Why You Should Think Twice about Removing Your Cuticles

Skin Care


We recently received a question on FutureDerm’s twitter about cuticle removal.

Do you think you could do a review or post on cuticle removal methods? I’m curious about the Sally Hansen Cuticle Removal Gel.

It’s so commonly done at salons, and there are so many tools you can buy from drugstores to high-end makeup stores, that we don’t pause to consider whether cuticle removal is a good idea at all. As with many things on your body, the cuticle serves a purpose; and while some things — like hair — can be removed with negligible effects, the cuticle might not be one of them.

What IS the Cuticle?

The cuticle is a barrier against infection, which is why you shouldn’t cut or bite it.

The cuticle, also known as the eponychium, is the skin on the bottom part of the nail, where the skin meets the nail. It’s made of cornified epidermal cells, which is the process of keratinization, where non-living skin cells form a hard, protective laye  (Cosmetics and Toiletries).

This layer protects keeps infection-causing bacteria from getting into the skin and under the nail by making a seal. It covers the root of the nail, where the cells for your nail are produced, and exists solely for the purpose of protecting the skin around, root, and actual nail (Nail Aid Cares).

If the cuticle is removed, the potential infection can not only be unpleasant, it can also deform the nail.

Can You Cut Cuticles or Push Them Back?

The American Academy of Dermatology says no to cutting or pushing back your cuticles.

The official word from the American Academy of Dermatology is that you should neither push back nor cut your cuticles (American Academy of Dermatology). That means that, unfortunate as it may be for your manicure, if you want to do the best thing for you nails, you’ll leave your cuticles intact.

Removing the cuticle and breaking the seal between skin and nail can cause a skin infection called paronychia (MedlinePlus). This is the infection — which can be bacterial, candidal, or fungal — where the skin around the nail becomes painful, red, and inflamed. It can also do damage to your actual nail.

To treat paronychia with different methods — antibotics and creams  — depending on the type of infection and it usually takes about a week to heal (Upstate Medical University).

While some recommend just pushing the cuticle back (it’s necessary to soak the nail first) and potential trimming the dried, dead skin after some time, the safest way to avoid infection is to leave your cuticle alone.

How Do Cuticle Removal Gels Work?

Cuticle removers work by breaking down the keratin in the cuticle. But keratin is also found in the rest of your skin and is the main building block for your nails.

Sally Hansen’s Instant Cuticle Remover ($3.23, amazon.com) works because of Potassium Hydroxide, a kind of strong alkai that has been shown to digest keratin and is easily dissolvable in water (FAO, Letters of Applied Microbiology). Because cuticles are made primarily of keratin, the Potassium Hydroxide theoretically works by dissolving them.

While it works to dissolve keratin, high concentrations (around 10%) have been shown to cause irritation to skin (Pharmacology and Therapeutics). While the product contains ingredients like aloe vera and chamomile (which is only soothing if you don’t have a ragweed allergy), it’s still possible that it could irritate your skin.

It’s debatable whether or not the concentrations in this product will work, but if it does, it could damage more than the cuticle. Both your skin and nails contain keratin, with your nails being made almost entirely of keratin. So a solution that would do a good job of actually removing your cuticle would also weaken your nails and potentially irritate your skin.

This would add issues to the already existent ones for cuticle removal.

Bottom Line

Cuticle removal certainly makes a manicure look more attractive, but it can be unhealthy for your skin and nails. Cutting the cuticle break the protective seal the keratinized skin makes between the skin and nail and could cause problems with infection. The gels and creams meant to dissolve the cuticle could weaken the nail and irritate the skin if they’re in the levels necessary to actually dissolve the cuticle because they work by digesting keratin.

While some people choose to push back the cuticle or try other methods for removal, it’s not advisable.

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  • Natalie Bell

    @Moxie: Thank you so much!

    @Beauty by Krystal: Thank you, and I’m so flattered that you’re sharing it! I’m sorry that you’ve had negative experiences with manicures — I’ve definitely been there!

    @Tiffany: Thank you for reading! A candida is a type of fungus (a type of yeast) but there’s a distinction made between this and other fungi infections. While I can’t recommend pushing back or cutting cuticles (because it’s not recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology, and it would be something you’d have to discuss with your dermatologist), I appreciate you sharing your experiences.

  • “This is the infection — which can be bacterial, candidal, or fungal — where the skin around the nail becomes painful, red, and inflamed. It can also do damage to your actual nail.”

    I thought candida was a fungus?

    My cuticles are crazy thick and I have yet to be able to irritate them despite mistakes while learning how to treat them. I push back and use cuticle removers (not this one but Sally Hansen Problem Cuticle Remover) which I use 3 times before my cuticles are diminished (not one right after the other, over the course of a few days).

    I will continue to do so, because even though this “could” be damaging (and probably is for most people) as part of my routine I also condition my cuticles and they are pretty happy with me. If I didn’t push back I could only paint the top 2/3rds of my nails, and my cuticles are so ridiculously long and thick they get irritated (probably due to excess tissue) if I leave them be. I wouldn’t recommend my routine to others, but I have an unusually thick tissue (cuticles, skin, hair, etc!) so this is what I do.

  • I’m going to share this all over my social networks. I’m adamant about not cutting my cuticles, I had a manicurist do it once before and she did not ask me beforehand – my poor cuticles were crying for days 🙁 I just recently bought the Sally Hansen cuticle gel, but for my toes, haha.

  • Thank you for the post…I have to admit that while I know you’re not supposed to cut the cuticle, I’ve never read that you’re not supposed to push it back, either.

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