How to heal cracked cuticles (and prevent them, too)

Dr. Janet Zand

October 30, 2020

Winter is coming, and with it comes the dry air that can cause dry skin and cracked cuticles. And not only do cracked (and sometimes even bleeding) cuticles look bad, but they can really hurt!

Unfortunately, this year will be particularly rough for cuticles. After all, we’re all washing our hands a lot more, which dries out your skin. We’re also using more hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol that dries skin even more.

So what’s the solution? Use more hand lotion?

Well, that can help with dry hands, but hand lotion is not as helpful for cracked cuticles. That’s because hand lotion doesn’t do enough to heal the damage, and it doesn’t do enough to prevent future damage, either.

Here’s what does work...

Heal the injury

First, if your cuticles are a mess right now, your first goal is to heal the injury.

And that’s exactly what cracked cuticles are — an injury! The broken skin is really no different from any other cut you might get, except that the skin around it is hard and chapped. And often that broken skin is also red, swollen, and not healing quickly -- signs of a mild infection.

So since it's an infection, you should treat it like one! Use a dab of topical antibiotic ointment on the cracked and broken cuticles.  Or even better, go to the health food store and get calendula or the drugstore or grocery store and get aquaphor and apply that. Then cover each affected finger with a fingertip bandage.

Leave this on overnight, and in the morning you’ll probably see a big difference! Your cuticles will be less red and painful, and they’ll feel much softer.

Repeat this process for the next 2-3 nights, until your cuticles are fully healed. Once they’re healed, you can take a few simple steps to keep them that way.

Prevent future damage

To prevent damage, we have to address the root causes of cuticle damage.

Here are the most common ones:

• Not moisturizing cuticles 
• Washing hands often
• Using hand sanitizer
• Dry air
• Nail-biting or cuticle biting

Now, obviously some of these root causes are out of your control. But you can still do a lot to protect your cuticles. Here’s how...

#1 In the morning, put on cuticle cream or aquaphor or calendula ointment.

The cream will sit on top of the cuticle, protecting it from drying out.

If you really struggle with cracked cuticles, put on cuticle oil, then put on cuticle cream. The oil will add lots of moisture, and the cream will seal it in.

Just make sure this is the very last step of your morning routine, so that you don’t wash the oil and cream off of your hands!

#2 Wear gloves

I know this might sound obvious, but it’s important. Gloves are the only way to protect your hands from the dry air, so wear them!

You might even put an extra pair in your bag, just in case you forget your gloves when you leave the house.

And if you find yourself taking your gloves off to use your smartphone or other devices, get a pair of “touchscreen” gloves. That way you can use your devices while keeping your hands warm and protected.

#3 Switch your hand wash and hand sanitizer

For a skin-friendly hand wash, make sure it’s free of drying ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate and ethyl alcohols. And make sure it contains moisturizing ingredients like shea butter, coconut oil, argan oil, or olive oil.

The rules are different for hand sanitizer, though. Hand sanitizer must contain alcohol. That’s what kills viruses and germs. In fact, the first thing you should look for is 60-85% ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol) on the ingredient list.

Ethanol is more effective than the other commonly used type of alcohol: isopropyl alcohol. Plus, ethanol is less toxic for you, and you’ll notice it has less of an odor.

Of course, ethanol is going to dry out your skin. So to combat that, make sure your hand sanitizer also contains moisturizing ingredients. Common ones include glycerin, aloe, vitamin E, squalane, lavender essential oil, and coconut oil.

These extra ingredients won’t affect the germ-killing power of ethanol, but they will make up for some of the dryness it causes.

#4 Carry on-the-go moisturizer

Put a cuticle oil stick in your bag for on-the-go moisture. This is especially important if you’ve noticed that your cuticles are feeling dry or are starting to crack.

In a pinch, you can even use some lip balm on your cuticles!

#5 Make it impossible to pick and bite

If you have a habit of picking at your cuticles, here’s what to do:

When you have a hangnail or a piece of rough skin, immediately snip it off with cuticle scissors. You can also use a buffer to gently smooth out rough spots.

After you do that, there’s not much left that you can bite or pick at.

So try these tips out, and let me know how it goes. I really hope it helps your hands and cuticles during the cooler months ahead!

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