When I took pictures of my manicure yesterday, I realized that I have been neglecting my cuticles lately, and it shows.
This is what my cuticles looked like 9 months ago (avert your eyes if you're squeamish):
I will tell you how I changed my cuticles and improved my nail polish application (with the, much appreciated, help and wisdom of other nailphiles).
Step 1: Cuticle Treatment
Creative Nail Design Cuticle Eraser and Sally Hansen Instant Cuticle Remover
I use (or try to use) CND Cuticle Eraser every day. It contains AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) which chemically exfoliate the cuticle skin. This should be fine to use as often as needed. I have several tubes. I bought mine at Sally Beauty Supply, but not all Sally's carry it.
Sally Hansen Instant Cuticle Remover (in the blue bottle) is to be used more sparingly. I usually go for once a week. You squeeze it around the edges of your nails, push your cuticles back with an orange stick, let it sit (the bottle says 1 minute, but I usually do 5), and then wash the residue off with soapy water. This is meant to dissolve dry cuticle skin or callouses. You should be able to find this in any drugstore.
Also, if you have a physical exfoliant scrub, using this occasionally while washing your hands can help soften and remove dead skin. I have a tub from Lush called Ocean Salt.
Step 2: Moisturize!
MOST IMPORTANT STEP
This is all a matter of budget and preference.
I have many options here.
You can paint oil onto your cuticle. I like Solar Oil the best, but Haken (sold at Sally Beauty Supply) is a more economical option and comes in a variety of scents (they smell good).
If you're not into oil, you can use a cuticle butter.
Burt's Bees makes a Lemon Cuticle Butter (I have it but didn't photograph) in a small tin. It's great for carrying around in your bag, but it's very thick and dry - so it's not my favorite.
Lush Lemony Flutter is Burt's Bees super moisturizing cousin, but many people complain about it being stinky. It really doesn't bother me, but it doesn't smell good. You may want to get a sample from Lush before laying down the money.
Neutrogena Norweigan Formula.
Classic. Works well. Should be easy to pick up from a drugstore.
L' Occitane Hand Cream.
Very rich. 20% Shea Butter. Thick, so it may suit you more as a night cream w cotton gloves (I proved too lazy to do that regularly, plus it's hot in the summer to be sleeping in gloves). It smells kinda like a Grandma (but a rich, French one). You can get this from Sephora.
Finally, Creative Nail Design Solar Butter.
This is like a hand cream and cuticle oil in one. It has shea butter and all the properties of Solar Oil. It smells like almonds.
Personally, if I use oil I like to seal it will a lotion or cream.
Whenever I use CND Cuticle Eraser I'll usually slap CND Solar Butter on my hands right on top of it.
I mentioned before in another entry, but I try not to remove my polish with pure acetone every time because it is drying. Try an acetone remover. Non-acetone removers tend to also be drying because you have to use so much more for them to be effective.
If you do a lot of housework or gardening, invest in some rubber gloves. These can save your hands.
Post manicure cleanup
I have tried q tips and orange sticks wrapped in cotton (both dipped in pure acetone).
The best thing I've found so far are paintbrushes dipped in acetone.
Here are my favorites (and my giant orange stick from Sally):
Here's my advice. Go to an art supply store. Look at and FEEL the brushes. Pick a few that you think will be suitable and experiment. I had to try a few to find ones I like.
-Go for brushes for oil/acrylic paint over watercolor because they're stiffer.
-I prefer to use a flat or bright brush to clean up either side of my nail. Then I switch to a round brush to do the curved base of my nail.
(I do this after applying a top coat and letting my nails dry)
-Take a look at a variety of sizes, I prefer 1s and 2s - but I have excellent eyesight. You may want to go bigger.
Final note: Some people I know swear by prenatal vitamins and/or Biotin for strengthening their weak nails. I have strong nails already and I prefer not to take excess supplements, so I haven't tried either personally.
I hope this advice helps you love your natural nails even more.