The basic facts

Ragged cuticles can be annoying, but whatever you do, don't snip or bite them; they're the most important part of your nails.

Fingernails and toenails are made of a protein called keratin. The exposed portion, the nail plate, is composed of dead, compacted, hardened keratin. The nail bed is the skin beneath the nail itself. The cuticle is the dead skin that overlaps your nail plate at the base to form a seal. The nail is formed beneath the cuticle at the matrix.

What to look for

In forming a seal between the skin and the nail plate, cuticles protect the body from bacteria, yeast, even fungus. Here's what to watch out for:

- Minor redness, a symptom of irritation, can develop for any number of reasons: from cutting your cuticles to over-immersing hands in household cleaning products.

- Itchiness and blisters around the cuticles and nails can be triggered by methyl methacrylate (MMA), used in the application of acrylic nails, and tosylamid/formaldehyde resin, found in some polishes.

- Discolored debris under the nail or separation of the nail from its bed are signs of a fungal infection.

Beauty Rx

1. Keep cuticles from drying out. Apply a moisturizer each time you wash your hands, and don't use nail polish remover more than once a week; it's too drying.

2. Wear cotton-lined rubber gloves when using household cleaning products.

3. If cuticles look ragged, gently rub away dead skin with a soft washcloth. Never push cuticles too harshly and fight the urge to bite your cuticles.

4. Be sure that your nail technician sterilizes all tools used during a manicure, or bring your own. Notice if the stations are clean, if the nail technician washes her hands between clients and if her license is displayed.

5. If you have an inflammation or an infection, see a dermatologist or podiatrist for a topical antifungal or antibacterial cream, or prescription oral antifungal like Lamisil tablets.