a metal tool or orange stick, can cause damage to the nail matrix, the growth center of the nail," Stern cautions. That little half-moon shape at the base of your nail? That's part of the matrix and what produces the hard nail. If there's a lot of trauma to the cuticle overlying it, it can potentially cause the nail to grow out with bumps and surface irregularities, she explains.
Instead, use a washcloth to gently—key word here being gently—push the cuticle back while you're in the shower, suggests Stern. Follow up with a moisturizing cuticle oil or cream after the fact. To that point...
Both experts underscore the importance of making cuticle care, specifically cuticle moisturization, a daily part of your routine. Wang recommends pairing it with another grooming step you do every day (for example showering or face washing) in order to help you remember to do so.
Keeping the cuticle moisturized is the easiest way to keep it healthy, points out Stern, who notes that the type of product you use to do so is important. "Oils are preferred over creams, as creams aren't absorbed as effectively by cuticle tissue," she says. To get the most bang for your buck, apply cuticle oil right after your nails are exposed to water (i.e. post-hand washing or showering) so that the oil can help seal in all of the moisture already there, adds Wang. Try CND's Solar Oil Nail and Cuticle Conditioner ($9).
Make Sure to Massage
Rather than just haphazardly swiping on some oil and calling it a day, Wang advises spending a few extra seconds really massaging and working it into the skin and nail bed. "This makes a significant difference in product absorption, allowing all of the vitamins and nutrients in the formula [to better penetrate] the targeted areas," she explains. Massage also helps boost circulation, another important component of healthy nail growth.
Try Nail Slugging
You've probably heard about slugging as a skincare and haircare trend, but it can be used for your nails and cuticles, too, especially if they're super dry. The concept is the same: Apply some kind of thick, occlusive ointment—usually petroleum jelly, AKA Vaseline—to seal in moisture so that your cuticles stay hydrated longer. "It's like wearing a coat on your nails," says Wang.
Apply cuticle oil as you normally would, then slather on a layer of Vaseline and leave it on overnight. (You can even pop on a pair of cotton gloves if you really want to seal everything in.)
Never Bite or Pick
"When the cuticle dries out, it can separate and a hang nail can form more easily," says Stern—yet another reason to keep those cuticles well moisturized. "These detached segments of the cuticle are often a stimulus for biting and picking, so preventing them is the best solution," she adds. Biting or tearing can lead to infection since you can transfer microorganisms from your mouth to the finger. No, thank you.