We’re not ones for scare tactics, but let’s just say that the real reason why cuticles shouldn't be fussed with will have chronic pickers ready to sign up for a nail-edition of Intervention. Mangled cuticles aren’t just unsightly; they pose a threat to your overall health. Paronychia, an ongoing infection surrounding the skin of the nail is caused by bacteria or fungus entering the cuticle and leaves them swollen, red, and sore. “If left untreated, it can develop into a soft tissue infection which can spread through the whole body,” says dermatologist Marnie B. Nussbaum M.D.
But surely casual cuticle pickers and sometimes-snippers don’t have to worry about that, right? Wrong, says Dana Stern, M.D., a dermatologist who specializes in the medical treatment of nails. “If you see even slight puffiness around your cuticle, you’ve done enough damage to cause inflammation,” she says. And, according to Dr. Stern, because the microbes settle in the skin right on top of where the nail itself begins to grow, her patients often notice bumps, grooves, and irregularities in their actual nails.
The good news, however, is that cuticle infections can be treated. "Warm water soaks and topical antibiotic creams often defeat infections,” says Nussbaum. But if you’ve tried those methods to no avail, it’s time to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist, who likely will prescribe oral antibiotics.
Aside from quitting your cuticle-picking habit cold turkey, Dr. Stern recommends using a hydrating oil (“They penetrate more completely than creams,” she says) at least once a day to prevent dryness, since parched cuticles are more prone to flakes and snags just begging to be picked. And unless you’ve got a hang nail, stash away your snipper. “A cuticle clipper—or even a cuticle dissolvent—is equivalent to picking in the way that you’re tearing the cuticle and exposing yourself to bacteria,” says Stern, who doesn’t see a problem with simply pushing back cuticles for appearance purposes. Excuse us while we toss our snippers.