By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Chances are you hardly ever think about your cuticles. They’re just there, ready to be pushed back during a manicure.
But your cuticles actually serve an important purpose. The cuticles help protect the nails, and therefore help enhance your whole nail and hand health. They can even reveal clues about your overall health. When your cuticles are dry, cracked, damaged, or sore --- it’s a problem.
Nail and cuticle problems make up around 10 percent of all dermatologic conditions, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Dry cuticles affect many people every year, particularly in the winter months. What do you do if your cuticles are dry? Are there any natural ways to cure dry cuticles and bring a little moisture back to your nails?
What Exactly Are Your Cuticles?
The cuticles are the tiny flaps of skin that are attached to the bottom of the nail. They cover a small or a large part of the nail, depending on your nail care routine or whether they are healthy and moist or dry and shriveled.
Cuticles actually sit on the growth matrix of the nails, which is where the nails grow. They act as a barrier against harmful irritants entering the nail matrix, and help protect against damage to the nail.
Reasons for Dry Cuticles
Your cuticles may be dry for reasons connected to the environment. Many people get dry cuticles in winter when low humidity, wind, and low temperatures dry skin and cause irritation.
If you are not drinking enough water, the resulting dehydration can cause dry cuticles.
There are several health conditions where dry cuticles are a symptom, including median nail dystrophy, or median canaliform dystrophy of Heller. This condition is where small cracks come from the center of the nail and radiate outwards like the branches of a fir tree.
The cuticle is dry, pushed-back, and inflamed. It usually occurs when you pick at the nail fold with your fingertips.
Chronic paronychia is a skin condition that mainly affects people who often have their hands in water or touching irritants, such as cleaners and bartenders, which damages the cuticle and results in dry nails and cuticles.
Chronic paronychia is commonly caused by the breakdown of the barrier in-between the nail plate and the nail fold, or through bacterial or fungal infection or irritants.
Dry cuticles may also occur when a bacterial or fungal infection affects the nails on the feet, most commonly, or the hands. Fungal infections cause around 50 percent of all nail problems, according to a 2000 study from the University Center for Medical Mycology, Cleveland.
In some cases, dry and ragged cuticles may be a sign of a connective tissue disease like lupus or Sjorgen's syndrome, says a 2014 study by Ibn Rushd University Hospital in Casablanca, Morocco. Researchers noted that ragged cuticles were present in 10 patients out of the 39 studied who had connective tissue diseases. Other nail issues were also identified that were linked to these diseases.
We looked at recent scientific research to find out what you can do about dry cuticles, and which natural remedies work for treating the conditions that cause dry cuticles.
1. Use an Orange Stick, and Never Ever Cut Your Cuticles
One of the worst things you can do for your cuticles is cut them, says the American Academy of Dermatology. Cutting a cuticle can allow infection to enter the nail and it can make the cuticle hard and likely to break.
If you want to push back the cuticles to give your hands a more manicured look, use an orange stick and gently move the cuticle back.
2. Moisturize Your Cuticles with Olive Oil to Prevent Dry Cuticle Problems
Cuticles are skin, so it makes sense that they can get dry and flake when faced with weather conditions or irritants, just like the rest of your skin. It is important to keep your cuticles moisturized. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using petroleum jelly (Vaseline), and you can use it more effectively at night when you don’t need to be using your hands.
Alternatively, coconut oil or olive oil could be an effective moisturizer for dry cuticles. A 2008 study from the Skin and Cancer Foundation, Pasig, Philippines says coconut oil in particular is effective as a moisturizer for dermatitis as it also has an antibacterial effect. This could help people suffering from cuticle problems caused by bacterial infections. The study looked at 26 people and found both oils were moisturizing but coconut oil more effectively removed bacteria from the skin.
3. Take Your Hands Out of Your Mouth to Avoid Dry Cuticles
When you put your fingers into your mouth you get double the cuticle problems – biting nails and chewing cuticles causes them to break and go hard, and saliva contains an enzyme that breaks down skin.
It may not be so easy to stop nail and cuticle biting, however. A 2011 study from the Shiraz University of Medical Sciences in Iran says that the reason for a lack of success in stopping nail biting by wearing unpleasant-tasting substances on the nails, and wearing false nails, is that the problem stems from more than just one source.
As the study noted “nail biting is not an isolated symptom. It can be one symptom from a cluster of symptoms, all of which as well as the motivation behind nail biting should be evaluated, assessed and managed.”
4. Cure Dry Cuticles with Silicon?
Many people say that the mineral silicon helps to treat brittle nails and dry cuticles, but what does the scientific evidence say?
A 2005 study from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium demonstrates that 10mg of silicon a day taken orally over 20 weeks did help improve the condition of the nails. The study looked at 50 women, but it was performed by the manufacturer of a silicon product so is not classed as entirely objective.
5. Stray Hairs Can Can Cause Dry Cuticle Problems
Sometimes you may suffer dry cuticles because the condition was caused by "chronic paronychia" developing from a particular irritant or injury. For example, you may tear a cuticle or get something stuck under the cuticle.
A 2014 study from the University Hospital of North Durham in the UK documents a case of chronic paronychia in a hairdresser. The hairdresser suffered the condition after a hair shaft penetrated the nail fold while she was working. Paying attention to the nails, and wearing gloves where necessary, can help prevent this from occurring.
6. Warm Compresses Can Help Treat Dry Cuticles
Dry cuticles can be caused by paronychia, which is an inflammation of the nail folds surrounding the nails on your toes or fingers. A 2008 study from the University of Athens Medical School at Andreas Sygros Hospital, Athens, Greece says that treatment can be effective with simple warm compresses. If the condition persists you may need to have a course of antibiotics or corticosteroids.
7. Treat Dry Cuticles Caused by Athlete’s Foot Infection
Athlete’s foot may occur on the feet, as the name suggests, or on the hands, and it is a fungal infection that can result in dry cuticles.
In order to try to protect against athlete’s foot, keep the feet and hands clean and dry.
Also, consider using a treatment like tea tree oil to help kill the fungus. A 2002 study from Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, New South Wales, Australia shows that tea tree oil is an effective antiseptic and active against fungi.
The study looked at 158 people with athlete’s foot who were treated with 25 percent tea tree oil solution, 50 percent tea tree oil solution, or placebo for four weeks. Both the solutions of tea tree oil were more effective than placebo at getting rid of the infection, and the 50 percent solution was more effective than the 25 percent.