Nail biting can be a tough habit to crack.
It’s estimated that between 20 and 30 percent of the population struggles to quit nipping at their fingernails on a daily basis. But that doesn’t mean that the issue is a lost cause. According to experts, it can be done, dropping the habit just takes a bit of effort.
Below are a few tips on how to stop biting your nails for good:
1. Identify your triggers
Before attempting to curb your nail-biting habit, it’s helpful to take a moment to identify what is causing you to bite your nails in the first place.
People bite their nails for many reasons, said Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California. According to DePompo, the most common triggers include ruminating on a problem, ignoring your anger or feelings about an issue, or chewing as a mindless habit.
The key to stopping is to figure out what your trigger is and take action against it.
“You can try all the traditional things, like wearing gloves, chewing gum or using acrylic nails all you want to try to stop, but until you get to the root of your behavior, you’ll never be able to kick the habit once and for all,” said Kathryn Smerling, a New York-based therapist.
Smerling suggested keeping a journal or making mental notes of what is happening when you bite your nails in order to get a better understanding of what sparks your bad habit.
“Is it during meetings at work because you’re stressed? Are you at home watching TV and trying to pass the time? Figure out what it is, whether certain events, specific people or emotional states, and then work to change your reaction to those stressful scenarios,” she said.
2. Enlist the help of friends
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Enlist the assistance of those you love to help get you through. Research shows that teaming up with a friend to reach a goal can increase your chances of succeeding by 95 percent.
Ask friends and family to call you out (kindly) if they see you start to bite your nails, or encourage them to cheer you on. Better yet, find a friend who also wants to stop biting their own nails and make a pledge to help each other.
“I once had a client who told her boyfriend she was struggling with nail-biting and wasn’t even aware of it most of the time,” Smerling said. “When she was with him, he helped her pull her hand away from her mouth whenever she started to bite. Eventually, she became more aware of the behavior and didn’t need his help. It all starts with awareness, a serious commitment to stop and constantly practicing every day to get better.”
3. Gross yourself out
Educate yourself about what could be lurking underneath your nails and you’ll never want to bite them again.
“People who bite their nails don’t usually clean their hands prior to putting them in their mouths, thus exposing themselves to a number of pathogens that can lead to illness, such as the flu,” said Hal Weitzbuch, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of JuveTress.
Weitzbuch added that many of the common germs found on our bodies are commonly found under the nails, which includes staph bacteria (responsible for some infections) and strep species. Fungus is also commonly found under the nails, which can lead to onychomycosis, a nail fungus that turns nails yellow, brown or black, Weitzbuch said.
“It is very common for patients with warts on their hands to get the warts on their lips or in their mouth, and sometimes very unfortunately even deeper in their larynx,” he continued.
So in general, it’s best to keep your nails away from your mouth.
4. Think of your teeth
You endured the torture of wearing braces as a kid. You floss every night and brush your teeth at least once a day. But biting your nails could be wreaking havoc on your teeth.
“Every day in my office I see patients who come in with small chips on their upper and lower front teeth. I don’t need to look at their fingernails to know that they are using their teeth for something other than chewing food,” said Jack Schwartz, a New York-based dentist.
When you bite down on your nails, you subject your pearly whites to all sorts of potential damage. Studies have found that the force of biting nails can be transferred to the root of teeth, causing a variety of tooth and gum injuries as well as conditions like infection and tooth rot. Additionally, nibbling on your nails can leave you with cracked or chipped front teeth.
“If someone is really serious about protecting their teeth, then it’s important to remember that they are not meant to be tools,” Schwartz said.
5. Get regular manicures
“People who pay for manicures tend to bite their nails less,” said Tania Elliot, chief medical officer of the nationwide preventive health company EHE. “Before going to gnaw off a nail, think about the time, money and effort that went into making them look so nice.”
The financial incentive is possibly the best reason a manicure can help keep the habit at bay, according to Natasha Poliakov, co-owner of Marina and I nail salon in Deerfield, Illinois.
“After spending money on a manicure, it’s likely that you will take better care of your investment,” said Poliakov. A nail technician can also make your nails short, which makes it harder for you to bite them, she added
6. Use your phone to your advantage
Enlist the help of apps like Streaks, which can help you tally how many days in a row you avoid biting your nails. The goal of the program is to rack up consecutive days of achievement so that you will work harder to maintain the momentum.
“Bad habits will stop with deliberate practice, and using an app like this is an excellent way to adhere to a goal,” said DePompo, who recommended tracking your habits closely for three weeks. “It can take that long to turn it around,” he explained.
If you want to get even fancier, you can try a product like HabitAware. The bracelet looks like a fitness tracker and uses motion sensors to detect its wearer’s specific behavior after a one-time training with a companion mobile app. When the device senses your hand doing your unwanted gesture, it vibrates to make you aware of what you are doing, giving you an opportunity to stop.
7. Get ahead of hangnails
Often people start biting their nails by going after a loose hangnail. Then, before long, they have moved onto the actual nail tip and then it’s off to the races. The secret to stopping this pattern from repeating, according to Elliot, is to be prepared.
“Carry a nail clipper with you at all times and clip those hangnails before you have the urge to bite,” she said.
Put a nail clipper in your purse, in the center console of your car, or in a desk drawer at work.
8. Do the opposite of your urges
If the urge to bite your nails strikes, try tending to your nails instead of chomping on them, said DePompo.
“When you catch yourself biting, no matter what, take time to either paint your nails, file them, apply lotion on your hands,” he said. The idea is to take a “bad” act and replace it with a “good” and nurturing one.
9. Make them taste bad
Consider using a foul-tasting nail polish that’s designed to help you kick the habit. Anna Guanche, a board-certified dermatologist based in California, is a big fan of ORLY no Bite for Nail Biting and Thumb Sucking and SuperNail Bite No More. Another popular brand is Mavala Stop.
“These are both effective bitter reminders not to bite the nail,” she said. Getting fake nails put on your tips can also do the trick. “Also, acrylic nails are too thick and solid to bite, so they may deter nail biting long enough to break the habit.”
10. Be mindful
According to Elliot, mindfulness may also help you fight the urge to nip at your nails. The practice of just being present in the moment and noticing everything around you can increase your awareness of the habit.
“While you are biting your nails, think about every aspect of it, how it tastes in your mouth, the pain in your hands, the rubberiness of your skin,” she said. “Doesn’t feel so good anymore, does it?”
Elliot adds that pausing to think about what you are really doing may help you realize that biting your nails is far from beneficial.
“Many people bite their nails as a response to stress or another trigger, and for whatever reason, your mind has been trained to think that biting your nails makes you feel better and makes that stress go away,” she said. “The goal here is to replace that ‘reward’ with what is really happening, and how gross it actually feels to bite your nails. Once your brain realizes this, the habit becomes easier to break.”
11. Visualize your dream nails
If you want to stop biting your nails, keeping an eye on the perfect fingertips may help ease the process along.
“Put photos of beautiful hands and nails up on your bathroom mirror, in your car, or even as your phone’s wallpaper,” said Julie Vandalic, aka Julie Off Duty, a celebrity nail stylist who has worked with clients like Viola Davis, Emma Roberts and Hailee Steinfeld. “It acts as a constant visual reminder of what your nails and hands will look like if you stop.”
12. Reward your progress
“Don’t dwell on failures,” said Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed psychotherapist who works with clients in the U.S. and Europe.
When it comes to achieving a goal like quitting the nail-biting game, it’s important to celebrate your victories along the way.
“Think like a tennis pro. When you find yourself biting your nails, don’t dwell, but rather make a correction and continue playing the game,” he said. “And don’t forget to reward your success.”