The Cuticle: To Cut or Not To Cut?

By Jan Arnold, Co-Founder, CND®

CUTICLE is the most misunderstood word in the nail vocabulary.

And due to this confusion, many don’t know what to do with it. Push it? Cut it? Remove it? Soften it? Care for it?  

Many people think the cuticle is the living and visible band of skin that rims the base of their nail. A frame of sorts around the nail plate. But what is it…really?

It’s time to reveal the answer to this age-old question and empower you with the knowledge to do the right thing for your clients.

A nail technician is pushing the cuticle back on a nail

To get started, let’s review some important basics of nail anatomy by defining the parts of the nail unit and the function of each part.

The Nail Matrix produces the cells that form the nail plate. We have nicknamed the matrix “the mother of the nail” since it's responsible for producing new nail cells and is the most important part of the nail unit.  

The Nail Plate is a complex structure of proteins called keratin that forms a protective shield over the nail bed.  

The Nail Bed is the skin directly beneath the nail plate and contains nerve endings and millions of tiny blood vessels to nourish new cell growth.

The Nail Guardians are the folds and seals that protect the nail bed and matrix from pathogens that can cause infection.

  • The folds include:

    • The eponychium fold, found at the base of the nail has smooth, healthy skin on top and soft, sticky skin on the underside, called the eponychium lining. Where the tissue actually folds, is called the proximal nail fold (which is a medical term meaning "nearest attached end").

    • The lateral folds are found on either side of the nail.

    • The seals include the cuticle, on top of the nail, and hyponychium, which is under the nail.

The fold we need to focus on for this discussion is the eponychium fold, which is the tight band of living tissue at the base of your nail plate and is often mistaken for the cuticle. This skin of the eponychium may appear to end when it reaches the nail plate, but it actually makes a U-turn and folds underneath. The fold protects the internal parts of the nail unit from infection or attack by foreign bodies.

The cuticle is …drum roll, please…a thin layer of dead tissue that separates from the underside of the eponychium as the nail grows. It then firmly attaches to the nail plate, creating a seal between the nail plate and eponychium, which serves to prevent pathogens from infecting the matrix area.

This thin seal forms a watertight barrier to prevent bacteria, fungi, and viruses from attacking the nail bed and matrix. The cuticle tightly attaches to the nail plate and “hitches a ride” as the nail plate grows. This important seal works in conjunction with the eponychium fold to act as the guardian for the nail unit. Once the cuticle seal grows beyond the eponychium, it has served its function, and the visible portion can be safely removed by using a cuticle pusher to lift the film and a curette to gently trim it away. If it is left on the nail plate, it will impair adhesion of any color or coating and could build up to look unsightly.

The cuticle should NOT be confused with the “eponychium”.

Since we now know the eponychium is an important guardian and is living tissue, it should never be cut or removed.  Repeatedly cutting the eponychium will cause the living tissue to grow back thicker and harder. When regulatory agencies (such as state boards in North America) forbid “cutting the cuticle,” they are actually referring to the eponychium. Cutting the eponychium can lead to serious infection. It also causes calluses and scar tissue to form. Calluses and scar tissue form to protect the skin from trauma. This scar tissue is harder and thicker than healthy tissue and will thicken more with continued cutting. Daily use of Cuticle Eraser® and SolarOil® will micro-exfoliate and help soften skin and restore health to damaged tissue.

What is acceptable, however, is to trim loose tags of dead skin as long as cutting into living tissue is avoided.

The eponychium should also never be pushed, or as I like to say, ploughed, which you sometimes see in salons. The implement called the ‘Cuticle Pusher’ is designed to find the cuticle (the thin seal that sticks to the nail) by lifting it from the nail and then allowing the curette to neatly remove it up to the eponychium edge (a thin seal that sticks to the nail). Going underneath the eponychium to remove the cuticle could break the cuticle seal and greatly increase the chance for infection.

So, there we have it:

  • NEVER CUT the eponychium (commonly confused with the cuticle)

  • Always remove the residual dead seal from the nail plate up to the eponychium edge…. the cuticle.  

Spread the word!

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