Though all of our skin is sensitive and requires TLC, our hands are especially susceptible to damage since hand sanitizers, soaps and other chemicals constantly strip them dry — this is especially so during a pandemic. The wear and tear of everyday life often does a number on our cuticles, leaving us with peeling dead skin around the nails that can act as a gateway to bacteria if handled improperly. Though professional nail technicians handle these pesky hangnails during manicure sessions, only caring for your cuticles sporadically can lead to even more issues in the long run. If you’re new to the nail care process, we spoke to experts about the cuticle care regimen, plus rounded up top-rated picks based on their advice.
What are cuticles, anyway?
What most people think of as their cuticle isn’t actually their cuticle. According to Akiko Sugiyama, owner of AKIKO Nails in New York City, the cuticle is actually “the dead, colorless tissue attached to the natural nail plate.” What you might think of as the cuticle is really the eponychium — “the living skin at the base of the natural nail plate that conceals the matrix area” — and it’s there “to protect the area between the nail and epidermis from exposure to bacteria.”
When grooming your nails, you want to cut your cuticles, not the eponychium. “When cutting the cuticle, it will not bleed since it is dead tissue that lies there as an extra barrier to protect any bacteria from entering the eponychium,” explained Viviana Torres, a nail technician based in Georgia. “Cutting the eponychium will bleed and cause damage to the skin and open up a wound for bacterial infections to enter the body.”
Nail care: Cuticle oils, cuticle cutters and more
Based on guidance from Torres and Sugiyama, we rounded up top-rated products for every part of the cuticle care process, ranging from cuticle oils to cuticle pushers.
Top-rated cuticle oils
Olive and June’s cuticle serum contains several of the expert-recommended oils, including avocado oil and jojoba oil. It comes in an easy-to-use twist pen with a foam tip for mess-free and manageable application. According to the brand, the serum doesn’t leave behind ample residue and absorbs into the skin easily. It has a 4.4-star average rating from more than 450 reviews on Olive and June.
Formulated for both the hands and feet, CND’s SolarOil is infused with jojoba oil, almond oil and vitamin E to deeply penetrate the skin and soften the cuticles. According to the brand, this cuticle oil is ideal for those with particularly dry skin and visible signs of aging. On Amazon, it has a 4.8-star average rating from more than 1,000 reviews.
OPI’s ProSpa Cuticle Oil contains expert-approved avocado oil plus several seed oils — including grape seed oil, sunflower seed oil and sesame seed oil — to promote the nourishment of the cuticles and the strengthening of the nails. The ProSpa Cuticle Oil also comes in a portable to-go tube and boasts a 4.6-star average rating from more than 50 reviews at Ulta.
Holler And Glow’s Cuticle Oil is formulated with both almond oil and coconut oil to moisturize and soften the skin around the nails. The brand claims that all of its products are 100 percent vegan and cruelty-free, meaning they are devoid of animal products and are not tested on animals. The oil, which gives off a light coconut scent, has a 4.8-star average rating from 19 reviews at Target.
Top-rated cuticle cutters
YINYIN’s double-spring stainless steel cuticle trimmer is designed to stay sharp, according to the brand. The jaw of the clippers are just 0.38 inches wide, so they can tackle even the smallest hangnails. This set from YINYIN also comes with a cuticle pusher and it has a 4.7-star average rating from more than 6,500 reviews on Amazon.
These cuticle nippers from Tweezerman require minimal pressure to operate thanks to the double-spring design. The brand claims that the half-an-inch-wide jaw promotes painless cuticle removal, while the stainless steel design can withstand normal rusting and wear and tear. On Amazon, the nippers have a 4.6-star average rating from more than 1,400 shoppers.
Top-rated cuticle pushers
These wooden cuticle sticks can be used for more than just pushing back your cuticles — with the pointed end of the stick, you can also clean debris from under your nails and take off hard-to-remove nail polish. The sticks, which come in a pack of 12, have a 4.5-star average rating from 20 Target shoppers.
A highly rated option at Ulta with a 4.8-star average rating from 52 reviews, this durable metal cuticle tool from Flowery also has a nail cleaner in addition to a pusher. Reviewers note that both sides are surprisingly sharp, so you only need to apply a little bit of pressure when using it to successfully push your cuticles back.
If you’d prefer a blunter tool, this plastic cuticle pusher from Beauty Secrets uses a thick red tip to both push back cuticles and clean grime from under nails. According to the brand, it’s both easy to use and grip, and it has a 4.1-star average rating from more than 70 reviews at Sally Beauty.
How to safely handle your cuticles at home
Tending to your cuticles regularly can help prevent hangnails and peeling skin. According to Sugiyama, the best way to handle your cuticles is by pushing them back gently with a cuticle pusher. “This can stop and prevent cuticles from growing on top of your nail bed,” she explained, adding that if you don’t push them, “it can be painful and will peel off.” The best time to push your cuticles, she noted, is right after a shower since the skin is soft and easier to manipulate. Otherwise, you should first soak your nails in warm water to soften the skin.
When it comes to cuticle pushers, Torres said that metal, plastic and wooden orange ones are all equally effective. “You can easily find [one] at your local store such as Walmart, Target or a Sally’s Beauty Store,” she noted.
If you end up with a hangnail or peeling skin, you can use a cuticle clipper to carefully cut off the excess dead skin, Torres said. If you accidentally nick yourself during the removal process, she said you should immediately stop the bleeding with a cotton ball and then clean the area with soap and water plus isopropyl alcohol once the bleeding has slowed. “You can immediately cover [it] with a Band-Aid but it’s always best to leave it exposed so that it can heal quicker,” she added. Sugiyama also suggested covering the wound with Vaseline to create a barrier as it heals.
How to shop for cuticle oil
Many nail technicians apply cuticle oil to their clients’ nail beds after the hands have been washed. According to Torres, this is “an essential part of maintaining healthy nails” as it “keeps them moisturized” and “avoids excess dead skin.” These oils also “aid in nail growth, circulation and help avoid hangnails and dry, peeling skin.”
You can (and should) make this part of your everyday routine — hand sanitizers and soaps “contain harsh chemicals that lead to excessively dry hands and nails,” and cuticle oils can “keep the skin nourished with vitamins,” she said. Torres recommends applying cuticle oil as often as three times a day, but if you only do it once, it should be at night. “Applying the oil [before bed] allows the product to penetrate in the skin for a longer period of time as you sleep,” she explained.
There are many different cuticle oils out there, and like the name suggests, the main ingredient is typically a type of oil. The experts we spoke to said that you should look for cuticle oils with a nut oil, seed oil or fruit oil base for the best results, as these tend to be the most hydrating. Specifically, they recommended looking for cuticle oils that contain:
- Almond oil: Sugiyama noted that almond oil is one of the “best oils for nails.” It’s rich in vitamin E, which is “particularly soothing” and hydrating, as experts previously told us in our guide to chafing prevention.
- Olive oil: All of the experts we spoke to recommended olive oil-based cuticle oils. Olive oil is another good source of vitamin E, and it’s easily absorbed into the skin.
- Coconut oil: According to Torres, coconut oil is a popular ingredient in cuticle oil thanks to its moisturizing properties.
- Tea tree oil: Tea tree oil is another common and effective cuticle oil ingredient. Studies have shown that the essential oil can prevent and treat nail fungus, so this is a great ingredient to look out for if you’re prone to fungal infections.
- Jojoba oil: This seed-based oil is packed with vitamins B and E, which helps strengthen and lengthen the nails and improve hydration in the skin.
- Avocado oil: Avocado oil is easily absorbed by the skin and allows other nourishing ingredients to penetrate deeper into the cuticles.