Total honesty: my cuticles are constant struggle. They itch, snag, bleed, and overall aren’t very photogenic in their natural state. Prior to getting into nail art, they were an absolute mess, but stamping pretty designs on my nails definitely motivated me to show them off more. And I haven’t found an Instagram filter yet that masks red, ragged cuticles, but I have found a couple of tricks that keep my hands looking sleek and tidy.
Cuticle removers are actually pretty controversial. While most of us would rather our cuticles got out of the way of our nail polish, they do serve a purpose by protecting your body from infection. So there are a couple of schools of thought. One is that you should leave your cuticles alone to do their job and just accept your manicures won’t last as long. Another is that it’s okay to push your cuticles up, but never cut them. And then there’s the position that cuticles must go by any means necessary. Only you can decide what’s best for your health and your hands. My feeling is that if you’re bleeding, you need a different approach.
What’s a cuticle?
Funny story, what most people think of as their cuticle actually isn’t. The transition between your nail and your finger is made up of three parts: your nail matrix, eponychium, and cuticle. The nail matrix is the part you can’t see. It sits below the surface of your skin and does the heavy lifting of growing your nails. The eponychium is what many people think of as their cuticles. This is the lip of skin that touches your fingernail. It’s the part of your nail that’s prone to hangnails and splitting in when particularly dry.
Your eponychium is constantly shedding dead skin cells (like rest of your body) but these dead skin cells are shed down onto your fingernail forming a coating of dead skin that bridges the gap between eponychium and your nail plate. That’s your cuticle: the layer of dead skin that forms over the top quarter or so of your fingernail.
What did cuticles ever do to you?
There are so many products and methods to remove, push, nip, cut your cuticles because the key to a long lasting manicure is having nothing between your nail and your nail polish. If you paint over your cuticle, your polish will look lumpy and chip much faster. There isn’t strictly a health reason to remove your cuticles if the way they look doesn’t bother you, unless they snag and tear on things like mine do.
How do cuticle removers work?
It depends on the brand, but for the most part cuticle removers use a substance with a very high pH to weaken the structure of the dead skin. Anyone who has poked at their cuticles with an orange stick or cuticle pusher tool knows those little buggers are tougher than they look and cuticle removers make them easier to push back.
A pH scale refresher. It’s a scale of one to 14 where seven is completely neutral. The lower the number the more acidic a chemical is and the higher the number the more base a chemical is. And the more excited you are about pumpkin spice lattes, the more basic you are. (Just kidding, there’s nothing wrong with liking a coffee flavor. You do you, friend.) Some examples: cola has a pH of 3, water has a pH of 7, and bleach has a pH of 13.
Cuticle removers use chemicals (like sodium hydroxide) with a pH between 11 and 13 to dissolve skin cells. So, yes, cuticle removers are there to dissolve and break down skin cells. These aren’t standard hand creams and you need to wash them off with soap and water when they’ve done their job. They won’t discriminate between live and dead skin cells so make sure you read the instructions and follow them. Sodium hydroxide is also known as lye. You’ve seen Fight Club. Follow the instructions.
I’m freaked out now.
Just like chemical peels, it sounds way scarier than it really is. Soapy water has a pH of 12. If you leave your hands in soap for too long, your skin won’t be happy either, but you use that every day. The alternative to using cuticle removers is to use a sharp tool to cut or scrape them off. More often than not, this creates an open wound which leaves you vulnerable to infections of bacteria, viruses, and nail fungus. Softening your cuticles and pushing them back is actually safer.
Plus, some cuticle removers are gentler than others and I’ll break down which products are high powered and which are mild. Instead of high pH bases, some removers use acids which also break down dead skin cells. As I wrote about in my best body peels article, alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA’s) are acids derived from food that break apart the bonds of dead skin gently so they are easier to shed. I read the ingredient lists for you so can decide which method is best for you.
How to get photo-ready nails.
Cuticle removers and quality manicure tools. Cuticle removers are a good start to help give you clean, polish-ready nails. General recommendations are to push the softened cuticles back with an orange stick or cuticle pusher instead of cutting them with nippers, but it’s your call. You can find great sets of tools of both kinds by reading my guide to the best manicure sets and kits. Having or giving yourself regular manicures will keep your nails and cuticles in trim shape so they’re less likely to break or snag.
Cuticle remover tip: Do one hand at a time, that way you have better control of how long the product is sitting on your fingers.
Cuticle oil. Your nails are thirsty, particularly after using cuticle remover, and you’ll want to moisturize your nail plate and eponychium to keep them from drying out. Dry nails are brittle nails and don’t have that glossy shine. Cuticle oils are highly concentrated and often contain vitamins and botanicals targeted for nail health. Read my guide to the best cuticle oils and creams for more information.
Hand cream. Cuticle oils are intensely concentrated and not meant to be used more than a couple times a day. If your job is hard on your hands or you need to wash your hands a lot, your nails can dry out fast. Hand creams are thicker and more hydrating than regular lotion and are great to be used anytime as needed. I’m currently using Antica Farmacista’s Hand Cream in Lemon, Verbena & Cedar. You can find more great creams in my best luxury hand creams guide.
Strentheners. Lastly, you want to make sure you are nourishing your nails from the inside–that’s where they’re coming from after all. There are treatments that soak into your fingertips and supplements that help give your body the building blocks to grow stronger, healthier, longer nails. For more details check out my guide to the best products to grow nails fast.
Back to the topic at hand (see what I did there?) let’s take a look at the best cuticle removers out there today.
1. Melt Away Cuticle Exfoliator by Butter London
Melt Away uses potassium hydroxide, also called potash, to break down your unwanted dead skin. It comes in what looks like a nail polish bottle and even has a nail polish brush applicator. The remover is a very thin gel that works great with the brush so you have good control and you’re not applying too much. Potash has a pH level of around 11 so it’s not the strongest remover on the list, but it will definitely do its job. You apply this gel and let it sit for two to three minutes and then use your tool to push back the now soft and pliable cuticles. It’s not instantaneous, but it really does seem to melt that stubborn dry skin. To counter any drying effects from the potash, Butter London includes nourishing Irish moss algae extract and a mineral oil. Not everyone is a huge fan of mineral oil, but it is an intense moisturizer that works so I’m fine with it here.
- Strong product using potash
- Contains mineral oil and Irish moss algae extract
- Very effective
- Easy to use brush
- Free of DBP, camphor, formaldehyde, toluene, and TPHP
- Vegan friendly
- Have to wait two to three minutes
2. Cuticle Away by Creative Nail Design
Cuticle Away is a professional strength cuticle remover that uses sodium hydroxide to break down the dead skin of your cuticle. As a thick gel, it’s easy to work with and a common choice for nail salons. To balance out how drying sodium hydroxide can be, CND includes aloe vera gel to soothe your nails and return some moisture. It’s also used to help break down calluses as it works to soften the built up dead skin. It’s a fast and effective treatment. You place the gel on your cuticle wait a moment to let it do its thing then wipe off the exess. Use your tool of choice to remove the cuticle. As soon as you’re done, you want to wash it off with soap and water. This is strong, effective stuff. If your nails are dry afterward, follow it with a cuticle oil. I recently featured CND’s Solar Oil in my best cuticle oils and creams guide.
- Professional strength
- Uses sodium hydroxide
- Contains aloe vera
- Trusted nail brand
- May be too strong for some
3. Deborah Lippmann Cuticle Remover
If you’re not sure what type of applicator you’re going to like better, the Deborah Lipppman Cuticle Remover comes with both a nail polish brush and a dropper. I like that you have the choice to see which method works best for you. This one also uses sodium hydroxide but in a lower concentration so it is slightly gentler than others. You either paint this on your cuticles, or apply two drops to each nail, and wait two minutes before pushing your cuticles back. It softens your cuticles without dissolving them. Deborah Lippmann uses Irish moss algae extract and lanolin oil to nourish and hydrate your nails leaving them shiny and supple. Lanolin is a oil that is derived from wool and is one of the oldest moisturizers out there. That said, it does mean this product isn’t vegan friendly. It’s a great remover with a cult following, but it is a bit pricey.
Price: From $43.51
- Medium strength
- Uses sodium hydroxide
- Contains hydrating lanolin and Irish moss algae
- Two choices for applicators
- Not vegan (lanolin)
- Pricier than most
4. Nutra Nail Nailsentails Cuticle Remover
For a fast acting, medium strength remover on a budget, the Nailsentails Cuticle Remover by Nutra Nail is a good choice. It uses a low concentration of potash to soften cuticles and only needs to sit on your fingers for 15 seconds before your cuticles are ready to be pushed. This remover is a very thick gel so it stays where you put it and won’t drip or roll off your fingers. However the applicator is a little large so it can be tricky to only use a small amount when you want to. To nourish your nail, Nutra Nail includes aloe vera, glycerin (a plant-derived moisturizer), and hydrolyzed keratin–an ingredient you often find in nail strengtheners.
The applicator tip is slanted and the opening is shaped like a scoop because it is supposed to act as a built in cuticle pusher. If this works for you, more power to you, but my feeling is don’t do this. Use a tool that is meant for cuticle pushing only. Using the applicator is only going to lodge bits of cuticle into your tube of product (yuck) and possible allow for contamination and bacterial growth in your remover tube. Invest in a cuticle remover. You can get 50 orange sticks for under $6.
- Softens with potassium hydroxide
- Cruelty free
- Free of parabens, sulfates, and artificial dyes and fragrances
- Thick formula won’t drip
- Contains moisturizers like aloe vera and glycerin
- Hard to use only a little product
- Built in pusher is an odd choice
5. California Mango Cuticle Softener
This may be the gentlest remover on here. The California Mango Cuticle Softener doesn’t use strong bases or acids to break down your cuticles and instead uses the natural enzymatic process of mangoes. Mangoes and pineapples both contain enzymes that can dissolve proteins which is why they make your mouth feel funny when you eat a lot of them and why you can use pineapple extract as a meat tenderizer. This cuticle remover uses the enzamatic power of mangoes to make your cuticles easier to push back. It won’t quickly break down the dead skin like some others do, but it will make them softer and more manageable.
It contains aloe vera and glycerin to hydrate and extract of comfrey and acai to nourish your nails. I’d still wipe this off, but it’s much less imperitive that you wash your hands immediately with this one which is a plus for some people. As a bonus, it smells amazingly fruity and tropical.
Price: $13.84 (31 percent off MSRP)
- Gentle cuticle softener
- Uses mango enzymes
- Contains aloe and compfrey extract
- A little goes a long way
- Smells great
- Only softens your cuticles, won’t dissolve them
- Contains sulfates
6. Cuticle Eraser Gentle Exfoliator by Creative Nail Design
Another product from Creative Nail Design, Cuticle Eraser is less of a cuticle remover and more of a cuticle preventative. It’s packed with alpha hydroxy acids which break down the bonds that hold skin cells together which helps you shed dead skin. Glycolic acid from sugar, citric acid from citrus fruit, lactic acid from milk, and malic acid from apples all join forces to chip away at built up dead skin and keep your cuticles from overgrowing. This isn’t the product you want if you have serious cuticles that need to be removed, but this is the product you want for after you’ve removed them. As a daily or twice daily treatment, Cuticle Eraser keeps your cuticles from growing back and smooths out the dreaded hangnail zone.
Vitamin E and chamomile extract nourish your skin along with aloe vera and apricot kernel oil. The second to last ingredient is sodium hydroxide, so CND has thrown in a little of the more caustic bases to help out with cuticle clean up, but considering this product isn’t meant to be washed off, it’s far from the main active ingredient.
- Gentle action of AHA’s with a tiny bit of sodium hydroxide
- Used as a preventative treatment
- Contains moisturizers like aloe vera and apricot kernel oil
- Vitamin E and chamomile extract
- Doesn’t need to be washed off
- Not strictly a remover
7. Sally Hansen Gel Cuticle Remover
This medium strength remover uses sodium hydroxide to loosen and soften cuticles during your two minute wait time. I do like that it includes in the instructions to make sure you don’t leave the product on longer than eight to 10 minutes, so you know that it’s going to take a good long while before you have to worry. Antibacterial tea tree oil, hydrolyzed wheat protein, and extracts of jojoba seed and kiwi fruit nourish and condition your skin while citric acid works as a gentle chemical peel. This one has the built in cuticle pusher applicator tip which I’m not a huge fan of, but the opening is smaller so you have more control over the amount of product you’re using.
- Medium strength
- Uses sodium hydroxide and citric acid
- Contains tea tree oil and botanical extracts
- Easy to work with gel
- Contains parabens and artificial colors
- Weird built in pusher tip
8. Cuccio Apple Cuticle Remover
Cuccio’s Apple Cuticle Remover uses the AHA malic acid derives from apples to break down dead skin cells, softening your cuticles and making it them easier to lift and push. This one is effective without being overly strong to the point of worrying you may overdo it. My issue with the Apple Cuticle Remover is I can’t, for the life of me, track down an ingredient list. I have some skills in this area and can usually dig up a trustworthy ingredient list but I’ve had no luck with this one so I can’t definitively comment on the full contents of this cuticle remover. I can say that along with malic acid, it contains aloe, almond oil, and grapeseed oil for hydration, as well as beech tree extract and vitamin E. It’s scent is a little strong and some aren’t a huge fan, but others say it reminds them of apples.
- Gentle alpha hydroxy acid
- Moisturizing oils and aloe vera
- Nourishing botanicals
- Easy applicator tip
- Has a slightly strong smell
9. ProLinc Cuticle Eliminator
This is a strong cuticle remover that only needs to sit for 45 seconds before it’s ready for you to start pushing. It uses potash as its main ingredient, a strong base that will dissolve stubborn cuticles and make them much easier to remove. Just make sure you wash it off with soapy water because potash isn’t kind to skin if left on too long. The gel consistency is easy to work with and contains glycerin to prevent any drying effects. I like that it doesn’t have a strong smell and that it works so quickly.
Price: $7.07 (61 percent off MSRP)
- Strong remover using potash
- Works fast
- Contains glycerin to moisturize
- Gel is easy to work with
- May be too strong from some
10. Esteemia Cuticle Away
Lastly the Esteemia Cuticle Away remover uses potash as well though in a lower concentration. I’d categorize this as a medium strength cuticle remover that definitely softens cuticles dramatically but won’t dissolve them like professional strength cuticle removers. This one also suggests a wait time of 45 seconds, and that’s all it takes to soften cuticles. If you want the product to do more than that, you have to push past the recommended time limit and I can’t really get behind that when we’re dealing with strong bases. It’s a very thin gel that spreads easily but not so much that it will drip off your fingers. The narrow applicator tip makes applying it a breeze. Glycerin hydrates your nails to prevent drying. If you have really ragged, bleeding cuticles, this one is known to sting.
- Medium strength
- Uses potassium hydroxide
- Moisiturizes with glycerin
- Softens cuticles quickly
- Not strong enough for everyone
- Known to sting