How to stop biting your nails once and for all

Written by Hanna Ibraheem

Nail biting can introduce a host of problems. From common causes to how to identify your personal trigger, a consultant psychodermatologist tells us their advice on how to stop the habit.

Whether it’s out of anxiousness, boredom or a life-long habit you just can’t seem to break – nail biting is a common practice some of us just can’t seem to shake.

But, while it’s a common problem and seems to only affect the appearance of your nails, nail biting can become a long-term issue and may lead to health problems like an infection or can cause damage to tissue surrounding the nail bed. Not to mention that keeping your fingers away from your mouth is particularly important during the current pandemic.

Here, Dr Alia Ahmed, consultant psychodermatologist and skin wellness expert, explains the things you should consider, from identifying a trigger to effective methods on how to stop.

What causes nail biting?

“Exactly why some people bite their nails is not fully understood. It is however likely to be an interplay of several factors,” Dr Ahmed tells, listing the likes of genetics, some psychiatric disorders and exacerbating factors as influential.

“Several studies indicate that there is a genetic component to nail biting (also known as onychophagia). One study has shown that 36.8% of nail biters had at least one family member with this habit. Studies of twins have shown that identical twins are more likely to both be nail-biters than non-identical twins,” she explains. And exacerbating factors such as boredom or trying to concentrate are influences that many nail biters might more readily recognise.

There has also been some suggestion that anxiety is associated with nail biting, but the evidence is not consistent. “Some studies show no difference in anxiety disorders between nail-biters versus non nail-biters; but another study has shown that up to 24.2% of nail biters will develop anxiety at some point in their lifetime.” The research into this side of things is inconsistent, but if you’re ever concerned about your anxiety and wider mental health, always speak to your GP or find advice and support with with mental health charity Mind.

    How can you identify a nail biting trigger?

    “It is important to be able to able to identify triggers for nail biting, these may include stress, anxiety, or even boredom,” explains Dr Ahmed. “To help identify these triggers I suggest keeping a daily journal to write down any thoughts/feelings/situations that promote nail biting.” This can be kept on either a notebook or even your mobile phone or tablet. 

    “You may be able to pick up a pattern if you do this, for example ‘I only bite my nails when I am watching TV or bored’,” she adds. “It will then be easier to deal with or stop nail biting. This can be difficult to do on your own, especially if nail-biting is happening largely subconsciously, it may be helpful to enlist someone you trust to make you aware of biting behaviour.”

    “Importantly though, if nail biting is a sign of another underlying problem, it is unlikely to respond to standard treatment until that problem is addressed – for example, a psychiatric or psychological problem or behavioural disorders.”

    How do you stop nail biting?

    • Habit reversal: increasing awareness of nail biting behaviour, predisposing activities or warning signs, and instead practicing a distracting behaviour (such as clasping hands) may help stop nail biting. Habit reversal works on the principle of recognising the behaviour/habit, in this case nail biting, and then developing a competing behaviour that is performed instead. It is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy, and has shown to stop/reverse nail biting behaviour.”
    • Object manipulation: manipulation of an object during warning signs of nail biting, like a stress ball, can also distract from nail biting behaviour and deliver the same satisfaction. This type of treatment has shown to be helpful for nail biting (but not as good as habit reversal).”
    • Bitter-tasting nail lacquer: this practice of applying a bitter-tasting lacquer to the nail to deter from nail biting is popular. It is a form of aversion therapy. The nail lacquer contains denatonium benzoate and sucrose octaacetate and is available over the counter. This method has shown to improve nail biting.”
    • Non-removable reminder: a wristband or another form of an easily visible non-removable item can be worn to remind people not to nail bite.”
    • Application of artificial nails or gel manicures: I hear from my patients that this is a popular technique that they have used with positive results. The obstacle to nail biting is not wanting to ruin their nice new nails or nail paint.”
    • Oral medication: This is only really suitable for moderate to severe cases, or in those patients who are developing complications or poor quality of life. Medication can be used in addition to any of the options above. This option requires specialist referral.”

    If nail biting is something you’re worried about, you should seek advice from your GP or a medical professional.

    • Shop Mavala Stop Nail Biting at John Lewis, £12.10

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    Main image: Getty

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