You can take comfort from the fact that a lot of people are struggling with this habit. After seeing close-ups of himself in The Return of the King, Elijah Wood (who played Frodo Baggins), announced he would stop biting his nails, having been a nail-biter since childhood. Britney Spears and a former UK Prime Minister are also said to be nail biters. One survey revealed that 36% of 5-year-olds, 57% of 12-year-olds and 31% of 16-year-olds bite their nails (Medicine 2004;32:325).
Biting your nails can be a very difficult habit to break, and motivation is the key. You must be really truly keen to stop. You obviously realize that your habit is off-putting to other people. It also invites medical problems such as swelling and inflammation of your gums (gingivitis), and if you bite the skin at the edge of the nails (cuticles) you may develop painful infections around the nail that can lead to scarring or even loss of the nail. Damage helps wart-causing viruses to enter the skin, so you could develop warts round the edge of the nail. Another possible consequence is a herpes infection of the finger, if you bite your nails when you have a cold sore on your lips.
How to Stop Nail-Biting
A step-wise approach is the best method of stopping.
Trim or file off any irregular edge because ragged nails can be a focus for nail-biting. If your nails are bitten right down, this may not be possible initially, but when the nails start to grow again make sure you keep them well-manicured.
Work out why you are biting your nails. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.
- What was going on in my life when I started to bite my nails?
- What emotions make me bite my nails? Are there particular trigger? Situations that make me bite my nails that I might be able to avoid?
- What are the situations in which I do not bite my nails?
- Is there some problem in my life that is causing stress, which I could sort out? (In fact, this may not help a lot because nail-biting often starts during a period of stress, but then continues as a habit after the stress has been sorted out.)
Think up ways to prevent the habit. Here are some that other people have found helpful.
- Keep gloves in your bag or pocket and wear them when you want to bite.
- Choose one nail to protect. If you must bite, choose one of the other nails. When this special nail has grown nicely, after a while (don’t be in too much of a hurry) choose another nail to protect.
- Stick on artificial nails but be aware there are safety concerns about artificial nail products. They are made from many chemicals, but the main one is ethyl methacrylate (EMA). Previously, a similar chemical called methyl methacrylate (MMA) was used, but this has been banned in many countries including the USA. Both MMA and EMA can cause eczema, asthma (wheezing and tight chest) and allergies in the eyes and nose (British Medical Journal 2003;327:1050). Beware that regular use of glue on artificial nails can weaken real nails and make them more prone to breaking.
Buy some bitter-tasting nail paint from a pharmacy. This is specially made to prevent nail-biting, and you will usually find it in the nail care section of the pharmacy. This aversion therapy works quite well, especially for people who bite their actual nails but not the skin around the nails. For people who bite the skin, painting around the nail does not seem to work, because the bitter substance does not stick to the skin for long enough. Some people get used to the bitter taste, so the nail paint is not always a permanent cure.
Try the competing response/habit reversal method. This simply means that whenever you feel the urge to bite your nails, you do another action instead. For example, you could wear an elastic wristband, and snap it on the inside of your wrist whenever you feel the urge to bite your nails. Alternatively, clench your fists tightly with the thumbs inside against the palms of your hands for a minute or two; if you are in a situation where this action would be inappropriate, you grasp some object instead. Scientific studies have shown that this method can be surprisingly effective both for nail-biting and for nibbling of the skin around the nail. (Journal of Clinical Psychiatry;64:408.)
For this method to work, you must train yourself to know when you are biting your nails, which can be difficult. Ask your friends and family to help by immediately telling you whenever they see you nail-biting.
First published on: embarrassingproblems.com
Reviewed and edited by: Fiona Elliott
Last updated: January 2021