Cuticles: What Are They & Should You Push Them Back?

Written by Krista Bugden
Medically Reviewed by Felicia Newell, M.S., RDN

November 17, 2023

Often overlooked, cuticles are the tiny strips of skin at the base of your fingernails. And surprisingly, they serve a vital purpose in maintaining nail health. Keep reading to learn what they are, why it’s important to care for them, and whether or not you should push your cuticles back.

Cuticles are the thin layers of dead skin located at the base of your nails—both on the fingernails and toenails. They appear as a delicate, semi-transparent film that covers the base of the nail plate (1).

NativePath Blog Post Image

Your nail plate is the most recognizable part of your nails. Comprised of densely packed keratin cells, it's responsible for the sturdy and resilient nature of our nails.

Then, there's the nail bed—a vital skin surface beneath the nail plate. Not only does it serve as a foundation, but it's also the source of nutrients and blood supply, contributing to that rosy hue beneath our nails.

Now, confusion often arises between cuticles and another nail element called the eponychium. The eponychium is the fold of skin at the base of the nail. It's made of living tissue, whereas the cuticle is made of dead tissue. When looking at your nails, the eponychium is the ridge of skin that borders the base of the nail plate, creating a protective barrier between the nail and the skin.

Why Are Cuticles Important?

Many nail experts and manicure treatments refer to both the cuticles and eponychium as “cuticles.” Yet, for the average person, this distinction may be important—you can easily push back or trim the cuticles, but cutting the eponychium may lead to infections and other issues.

However, cuticle care also goes beyond aesthetics—it’s also important for overall nail health. The primary function of both the cuticle and eponychium is to act as a protective barrier. In turn, this prevents bacteria, fungi, and other potentially harmful entities from entering the nail bed. 

In fact, in many ways, the cuticle creates a seal between the eponychium and the nail plate, adding an extra layer of protection.

Cuticles also play a pivotal role in nail growth. New nail cells are produced just beneath the cuticle and eponychium. As these cells grow, the older nail gets pushed out, which is the visible nail we see on our fingers and toes.

A hand pouring a scoop of NativePath Original Collagen Peptides into a coffee mug with a French Press in the background

Bye Bye Brittle Nails

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, it’s essential for the health of your bones, joints, skin, hair, nails, digestion, and more.

Add to Cart

What Do Healthy Cuticles Look Like?

Healthy cuticles are smooth, naturally pink, and supple, without hanging skin or dryness. 

Dr. Kevin Huffman, CEO and founder of AmBari Nutrition, states, “Smooth, hydrated, and tidy attachment to the nail plate characterizes healthy cuticles; they form a protective seal that helps prevent germs' intrusion while also avoiding painful conditions such as hangnails or ingrown nails.”

Meanwhile, bad cuticles may appear dry, rough, or have hangnails or white spots. 

In some cases, poor cuticle health can indicate underlying health issues, such as nutrient deficiencies. In other cases, if you’ve been picking at them or trimmed them incorrectly, this can also lead to unsightly cuticles or even infection.

For treating dryness, moisturizer is your best friend. This is especially useful to apply after rigorous handwashing. 

If you have hangnails, the best thing you can do is cut the hangnail back to the base—but not any further. After cutting it, soak your hand in warm water or use antibiotic cream to properly care for it and avoid infection (2).

Should You Push Your Cuticles Back?

Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s not recommended to push cuticles back. It’s also not entirely necessary. Yet, it can make applying nail polish easier and more uniform, as well as potentially reduce the chances of future hangnails. 

If you do choose to push your cuticles back, the key is to do so ever so gently. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to push back cuticles and maintain your nail health in the process.

Step 1: Prepare & Soften Your Cuticles

Fill a small bowl with warm water (and a bit of coconut oil if you’d like) and soak your fingertips for 5 to 10 minutes. This will soften the area, allowing the cuticles to be pushed back without discomfort or injury.

Once complete, gently dry your hands with a towel.

NativeTip: If you have nail polish on, you may want to remove it before this step.

A hand pouring a scoop of NativePath Original Collagen Peptides into a coffee mug with a French Press in the background

Age Gracefully On the Inside & Out

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, it’s essential for the health of your bones, joints, skin, hair, nails, digestion, and more.

Add to Cart

Step 2: Gently Push Back Your Cuticles

After softening your cuticles for a few minutes, use a wooden cuticle pusher—or an orangewood stick with a flat, angled edge—to gently push back the cuticles.

To do this, begin by resting your hand on a flat surface. Then, gently push back the cuticle on each nail, but not too far. Once you’ve completed this process, gently exfoliate the area to remove any excess dead skin cells. 

NativeTip: A cuticle nipper can help you remove any excess pieces, such as hangnails. Make sure to only cut the translucent skin, as this won’t harm the live skin of the eponychium.

Step 3: Hydrate & Moisturize

Once you've pushed back the cuticles, rinse your hands to remove any residue or excess cuticle softener. Next, apply hand cream or cuticle oil to hydrate and nourish the cuticles and surrounding skin. Massage the moisturizer or oil into the nails and cuticles to keep them healthy and prevent dryness.

Do Cuticles Grow Back?

Yes, your cuticles will grow back. Often, they grow back or heal within one to two weeks. 

Keeping the area clean and moisturizing the area daily can ensure healthy growth. If you have any cuts, consider applying antibacterial ointment for extra protection.

How to Maintain Healthy Cuticles

All in all, cutting your cuticles may lead to infection. This is why many experts don’t recommend it and advise leaving this up to the experts, like the nail technician at your next manicure. However, gently pushing them back, as described above, can make the nails appear longer and may be safe.

With that in mind, here are a few other tips to maintain healthy cuticles:

  • Moisturize daily.
  • Use an orangewood stick to push the cuticles back.
  • Don’t revisit rough manicurists.
  • Moisturize after using drying agents, such as dish soap or nail polish remover.
  • Don’t bite your cuticles or nails.
  • If you accidentally tear the cuticles, make sure to apply antibacterial ointment to prevent further harm or infection from impacting the nail bed.
  • Consume a balanced and healthy diet. In particular, collagen and omega-3s can help keep your nails and cuticles supple and healthy.
  • Stay hydrated to avoid brittle nails.
A bottle of NativePath Antarctic Krill Oil with three softgels next to it

Your Daily Dose of Omega-3s

The most pure, potent, sustainable source of omega-3s—without the fishy aftertaste.

Add to Cart

When to See a Doctor

There are many nail and cuticle disorders that may arise with improper care. Some signs that you may need to consult with a doctor include:

  • Any changes in nail color, texture, or growth patterns that persist for more than a couple of weeks.
  • Redness, swelling, pain, or pus around the nails (this may indicate a possible infection).
  • Severely brittle nails without any apparent reason.
  • Pain without a known cause, such as injury.

While rare, some nail and cuticle disorders that may occur include:

  • Paronychia: This is one of the most common hand infections, which impacts the skin around the nails. Symptoms can include redness, swelling, and pus. It can be caused by injuries to the cuticle or nail fold, or from bacterial or fungal infections (3).
  • Onycholysis: This refers to the separation of the nail plate from the nail bed, which can be due to trauma, infection, or other conditions like psoriasis (4).
  • Onychomycosis: This is a fungal infection of the nails, leading to discoloration, thickening, and sometimes, crumbling of the nail (5).
  • Nail Psoriasis: While psoriasis is primarily a skin disorder, it can affect nails, causing pitting, abnormal nail growth, and discoloration (6).

If you notice any of the above signs, make sure to visit your doctor or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Huffman adds, “Should you observe your cuticles turning red, swelling, or causing pain; this signals an underlying issue that demands medical attention. Fungal infections, eczema—even psoriasis can impact the cuticles and warrant diagnosis from a healthcare professional for proper treatment. Furthermore, with diabetes or a compromised immune system under consideration, vigilance over the health of your cuticles becomes crucial as such conditions escalate infection risks. In such instances, it is advisable to promptly seek medical advice for prevention of complications.”

Krista Bugden
Article by

Krista Bugden

Krista Bugden is a freelance writer with a BS in Human Kinetics from the University of Ottawa. She spent 5 years working as a kinesiologist, giving her the first-hand experience she needed to write well-researched, scientific, and informative blogs.

Read More
Share onfacebook

    Medical Disclaimer

    This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

    Leave a Comment