This may seem like a "girly" topic, but it's not. Read on...
Some of us (usually guys) spend very little time worrying about our nails — just an occasional clipping to keep them from growing out of control. Others are more serious and follow a regular schedule of "trim-file-buff-polish".
Whether you belong to one group or the other (or somewhere in between), this is relevant for everyone. The reason is that, of the various parts that make up a fingernail or a toenail, the cuticle is the most important. To understand why, it's helpful to know a little about the structure of nails.
Anatomy of a Nail
Nails are made up of several layers of keratin (the same fibrous protein found in hair & skin) and consist of six parts:
- Nail plate - the visible part of the nail (what we call a fingernail or toenail)
- Nail bed — tissue directly under the nail plate
- Cuticle — tissue that overlaps the nail plate at the base of the nail
- Nail fold — skin covering the edge of the nail plate on all sides except the tip
- Nail matrix (or root) - the part of the nail hidden under the cuticle
- Lunula - whitish half-moon at the base of the nail
Knowing Your Cuticles (and other stuff)
It may seem that cuticles provide no useful purpose. Au contraire... they actually serve a very critical function. How? By preventing bacteria and other microorganisms from entering the nail matrix and the nail bed.
In effect, the cuticle acts as a seal to protect against infections.
One of the most common bacterial infections is acute paronychia. This can happen if the cuticle is accidentally cut or torn. Another way is if the cuticle is aggressively pushed backward, such as during a manicure.
Acute parachonyia can also be caused by biting the edges of the nails and the skin around the nails or by picking at a hangnail, all of which can damage the nail fold. Although its main role is to hold the nail plate in place, the nail fold also helps to protect against bacterial invasion.
Whether the infection is from damage to the cuticle or to the nail fold, the symptoms are the same. It begins as a red, painful swelling of the skin around the nail and may result in the formation of pus under the nail. The infection may also progress to the point where germ-filtering structures (lymph nodes) in the elbow and armpit become swollen.
Obviously, if you bite your nails - either out of habit or because of nervousness - this requires a change in behaviour. On the other hand, the use of cuticle creams (and similar products) can prevent accidental damage by keeping the cuticles and nail folds healthy.
Cuticle cream is an emollient, which means it acts a lubricant to make skin softer and more pliable. It does this by creating a protective layer to guard against moisture loss. Cuticle emollients may not be creams at all. Some are made as lotions, oils, ointments, or waxy substances. Typical additives include lanolin, urea, mineral oil, and petroleum jelly.
By stopping the cuticle from drying out, there is a lower risk of damage if you're someone who pushes it back as part of your nail care routine. For others, keeping the cuticle supple means it will be less likely to accidentally crack and break away from the nail.
The story is the same for hangnails. Since they are caused by the nail folds losing moisture and becoming dry/brittle, a good way to avoid them is by using a cuticle cream, oil or lotion.
There are dozens of products available for those who are seriously into pampering their nails - enamels, varnishes and lacquers; top coats, base coats and undercoats; conditioners, hardeners and whiteners, etc, etc. Most can be considered cosmetic... their sole purpose is to make nails look attractive.
Nail creams are different. If you're someone who thinks they're just a girly beauty aid, I hope you'll remember this article the next time you get an annoying and painful hangnail.
- Fingernails grow at a rate of 1 mm per week; toenails at 0.2-0.5 mm per week
- Nails on the dominant hand (left or right) tend to grow fastest
- Nails grow faster in the summer than they do in the winter
- It can take up to six months for a fingernail to grow from the cuticle to the tip of the finger
CRAM Science would like to thank Dr. Stan Megraw for his help and expertise in answering this question. Stan is a writer/researcher specializing in science, technology and medicine. He has more than 30 years experience as contributing author for research institutes, universities, government agencies and non-profit organizations.