The Science of Nails

The Cuticle: The Nail's Front Line Against Infection

The cuticle is more delicate and more important to healthy nails and fingers than previously thought.

Cuticle cutting may be a thing of the past, thanks to education by experts in nail health. The cuticle is more delicate and more important to healthy nails and fingers than previously thought. Although some states do not allow nail technicians to call cuticles, this doesn’t mean cuticle’s should be neglected altogether. There tire alternatives to the snip-snip-snip method of cuticle care.

“I don’t even like to use the word ‘cut’ in the same sentence with ‘cuticle,’” says Michelle Baker o Euro Style-cutters in Lutz, Fla. “I don’t want to take any risks.” Paul Kechijian, M.D., a New York City-based dermatologist, urges technicians not to cut cuticles. “The cuticle is so thin, a person would have to be a microsurgeon to cut it without cutting too much.” Even if your state allows cuticle cutting, it is ill advised.

Kechijian describes the nail as an enclosed anatomical unit: The hyponychium seals the nail to the tip of the finger, the lateral nail folds seal the sides of the nail, and the cuticle seals the proximal nail fold to the nail plate. The cuticle, like the skin, is a barrier. If the cuticle’s seal is broken, bacteria, yeast, and moisture can enter the pocket between the proximal nail fold and the nail. Among other dangers, bacteria can cause paronychia, an infection of the nail fold.

Some technicians say they don’t cut cuticles because that only encourages them to grow back faster. But much like the myth that hair grows faster when you cut it, it is totally false.

Says Kechijian, “Hair may seem to grow faster after a haircut, but it’s only because the hair has been pulled. After trimming, the cuticle will still grow at the same rate.” However, culling the cuticles back too much can result in the cuticles growing quickly. Says Kechijian, “When the cuticle has been damaged by excessive trimming, it may grow back faster because it’s actually healing itself It’s irritated and inflamed, and it’s growing quickly, just like burned skin will grow at a faster rate than healthy skin.”

The Role Of The Client

Clients may come to you with an existing hangnail. These splits and tears in the cuticle catch on clothing, are irritating, and can sometimes be painful. The client often tries to bite them away, tearing the skin still further. When the splits extend as far as the underlying dermis, infection can enter the area and it can progress to paronychia.

When clients come to you with dry or torn cuticles, you should do a wet manicure. Soften the cuticles with a highly emollient cuticle cream and gently ease back the cuticles with a cuticle pusher. Cut away only the loose bits of skin with cuticle clippers, nippers, or scissors. If there is any sign of infection (puffiness, redness, or oozing), refer the client to her doctor. Explain to your client that she can return for a nail service when the infection has cleared up. Doing a manicure with an infection present could spread the infection to other nails and surrounding tissues, and could make the existing infection worse.

Lee Wood, owner of Lee’s Nail Boutique in Titusville, Fla., says, “I teach my clients to push back their cuticles with a towel when they’re diving off after bathing. Clients with bad cases come in every week until we get problem cuticles under control. I tell them that using cuticle treatments helps keep overgrown cuticles to a minimum.”

So what is that fuzzy white stud left on the nail after you’ve pushed back the cuticles? Some technicians call this pterygium, although in fact it is cuticle. Says Richard Scher. M.D., a dermatologist who specializes in nails and a NAILS columnist, “Pterygium is scar tissue. It is a permanent deformity, most commonly caused by lichen planus (an overgrowth of the nail). It can involve a very small area of the nail, or can be very serious and cause degeneration of the nail plate. Most nail technicians would not be able to recognize pterygium if they saw it.”

Says Kechijian, “The cuticle is multi-layered. When you push them back, maybe 80%-95% actually gets pushed back.” The remainder is felt sticking to the nail plate. The cuticle in this case can simply be softened, pushed back, and clipped away as part of a normal manicure.

How Far Can You Push?

“If you push the cuticle back all the way, then the nail is open to infection, even if you have done it gently. The key is to leave a small portion of the cuticle intact. Halfway is okay because some of the cuticle will still be intact,” says Kechijian.

Just as important as leaving the cuticle intact is to push the cuticles gently. Pushing them back while dry or jabbing them back can cause tears and cracks in the cuticle. Moisturizing them keeps them pliable enough to be gently pushed back. If there is a lot of overgrowth you can use a cuticle remover or cuticle solvent. Cuticle removers are mildly corrosive. They contain alkali, usually potassium hydroxide. Their corrosiveness is what enables them to soften the cuticles and the dead outer skin cells that collect around the side edges of the nail. Wood says that alter applying solvent and letting it work, “The client has to remove all solvent by washing with soap and water and a nail brush. It can be irritating if it’s left on.”

When You Need the Nail Dry

An artificial nail service requires a very dry nail surface completely free of oil, moisture, and cuticle residue. Wood says she will not do an artificial nail service on a client whose cuticles are overgrown: “If the cuticle is real bad, the client needs a full wet manicure. You shouldn’t use a cuticle pusher on a dry cuticle. She needs to soak her nails. Soaking causes the nails to absorb water. Then with the massage and lotions, there is even more moisture as well as oil on the nails. The nails should be completely dry prior to application of artificial nails. I have her wait two to three days, then come back to have her set put on.”

Once a client is ready for an artificial nail service, you may remove any remaining cuticle residue with a gentle file. Wood uses the rounded edge of a file to remove this. Rena Rivera, owner of Rena’s Nails in Jacksonville, Fla., says, “Every client has her own files and orangewood slick. I use one of their own worn files to etch the nail.”

Cuticle residue left on the nail can ruin a basic manicure. too. Says Baker, “If you are doing a regular manicure, the residue will cause the polish to be lumpy. The cuticles don’t grow evenly on most people, so you need to make them clean and neat. I use a cuticle pusher that has a pumice stone on the pusher end. The pumice is rough: I dampen it with water and rub it back and forth and side to side around the cuticle. It loosens the cuticle residue enough so you can remove it with an orangewood stick and cotton.”

Cuticles may be ugly but they’re an important part of good nail health. Because they protect the body from infection and disease, they need to be cared for properly. No matter how good a manicure yon give a client, educate her so that she can maintain her cuticles on a daily basis.

 

Keywords:   cuticles  

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