Why are you biting your nails?

Habits are difficult to break. You may bite your nails when you’re nervous. You may bite them when you’re bored. Or maybe you don’t notice you’ve bitten them until you go to get a manicure and they’re gnawed too short. Whatever the case may be, there are some methods you can try at home that can help you to stop biting your nails.

Another name for nail biting is chronic onychophagia. It is considered the most common stress-relieving habit. Other habits related to this condition include:

  • thumb-sucking
  • nose-picking
  • hair twisting
  • tooth grinding
  • skin picking

Biting nails typically doesn’t begin before the age of 4, but many cases seem to start between the ages of 4 and 6. Boys tend to bite their nails more than girls.

In other words, your nail-biting habit may have begun as early as when you were a child. For many people, it’s a habit that continues into adulthood. You may not think much of chewing your nails, but dermatologists explain that chronic nail biting may actually cause some serious issues.

Nail biting risks

Some of the risks of biting your nails include:

  • soreness or infection in and on the skin around your nails
  • damage to the tissue that makes your nails grow
  • changes in how your nails look
  • abnormal growth
  • more frequent colds and other illnesses from placing dirty fingers in your mouth
  • damage to your teeth from chewing hard nails

6 ways to stop biting your nails

How do you stop biting your nails? There are some different things you can try at home. There are also some cases where you may want to check in with your doctor instead of going it on your own.

Before you try to stop biting your nails, you may want to spend some time thinking about why you bite them in the first place. Try keeping a log of when you find yourself biting. Are you tired? Stressed? Hungry? You may start to notice a pattern. Once you’ve discovered your unique trigger, you can work toward finding different ways to ease it.

1. Keep them short

An easy way to deter yourself from biting your nails is to keep them short. The idea behind this method is simple. If there’s little or nothing to chew, you won’t feel as compelled to bite your nails. Of course, you’ll need to stay on top of your trimming routine because your nails are continually growing.

2. Get a manicure

Try dropping a chunk of change on a gorgeous manicure to see if it can help you stop. Your nails will look and feel great.

3. Flavor your nails

While it may sound strange at first, using a bitter-flavored varnish like ORLY may help you kick your habit. You can apply this type of deterrent over your bare nails or even over manicured nails. Simply brush it on, let it dry completely, and reapply when you need to.

4. Wear chewelery

You read that correctly: chewelery. A company called Ark makes a silicone Saber Tooth necklace that is meant for anyone (ages 5 and above) who needs to chew. You can choose your color and your toughness on a scale from soft to extra-extra tough. This type of gadget may work best if you are aware of your nail biting.

Instead of chewing your nails to help yourself focus or soothe, you can replace your nails with the necklace.

Note: You may want to discuss using chewlery with your dentist. Chewing on anything — nails or otherwise — may damage your teeth or harm your jaw.

5. Focus on each finger

Maybe the all or nothing approach doesn’t work well for you. Instead, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests cutting the habit by focusing on just one nail at a time. You can start with your thumbs. After you’ve successfully stopped biting your thumbnails for a week or so, move on to your index fingers. Go in whatever order makes the most sense to you and keep moving forward with your progress.

6. Keep at it

You cannot expect yourself to stop biting your nails overnight. In fact, you may have heard how it takes 21 days to break a habit. This figure was popularized by a 1960s book called "The New Psycho Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. A 2009 study showed that the time it takes to break a habit isn’t actually so clear-cut or linear with its progression.

What’s the lesson here? Give yourself time before you declare your efforts a failure. If you keep at it, the hard work should pay off.

Long-term effects of nail biting

The good news is that nail biting doesn’t usually cause any long-term damage. It is unsanitary, however, and it can lead to more frequent illnesses and nail or skin infections. It’s a good idea to try and quit to avoid these complications.

How your doctor can help

If you have tried all these at-home methods with no luck, you may want to make an appointment with your doctor. For some people, nail biting may be a sign of a more serious psychological or emotional issue. Behavior therapy is another option that can help you. At your appointment, you can discuss your nail-biting habit with your doctor and ask for a referral to a therapist.

You should also contact your doctor if you notice any signs of infection on your fingers or nails. A dermatologist can help you heal your nails and fight any infection with medication or topical treatments.

Takeaway: Caring for your fingernails

Were you able to finally stop biting your nails using the tips above? Here are some tips for keeping your fingernails healthy and looking good after you kick the habit.

Nail care

  • Keep your nails clean and dry. If they are wet for too long, bacteria can form under the nail and lead to infections. Too much exposure to water may actually lead to split fingernails.
  • Consider wearing rubber gloves lined with cotton to wash dishes or clean with chemicals.
  • Trim your nails straight and around the tips. You’ll want to cut them whenever they seem too long and create a gentle curve with your cutting to avoid snagging them on things.
  • Moisturize your hands and nails with lotion. You can even rub the lotion into your nails and cuticles.
  • Use nail hardener to make your nails stronger. You can pick this type of polish up at your local drugstore.
  • That said, avoid using too many nail polishes and removers on your nails. When using removers, look for acetone-free formulas.
  • Look into supplements. Your doctor may suggest that you take biotin to make weak or brittle nails stronger.
  • Resist pulling off hangnails. Gently clip them off instead.
  • Report any changes in your nails to your doctor. Some issues, like pitting, may mean you have a medical issue that needs attention.