Look at your cuticle. If you’re looking at the fleshy fold of skin surrounding your nail, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Contrary to just about everything you hear and read, the crescent of living skin surrounding the nail plate is called the eponychium.

The true cuticle is the layer of dead, transparent skin that attaches itself to the nail plate as it sloughs off the underside of the eponychium. “The lower fold of the eponychium is sticky and strongly attracted to the nail,” says Doug Schoon, vice president of science and technology for CND. “As the nail grows out, it takes with it a layer of dead skin cells. This layer acts like a plug between the eponychium and the nail plate, keeping impurities out of the body.”

Distinguishing between what is living and what is dead, between what may be cut and may not, is where techs find themselves in trouble.

When faced with a client with thick, dry, unruly eponychium, a tech’s natural instinct may be to reach for that shiny, sharp, gloriously efficient nipper.

“Every part of your body has a function,” says Sue Irwin of Poshé. “The function of the eponychium is to protect the nail matrix. If you disturb that function by trimming it, the body will react with self-defense mechanisms. In this case, it will replace the lost tissue with thicker, harder material.”

The more aggressively you remove skin, the faster the body will replace it — thus creating an unhealthy cycle that may scar the eponychium or cause any number of infections that may harm the surrounding tissue or the nail bed. Because the potential for harm is so high, most state boards forbid the cutting of the eponychium, but allow for the removal of hang nails or dead skin tags.

While it is your job to beautify your clients’ nails it is also your professional obligation to protect and promote their health. You can overcome problem cuticles by thinking of how the body functions. “Work with the body, not against it,” advises Irwin.

“The eponychium is skin, and skin sheds,” she says. “When a client has thick, dry eponychium you want to do two things: accelerate the rate at which the skin sheds so as to reduce the build-up, and moisturize the skin.” These two goals may be met in the salon and maintained at home.

First, soften the eponychium and make it pliable. This may be done with a warm water soak or a hot penetrating oil soak. Instead of trimming the offending eponychium, reduce it with a cuticle remover. “This breaks down the bonds between the dry skin cells and makes them easy to remove with a curette,” says Schoon. Make sure to cleanse all traces of the cuticle remover, as any remover left on the skin will continue to work and may irritate the skin.

Gently push back the eponychium, being careful not to tear or strain it. Finally, use a clean terry cloth towel to dry the fingertips, pushing gently against the growth of the cuticle.

“This will make the hangnails, skin tags, and true cuticle stand up away from the nail bed,” says Irwin.“Anything loose or standing up is what you nip. Cut anything that is dry, or may tear, snag, or cause pain.” Irwin recommends using only enough tool for the job, in this case, a 1/8-jaw nipper. “You’re not trying to amputate the eponychium — the body wants it there,” says Irwin.

The proper home cuticle maintenance for any client is keeping the cuticle area pliable and moisturized. Irwin recommends the use of an AHA-infused cuticle cream to accelerate the eponychium’s exfoliation rate and prevent dry skin cells from building up.

Or, as Schoon recommends, a daily regimen of penetrating oil. “Avoid physical trauma of the eponychium and allow it to return to its normal healthy state,” says Schoon. “With the use of cuticle oil, clients will see an improvement in two weeks and the cuticle will repair itself in approximately one month.”

Don’t cut the eponychium, ever. Hangnails and dry, dead skin may be removed carefully. Deal with thick cuticlesby using an exfoliant, cuticle remover, or allowing the cuticle to repair itself with the aid of moisturizers.

Do remove excess true cuticle from the nail plate. The true cuticle may be removed from the nail plate using a curette, cuticle pumice stone, or similar implement. Never go underneath the eponychium to remove true cuticle.

Don’t go overboard at the free edge. Dead skin can build up under the free edge, at the hyponychium. Like the eponychium, the hyponychium forms a seal around the nail plate. Techs should be careful not to break this seal when removing dead skin from under the free edge. Don’t cut the hyponychium.

Brush up on the proper names of the various parts of the nail.

• The eponychium is the area of the nail that encompasses thenail folds, including the proximal nail fold.

• The proximal nail fold is the fold of skin at the base of the nail. The skin folds back on itself, onto the surface of the nail, extending back to where the nail matrix begins nail formation.

• The true cuticle is the thin, transparent sheath of dead skin cells that sheds from the eponychium onto the nail plate and forms a seal against foreign materials and microorganisms.

• The nail plate is formed by matrix cells and is the most visible part of the nail anatomy.

Pterygium refers to a condition in which the skin of the eponychium abnormally attaches to the nail plate. As the nail grows, the proximal nail fold is stretched over the nail, forming an extension of skin. Many techs wrongly identify pterygium as excessive true cuticle and attempt to cut, push, or remove it. Pterygium is living skin and should not be cut.

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