Onychophagia – or nail biting – is an incredibly common stress-relieving habit that can be very hard to quit. More prevalent in boys than girls, most cases begin between the ages of 4 and 6, stabilizing from 7 to 10 years old, and the habit often becomes entrenched by the teenage years since adolescence tends to be a time of emotional tumult.
Like teeth grinding, thumb sucking, and skin picking, people tend to bite their nails when they are nervous, stressed, hungry, or bored. The common thread between these mental states is feelings of anxiety. Though biting your nails might help you self-soothe in the moment, it provides only temporary relief.
3 Reasons To Stop Biting Your Nails
In addition to how nail biting affects the appearance of fingernails and is a bit of a social faux pas, there are some pretty compelling reasons to want to ditch this habit:
1. It Causes Dental Problems
When nail biting begins in childhood, it can impact the developing mouth. Chronic pressure put on teeth through nail biting may cause incorrect alignment of front teeth where they meet when the jaw is closed. Incisors and canine teeth may become crowded and rotated, and continuous rubbing of tooth and nail can lead to the loss of tooth tissue. Over time the alveolar bone, which supports the tooth in the gums, may become weakened and eroded. And lastly, nail biting creates small fractures at the edges of teeth, heightening the risk of gingivitis.
2. It Could Give You a Stomach Infection
Since fingernails are seldom clean, putting nails in your mouth (and worse still, swallowing the bitten off portion) can lead to various illnesses. Specifically, the tips of nails tend to harbor enterobacteriaceae, a family of bacteria that includes salmonella and E. coli, that are then transported to the mouth and gut. Biting your nails could be the reason you caught a cold or have a bad case of abdominal pain, but it could also lead to a more serious stomach virus.
3. Your Nails and Skin Can Become Infected
And because the mouth itself is a hotbed of bacteria, gnawing off too much of the nail exposes the tender skin beneath to a wealth of pathogens. Infected skin can become inflamed, red, and swollen, which can lead to chronic ingrown nails and deformities. If you also chew the skin around the nail, including the cuticle, you are at a higher risk of developing paronychia – a painful infection that leads to redness, soreness, changes in nail shape and color, pus-filled blisters, and even the detachment of your nail.
13 Tips to Break the Nail Biting Habit
It takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit. Here are some methods you can use to break the nail biting habit once and for all:
1. Identify Your Triggers
Like any bad habit, nail biting tends to be triggered by your emotional state. Perhaps you do it without thinking, or when you are stressed, or when trying to pass the time. Each time you catch yourself biting, write down exactly what you were doing at that moment – where you were, who you were with, what you were thinking about. Once you’ve identified your individual triggers, you can start trying different tactics to help break the cycle.
2. Keep Your Nails Short and Smooth
The easiest way to discourage nail biting is to keep your fingernails nice and short. With less nail to grab on to, the temptation to chew on your nails will be significantly hampered. Just be sure to stay on top of the nail trimming regimen and keep them clipped every few days. Run a nail file over all the edges to keep them smooth.
3. Apply Bitter-Tasting Nail Polish
An excellent tool for the mindless nail biter, using a bitter-tasting nail polish like Mavala Stop can help kick this habit. You can apply this clear coat to the entire nail bed every two days, cuticle and all, to deter yourself from putting your fingers in your mouth. Discrete enough for men and kids, the horrific flavor will make you think twice before gnawing.
4. Use Olive Oil
Brush a little olive oil onto your nails to make them soft and pliable, which can help lessen the desire to chew. As a bonus, olive oil will also help condition the cuticle and strengthen the nails.
5. Carry the Clipper
Another possible trigger for nail biting is the sudden appearance of a hang nail or other kind of split. Biting it just to “fix it” is a sure way for a nail bitter in remission to get started again. To circumvent this, carry your nail clipper with you at all times.
6. One Finger at a Time
If you’ve been biting your fingernails since childhood, curbing the habit gradually might work better than the all or nothing method. Focusing on one finger at a time, try to stop biting your pinkie nail, and when that’s successful, move on to another finger.
7. Replace the Habit
Keep those hands busy by taking part in outdoor activities, like gardening, sports, or even taking a walk. Arts and crafts, DIY projects, cooking, knitting, learning to play a musical instrument, and other handsy hobbies will also help distract you and prevent the urge to bite. The great part of replacing the habit with a healthier outlet is that your body and mind will also stand to benefit.
8. Get Regular Manicures
Spending a little money to make your nails look nice might be the extra incentive needed to stop biting. Alternatively, inexpensive options include using press on nails, or covering them with tape or stickers.
9. Chew Gum
Also keep your mouth occupied by chewing sugar free gum. Or, invest in a few pieces of “chewelry” that you can nibble on when you feel the urge.
10. Practice Mindfulness
Focusing on the present has far reaching benefits for mental, physical, and emotional health. Increase your awareness of the nail biting habit by really experiencing how the nails feel on your teeth, the pain it causes when you bite too deeply, the sensation on your skin. By being fully aware of all the sensory input during a nail biting session can help you realize that it doesn’t actually feel good at all.
11. Aromatherapy to Ease Anxiety
If you often chew your nails during times of high stress, treating the underlying cause can help curb the habit. Try using these essential oils for anxiety for immediate relief from nervousness, worry, and other mental stress. For discrete aromatherapy, invest in a diffuser necklace and inhale from it deeply throughout the day.
12. Tell a Friend
Sometimes sharing your goals with a loved one can help keep you accountable and on track. This tip is especially useful if you have a tendency to bite your nails without actually being aware of it.
13. Be Patient
Stopping a long formed habit is difficult and won’t happen overnight. Be patient, reward yourself on days you had success and don’t be too hard on yourself on the days that you didn’t. The trick is to keep trying and take things one day at a time.