Q&A: The Pain of Paper Cuts

Band aid on fingerQ: Why do paper cuts hurt so much, and what can I do to treat them?

A: For the small wounds that they usually are, paper cuts can be particularly painful, likely related to several factors. First, paper cuts most commonly occur on the hands and fingers, where the densely packed nerves that give us fine tactile sensations also transmit pain signals from the outer layer of skin (the epidermis). So, in short, paper cuts can directly damage the nerves, causing pain.

Additionally, the broken skin allows irritants to reach the nerves and inner skin layer (the dermis), causing even more pain. And when the injured area is repeatedly traumatized – for example, when the loose edge of skin is continually caught on a pocket or sleeve – the pain can be aggravated and essentially make the injury larger.

The best way to deal with the pain of paper cuts is to focus on healing them. Studies show that wounds heal most rapidly when they are kept moist and covered, and there are several ways to do that. First, applying Vaseline® or another bland emollient ointment to the wound helps to create the ideal circumstances to spur new skin growth. The moist, slippery environment helps the skin cells to “slide over” one another and fill in the wound.

Next, it is important to keep the area covered with a bandage to help maintain the moist environment and prevent further injury. That’s easier said than done; it can be very difficult to keep a bandage on a finger, particularly if the hands are often wet. An alternative approach to traditional bandages is “skin glue.” Such products are approved for use on the skin, and some, like Indermil® Tissue Adhesive, require a prescription or administration by a physician. This product is sometimes used in medical offices in place of suturing wounds. 

But if a visit to your doctor seems like over-kill for a routine paper cut, there are over-the-counter alternatives for home use such as New-Skin® Liquid Bandage, Nexcare® Liquid Bandage, or Band-Aid® Liquid Bandage. Some of these products, like Skin Shield® with dyclonine hydrochloride, include a topical anesthetic that helps to alleviate some of the pain. 

For diehard “do-it-yourselfers,” super glue products can also be helpful. Obviously, these products are not intended to be used on skin and would likely be associated with some burning discomfort when initially applied. In all cases, sealing the wound with a topical adhesive helps to keep the edges apposed, which reduces the likelihood of extending the wound and prevents the penetration of irritants into the injured area – all useful strategies to diminish annoying pain and speed healing.

Published on 10/02/2009 | Last updated on 10/18/2018