About half of all kids and teens bite their nails. Many don’t grow out of it, either. If you’re an adult who bites your nails, you may have done it when you were younger and just never stopped. It could be your parents’ fault: Scientists aren’t sure if nail biting is genetic, but kids whose parents bite their nails are more likely to bite their nails, too. Studies show this happens even if the parents stop doing it before their child is born. Sometimes, nail biting can be a sign of emotional or mental stress. It tends to show up in people who are nervous, anxious or feeling down. It’s a way to cope with these feelings. You may also find yourself doing it when you’re bored, hungry or feeling insecure. Most nail biting is automatic — you do it without thinking.

Reasons to Stop

Nail biting won’t typically cause permanent damage. But it definitely has its downsides:

  • It canmake your nails grow in weird. If you damage the tissue around your nails, they may stop growing the way they should. This gives you abnormal-looking nails.
  • It can spoil your smile. You can chip, crack, or break your teeth when you bite your nails. Over time, nail biting can even cause jaw problems.
  • It can make you sick. Hands are a hotbed for germs, and nails are their perfect hideout. When you’re putting your fingers in your mouth multiple times a day, it increases your chances of getting sick. Plus, the skin damage you can cause when you bite your nails creates an easy way for germs to get in.


You may not see a change overnight, but with a little time and effort, you can bust your nail-biting habit. Try these tips:

  • Cut them short. If there’s not enough nail to grab with your teeth, it won’t feel as satisfying when you give biting a try.
  • Coat them with a bad taste. There are special nail polishes with a bitter flavor you can paint on your nails. The terrible taste will make you think twice before chewing.
  • Splurge on manicures. Spending money and time at a nail salon will give you both good-looking nails and a reason to keep them that way.
  • Wear gloves. It may sound silly, but if you can’t get to your nails, you can’t bite them. If gloves won’t work for your daily schedule, you can look for stickers made to cover nails — they can have the same effect.
  • Find your triggers. Notice how you feel or what you’re doing when you bite your nails. Once you know what kicks you into nail-biting drive, you can try to find other ways to cope.
  • Keep your hands or mouth busy. Find something to fiddle with — a stress ball, a worry stone, or even a pen to click. Chew gum so your mouth has a job. Give your nail-biting energy another place to go.

If you’re having trouble with the cold-turkey approach, take it a little at a time. Set small goals for yourself. Try to stop biting the nails on your right hand for a week. Or start even smaller: Choose one nail not to bite, like your thumb. Once you’ve kept it up for a while, put another nail in the “no-biting” zone. Keep going until all your fingers are off-limits. If you still struggle after trying multiple methods, talk to your doctor about whether therapy’s a good option to help you get to the bottom of the problem and take nail biting out of the picture. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s a crash course in proper hand hygiene. Before this year, many of us thought we were handling our hands and fingers like pros, but, let’s face it, many of us had less than ideal habits. Maybe you skimped on the 20-second handwashing rule, or maybe you had clean hands but used them to touch your face and rub your eyes constantly. And there are those who, try as we might, can’t figure out how to stop biting our nails. If you’re (like me) among the nail-biting people of the world, then you’ve probably discovered the following: Nail biting doesn’t stop just because we want it to. My guess? Even though the stakes are high given the new coronavirus pandemic, many of us are probably having a tough time avoiding nibbling away at our nubby nails from time to time. You’re not alone. Way before the new coronavirus was disrupting our lives, writer Emily Rekstis tried a few common hacks to see if she could break herself of the habit. You’ll find those tips below. But before we get into that, let’s run through a few basics, shall we?

Why do people bite their nails?

You might not know this, but nail biting falls under a list of behaviors known as body-focused repetitive disorders (or BFRDs), which are those little habits we have (think hair pulling or skin picking) that, when done often enough, can cause harm. As SELF previously reported, it’s not entirely clear why some people have BFRDs, but there are known triggers. SELF previously reported that those triggers fall into five main categories: There are sensory triggers, which might be anything that evokes the senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, or hearing). You may be triggered by certain thoughts or beliefs (these are called cognitive triggers). You could bite your nails when you face something called a motor trigger, which involves postures and movements that you make (and might not even be aware of). Even certain places might make your nail nibbling more prevalent (these are called setting triggers).

Is nail biting actually that bad?

Here’s the thing: Some viruses live on surfaces and when we touch those spots (like doorknobs or subway rails) and then touch our eyes, nose, or mouths, we run the risk of helping those germs get into our bodies, Philip Tierno, Ph.D., microbiologist and clinical professor of pathology at NYU Langone, previously told SELF. It’s not a given that biting your nails will make you sick more frequently than those who don’t, but putting your fingers in your mouth isn’t doing your immune system any favors. But even if you’re not thinking about germs, biting your fingernails can also cause damage to your nail bed, the Mayo Clinic explains. This can leave tiny cuts that put you at greater risk for bacteria and fungus to hang out and cause infections, the Mayo Clinic says. Biting your fingernails can also potentially damage your teeth, according to the Mayo Clinic. All of that means it’s best to keep your fingernails out of your mouth. So, how to do that you may wonder?

There are things you can do to help you stop biting your nails.

It might be possible for some people to go cold turkey, but many people will need some strategies to guide them. The tips from the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AADA) are a great place to start. They offer a mix of practical strategies as well as mental exercises that can help you. For example, among the strategies recommended by the AADA are identifying your nail-biting triggers, keeping your nails clipped short, and taking a gradual approach (as in, just work on stopping biting one fingernail at a time). The AADA also explains that nail biting might be a sign of emotional or psychological distress. So if you’ve tried to stop biting your nails and can’t, there’s no harm in contacting your doctor to discuss your concerns. And if you develop an infection from nail biting, a dermatologist or other healthcare provider can help you treat it, the AADA says.

Here’s what happened when Emily Rekstis tried to break her nail-biting habit. Here’s what she said:

Biting your nails is a terrible habit, one that I can’t seem to knock. I turned to the internet and talked to experts to find the best hacks that will hopefully help me break my habit. Here’s how my little experiment went: 1. I dipped my nails in salt. Listen, we all have bad habits. And if you are a chronic nail biter, you are definitely not alone. Many people (20-30% of the population!) bite their nails: “It’s definitely a common thing that we see,” says Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. If you’re looking to stop biting your nails, it’s definitely possible. That’s not to say most people can stop biting their nails overnight, and that’s okay. “Your nails will always be there, so it isn’t like you can just leave them at home to avoid biting them,” says Sari Chait, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Newton, MA. It’s tough because you may not know why you bite your nails, or even that you’re doing it at all. Instead of beating yourself up if you’re having trouble ditching the nail-biting habit, be patient with yourself and find some tricks that work for you below. It’s time to stop wondering how you can stop biting your nails for good and start getting on track to beautiful nails and hands. Here’s what to know about why you might bite your nails, whether it’s harmful, how to curb the urge, and how to keep your hands healthy.

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Why do I bite my nails?

Sometimes it’s helpful to know the why before trying to address the how. The reasons behind why we do what we do offer a lot of insight into our habits and potential ways to manage them. So why might you gnaw at your nails on the regular? It could be genetic, or a learned behavior from your surroundings—so you might be able to thank your parents for this one. Or it could be more emotional in origin. “There are several reasons people may bite their nails, including a response to stress, anxiety, or boredom,” says Chait, In fact, onychophagia, or nail biting, is classified as a stress relieving behavior, much like teeth grinding, skin picking, and hair twisting. Chait also adds that for many people, nail biting is likely to become a habit over time, “and habits are often mindless.” While you likely have a specific emotionally driven trigger for biting your nails, the more you engage in the behavior and form a habit, the more likely it is that you will find it becomes an unconscious or self-soothing behavior, which is what makes it so difficult to stop.

Is biting your nails bad for you?

Using your teeth to occasionally nip at the random hangnail or peeling cuticle probably isn’t going to cause any major harm. It’s when nail biting becomes habitual that issues can arise. Hygiene is the first thing to consider: Since you may engage in the behavior without thinking, you might be putting your fingers in your mouth when there are invisible dangers on them or under your nails. Constant transfer of germs and debris from the fingers to the mouth poses a serious health risk for many different illnesses from the common cold to a staph infection. General hygiene issues aside, nail biting can also lead to nail disfigurement and infections of the skin and nails. Nail disfigurement, such as when your nail is ripped or broken, can be rather painful and cause functional as well as aesthetic issues. Additionally, if you bite your nails a lot, the skin around the them is affected, leading to sensitivity and breaks in the skin. Those can then cause infections to the nails, cuticles, and skin; you’ll know that’s the issue if you have redness, swelling, and tenderness.

How to stop biting your nails

“The way to manage nail biting is by identifying the habit and triggers, becoming aware, and identifying alternative behaviors,” says Chait. Below are nine tips to help you quit— one trick might work for you, or you can mix and match to personalize your own game plan to ditch the habit for good. Before you jumpstart your journey to strong nails, remember to not give up. It’s okay if you slip up, and you should probably expect to. But don’t get discouraged! Habits take a while to form, so it is only natural that they can’t be broken instantly. Find some tips below that seem like they might work for you and keep trying until you get there!

1. Find your triggers

First, it may help to think about why you engage in nail biting. Try to keep a written log of when you feel compelled to bite to discover trends. Chait says that “it’s important to identify what triggers you to bite your nails so you can then tune in quicker when faced with that trigger (e.g., anxiety).” Once you identify triggers, emotions, and patterns related to a behavior, the behavior becomes easier to modify.

2. Treat yourself to manicures

Try treating yourself to an at-home or salon manicure. The experts agree that time and money spent on having nails painted or decorated may help deter nail biting. Additionally, manicures help to form a protective barrier over the nail which is helpful in making you more aware of when you’re biting at them. One caveat: “Artificial nails can also have their own potential for injury to the nail,” says Dr. Garshick. Something like a simple polish or decorative nail stickers might be a better choice over acrylics or glued-on tips if you’re trying to maintain optimal nail health.

3. Keep nails short

Whether you manicure your nails or not, keeping them short and sweet could help you avoid gnawing them off. The closer the nail is to the fingertip, the more difficult and less tempting it is to nibble. Proceed with caution here, though: Dr. Garshick warns that you have to be especially careful not to bite with shorter nails to avoid biting at the skin itself, which can lead to infections in the area.

4. Try an unpleasant polish

There are many foul-tasting nail polishes on the market today meant to help deter nail biters. Chait notes that these products “can condition you to stop biting your nails, as each time you put your fingers in your mouth, you experience something unpleasant.” A great, dermatologist-backed polish is the bitter tasting Mavala Stop Deterrent Nail Polish, which Dr. Garshick recommends to her patients.

5. Habit reversal training

Habit reversal training is an effective way to learn how to stop biting your nails (it can be used for other habits as well). It involves replacing a harmful behavior with a healthier one. Chait explains that “the idea is to become aware but without judgment.” When you notice yourself engaging in the behavior, extend yourself some grace. Instead of thinking of the act as a failure, reflect on the external and internal factors that may have caused you to bite your nails and then move to identifying an alternate behavior. Chait suggests finding something to do with the hands to keep them busy and away from the mouth, like a fidget toy or stress ball. Similarly, gum or a lollipop helps to occupy the mouth.

6. Try gloves or mouthguard

These provide a physical barrier to prevent nail biting and will make you instantly aware of when you are engaging in the habit without causing you any harm. While this might be a bit extreme for the office or other public places, Garshick says these items can be useful if you mostly bite your nails at home, while watching television or out of boredom. Plus, you can use the gloves to extra advantage, says Dr. Garshick.“It can be good for the health of the skin on and around the nails to apply vaseline and then gloves on top. This is going to help hydrate the skin, lock in moisture, and form physical protection as well.”

7. Breathing exercises

Engaging in breathing exercises can be especially helpful if your nail biting habit is anxiety induced. Breathing exercises are well documented to combat stress and anxiety, as well as a slew of other ailments. Once you feel that pang of anxiety, or you know a particular trigger is emerging, instead of biting your nails you can center yourself mentally and emotionally by employing deep breathing.

8. One finger at a time

Slow and steady wins the race! The tried and true figure of speech is totally applicable in this case. The American Academy of Dermatology Association promotes taking a gradual approach to ending a nail biting habit by working on resisting one finger before moving on to the next, until you work your way up to the whole hand. Dr. Garshick agrees that breaking a habit slowly instead of all at once can be helpful for a lot of people.

9. Contact an expert

Sometimes we all need a little extra help. It is essential to know when a task might be bigger than just you. If a few weeks pass and you are still struggling to make progress, or you are experiencing health issues or distress, it might be time to speak to a professional. Any infections or changes to the nail should be addressed by a dermatologist, while a psychologist or counselor can help you identify your triggers and offer alternative coping strategies.

Keep your hands looking and feeling healthy

Ending a nail biting habit can do wonders for your hands. Improving the health and appearance of the hands can not only lead to increased self confidence, but also help you continue to resist the urge to gnaw on your nails and maintain optimal hand health. Whether or not you’ve kicked your nail biting habit for good, try out some simple tips to achieve healthy, hydrated, and well-kept hands and nails.

1. Try a DIY healthy manicure

There’s nothing like a little self care to help yourself feel and look your best. Try giving yourself a DIY manicure by utilizing healthy tips and tricks to avoid inflicting any damage to the nails. You can also try implementing a nail strengthener instead of a polish as the final step to help maintain the integrity of the nails.

2. Nourish your cuticles

Applying cuticle oil during and between manicures will help repair your nails and the skin around them. By nourishing your cuticles you will ensure that your nails stay strong and stay looking their best. Tip: Dr. Garshick also recommends using plain old vaseline on the surface of the nail and on the cuticles to protect and heal the nails!

3. Use hand cream regularly

Keep a nourishing hand cream by your side whenever possible to help hydrate hands and cuticles. Much like Dr. Garshick’s petroleum jelly tip, hand cream will aid in repairing and protecting dry, damaged hands, nails, and cuticles. Try one with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, glycerin, and shea butter to get your hands in tip-top shape.

4. Keep a nail file handy

Torn and broken nails keep your hands looking less than stellar. Something as small and simple as a nail file is easy to keep around whether at home or on the go. Grab it whenever you feel bored, or have spare time to avoid jagged nail edges that tend to snag on objects and induce the urge to bite. Shannen Zitz is a Freelance Editorial Assistant at Prevention who recently graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland with an English degree. She loves all things fashion, beauty, and wellness. If she’s not reading or writing, you can probably find her frequenting the skincare and makeup forums on Reddit. My fingers were constantly painful, swollen and bleeding. Until now. For the first time ever, I have smooth fingers. This is how I got there.

In my late teens, I discovered I had Excoriation Disorder

For me, the urge to pick feels like an impossible-to-ignore sensation, similar to a sneeze. When I peel back a piece of skin, drawing blood, I feel satisfied. I wait maybe three seconds, then start doing it again. All day, every day, often without noticing. «Long-term effects of Excoriation Disorder could include scarring and deformation of the fingertips,» Dr Penzel said. «Damaging infections can also result. «Psychologically, when damage is serious, it can cause stigmatization and social embarrassment, not to mention pain.» Biting your nails or picking your skin can be indicative of a serious problem — here’s why My roommate obsessively tracks her calories and I think she has an eating disorder. How can I confront her without sabotaging our friendship? Nutritionist Pixie Turner used to be so obsessed with ‘clean eating’ she ate a plate of vegetables alone on her birthday. Now she’s an advocate for debunking the wellness myths she fell for on social media. The author. It started bothering me that I was uncontrollably inflicting such horrible wounds on myself. As a first step towards stopping, I forbade myself from injuring my third fingers, my least damaged. The rest were still fair game. Amazingly, they healed completely within a couple of days. Emboldened, and thrilled by how perfect two of my fingers now looked, I set my middle and then my little fingers as out of bounds also. Plasters were an incredibly useful tool, too, as I began taping up my index fingers so I couldn’t see or access them. This allowed them to heal, and I found it much easier to not touch them if there was no rough skin to pick at. Soon, only my thumbs remained. Atkin also found relief in redirecting her urges. «As soon as I pick up a piece of charcoal to draw, the urge to pick dissipates,» she said. «I find the movement pattern of drawing on paper similar to how I scan my fingers over my skin to find something to pick.» Finding that she often picked while travelling, Atkin began drawing while commuting. Artist Liz Atkin, 43, with one of her drawings made while travelling on a train.
Jillian Clark
Partway through my journey towards stopping damaging my fingers. «I’ve given away more than 18,000 drawings that I’ve created on trains to stop myself from anxiously picking my skin,» she said. «I shift the urge to pick into making something nice to give someone else.» 43-year-old artist Liz Atkin knows the unbearable urge to pick only too well. «I’ve been picking at the skin all over my body since I was six,» she told Insider. «I didn’t know how to stop, I didn’t know that anyone else did it, I didn’t even know it was a disorder until I was in my thirties. «Lots of people think it’s just a bad habit, but it’s so much more than that. It’s caused me decades of guilt and pain but during the act itself I feel peaceful. It’s not painful — it only hurts when I stop. Then I feel guilty, which makes me pick more.»

Both awareness and guilt enabled me to stop

It was the awareness and subsequent guilt from picking and biting which enabled me to stop. I was in therapy, which allowed me to sit more comfortably within myself and take stock of my life, and I found that my picking was becoming less involuntary. opinion banner

  • Now 27 years old, I’ve been picking and biting the skin on my fingers for as long as I can remember, leaving them scabbed and painful.
  • In my late teens, I realized I was suffering from Excoriation Disorder, a body-focused repetitive disorder.
  • It’s an under-recognized but common condition that causes people to bite and pick the skin on their bodies to regulate levels of stimulation in their central nervous systems.
  • I managed to finally let my fingers heal by stopping picking one finger at a time, bandaging them to remove temptation.
  • I’m hugely proud of myself, but sometimes I look at my hands and think they belong to somebody else.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Some of Atkin’s artwork made to distract herself from picking her skin.
Liz Atkin For years, this was just how my fingers were — constantly, throbbingly painful. Squeezing a lemon was torture. I couldn’t wear white clothes, because the blood left trails where I brushed my hands over the fabric. I was never ashamed, but I didn’t understand my mind’s drive to hurt myself. My partners and family hated it, going so far as to smack my hands away from my mouth when they saw that I’d begun to bite. But it turns out I’m not alone. «This disorder could involve as many as 4% of the population, and would therefore be considered common,» according to Dr. Penzel. This gradual approach combined with ongoing therapy for non-finger-related matters worked. It was like I was reprogramming my brain to not touch that part of my hands any more. I had previously been too grossed out by my fingers to get manicures, but I found getting gels meant I didn’t want to ruin the untouched look of my nails, and I directed any picking urges to my thumbs and index fingers. As a child, I was a nailbiter, a cuticle-biter, a biter of pretty much anything I could put in my mouth — pens, headphones, the feet of a limited edition Victoria Beckham Barbie. I began picking my fingers as well as biting them in my early teens. A cursory Google search in my late teens led me to discover that I had Excoriation Disorder, a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB), a category which also includes hair-pulling and nail-biting. I started biting my fingers before I could chew. At least, I don’t remember ever looking at my fingers even as a tiny child when the nails weren’t stubs, the skin gnawed. At times my hands have been scabbed to the second knuckle on each finger. My fingertips have been too swollen and injured to bend, and too painful to pull on clothes or hold a pencil. I’ve stained clothes, notebooks, and keyboards indelibly with blood smears, disgusted friends, lovers, and strangers with hands that looked like a werewolf had been let loose on them. For decades, I have picked and bitten at wounds on my fingers that I refused to let heal. Alice Johnston This often leads to conversations about mental health with her fellow commuters, some of whom contact Atkin afterwards to tell her they struggle with the same condition. «I’ve given a keynote speech at the global conference on BFRBs the TLC Foundation hosts, and put on creative workshops for young people to give them a healthy outlet. If I’d had information or even a name for the behaviour I couldn’t stop 20 years ago it would have been life changing, so if I reach just one person with my work, it’s worth it.»

I can see a future where my fingers are unblemished

Faced with losing something that had comforted and calmed me for years, I struggled. Before, I’d been able to redirect any nervous picking energy towards my thumbs, but now I was trying to stop completely. A large patient study is also currently underway in the US to discover what causes these disorders and work out the best way to treat them.

My fingers were constantly, throbbingly painful

Dr Fred Penzel, Ph.D., a psychologist from Huntingdon, New York, told Insider: «I believe that people carry out BFRBs as a way of regulating levels of stimulation within their central nervous systems. «The behaviours give them stimulation when they are understimulated (sedentary or bored) and reduce levels of stimulation when they are overstimulated (stressed or happily excited). «Beyond that, we still don’t really understand what is actually happening on the neural level.» Penzel is member of the TLC Foundation for body-focused repetitive behaviours, an organization dedicated to sharing knowledge, treating, and finding a cure for these disorders. My thumbs are vastly better than they were a year ago, but they still have some small scars, especially when I’m tired or stressed. I had a glorious two months this summer of entirely healed hands, and I can see a future for myself where my fingers are unblemished. I’m hugely proud of myself — but sometimes I look at my hands and believe they belong to somebody else. Read more:

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