We’re all pretty familiar with how gross biting your nails can be, but it’s worse than just skeeving out your fellow subway riders. This seemingly benign oral fixation can cause physical harm, and more than just raw and bloodied fingertips. When you’re nibbling on your nails, you’re also ingesting all the germs your hands have collected throughout the day.
“This seemingly benign oral fixation can cause physical harm, and more than just raw and bloodied fingertips.”
As Lauren Ploch, MD, MEd, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist explained, “Usually, our salivary enzymes and peptic (stomach) acids may break down the bacteria so they’re less likely to harm us. However, some bacteria can cause gastrointestinal issues (i.e. vomiting and diarrhea).”
Germs aren’t the only concern. According to Dr. Shari Lipner, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University, nail biting may lead to permanent brown-black lines on the nails, as well as a shortened nail caused by deformation in the nail bed. And the habit could potentially “lead to gum swelling and abscesses, as [in] TMJ syndrome,” she said.
If you’re ready to kick your nail biting addiction, there are a few solutions you can try that don’t require snapping a rubber band around your wrist or walking around with rubber gloves (unless that’s a new look you want to try). For ideas, we asked manicure masters like Jin Soon Choi, Deborah Lippmann and Miss Pop to share their favorite prevention and treatment options.
But remember, these are just suggestions and it’s best to talk to your doctor about your options — after all, what might work for one person might not work for another, and it’s all about finding the right fit for you. Check out some tried-and-trued cures, ahead.
There’s a reason why fidget spinners have been everywhere this year, including in a few manicures. The devices not only keep hands busy, but also distract the mind, which is what many nail biters are looking for as they nibble when they try to concentrate.
“Some effective methods are object manipulation (manipulating an object when one has the desire to bite their nails)...that ‘remind’ the person to avoid biting,” said. Dr. Lipner.
In fact, a study found that object manipulation was a fairly effective method of helping to reduce nail biting. Though it’s not as effective as other habit reversal therapies, it could be a great option for those who might only bite their nails while working on a task or solving a problem.
Dr. Ploch agrees, but notes that you don’t need to stick with this year’s hottest fad to be distracted from dining on your digits. She suggests squeezing a stress ball when you feel anxious or work on crossword puzzles to help take your mind off the task at hand for a bit.
”Distractions help,” she said. “Finding something to occupy the hands can decrease nail biting.” It can help give your brain the break you need to overcome the obstacle without worrying about the health of your nails.
The nail industry has spent decades trying to get nail nibblers to break their bad habit. Polishes and topcoats are often infused with a bitter or spicy taste meant to deter anyone who’s prone to putting a finger in their mouths. According to Dr. Lipner, trials to evaluate the technique have found them to be fairly helpful.
But our nail experts agreed that the bitter tang isn’t enough to stop some seriously determined chewers from chomping on the claws (or what’s left of them).
In fact, Miss Pop, a reformed nail biter herself, admitted that it didn’t stop her back when she still had to take math tests. “I didn’t mind the stuff that tastes disgusting. It didn’t bother me,” she said. “Every time there was a math test, I was like, ‘Hi, nails. Bye, nails.’”
Not to mention all the chemicals you could be consuming as you feed your habit — regardless of whether the tangy topcoat is five-free or not. “In reality, they don’t taste that bad, and the texture isn’t a complete deterrent, “ Dr. Ploch added. “Also, ingestion of the chemicals in polishes may not be safe long-term.”
Bottom Line: This could be an option if you only nibble occasionally or if you tend to gnaw at your nails when you’re bored or not paying attention to your hands. But know the risks first.
A lot of the hangnails and cut-up cuticles that nail biters tend to have stems from having their hands in their mouths, as saliva dries skin out as it evaporates. And this lack of moisture makes nails and cuticles more prone to rips and tears, creating a vicious chewing cycle.
Keeping hands hydrated with a thick, nourishing hand cream can serve as your first step to stopping the bad habit by giving hands too much slip to savor (especially if it’s scented), but it will also heal the skin in the process.
If the scents (and maybe the taste) of the moisturizers aren’t enough, Dr. Ploch suggests slathering on some Vaseline around your nail bed. “I recommend something gooey like petroleum jelly because the texture feels weird in the mouth and it’s more likely to make someone averse to biting the nail,” she said.
Plus, the Vaseline, though not technically a moisturizer, can also help retain skin’s moisture to keep nails smooth and snag-free.
Trying to even out broken or torn nails are often what prompt many nail biters to start munching in the first place. As Miss Pop admitted, “Half the reason I bite is to even them out. I keep biting and never stop biting, and [my nails] would never be even until I couldn’t bite them anymore.”
Her simple solution? Keep a file on hand, whether it’s in your bag, at your desk, or on your vanity to take care of the problem before it starts. “If you have to physically get up to get a file, you’re just going to wind up biting off the uneven edge,” Lippmann concurred.
But forget about buffing back and forth the way you’ve seen in it movies or at some salons — move the file from the edge towards the middle of the nail in one fluid motion to smooth over the snag so you have a harder point of entry. Because if not, “you’re more likely to create the opportunity for breakage and peeling,” Miss Pop said. “If you go back and forth, it’s like you’re sanding your nail down.”
You’d be surprised to find that many of the manicurists we know and follow on our favorite social streams used to bite their nails themselves. Miss Pop began playing with polishes as a way for her stem her need to nibble. Trying out different patterns entices you to keep your manicure immaculate (and not in your mouth), and it also opens up another avenue of creativity and a weekly routine to get used to.
Also, Miss Pop notes that it took six months of weekly at-home manis to help break her habit and score her nail art skills. “You get so good by the third month, you’re like, ‘I’m actually not bad at this,’” she said. “And by the sixth month, you’re like, ‘I’m magic.’”
But if you don’t have time for intricate designs at home, or your nails chip too fast to show off your creations, glitter is an easy option that's sure to dazzle. And since it's hard to pick or scrub off with acetone (let alone nail polish remover), our manicurists found it to be an easy and affordable option for some who don’t let yuck-inducing topcoats or some hand cream stop them from gnawing at their nails.
Miss Pop advises any who try this method to opt for a peel-off basecoat to help make the glitter easier to scrub or bite off. “That can be your stepping stone, and eventually, you’ll have glitter teeth, and you’ll just want to be over that,” she said.
Some nail biters might not mind messing up an at-home mani, but the salon could be another question entirely. Choi considers gel polish to be an awesome option for those who can afford the bi-weekly color changes, as the treatment give the shine and color of regular polish, but a hard enough topcoat to make it “less convenient to nibble.”
Another salon-inspired, nail biting solution: acrylics. In fact, the nail enhancements played a part in shaping Lippmann’s career away from her first passion: singing.
At her first rehearsal in a Vegas-style cabaret group (her first paid gig), her nail-bitten fingers caught the attention of the director. “Before I could even finish, the director sent me to a manicurist and got me a full set of acrylic nails,” she shared. ”They were long and square and red, and they changed my life.”
Hard acrylics are very hard to bite through without harming your teeth and gums in the process, making them one of the best options for die-hard nail biters.
But just as with any other salon treatment, being mindful of the removal process is key to keeping whatever bit of nail you have left strong and shapely. “Women who remove their gels at home can get impatient with the amount of time that it takes for the gel to dissolve, and they end up pulling the product off, ultimately causing damage to the nail,” Lippmann explained.
As such, gels and acrylics need to be soaked off in acetone for 10-15 minutes for gel polishes, and 20-30 minutes for acrylics before removing the remnants with a soft orange wood stick to avoid scraping off the top layer of the nail. Finish with a cuticle oil to nourish the nail bed and strengthen nails as they grow.
If you’re concerned about your habit, but you’re unsure of which route to take or you’ve already attempted them, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or mental health care provider about it. A doctor or dermatologist can make sure there’s nothing else wrong with your nails, such as an infection or problems with the nail bed.
Medical professionals can offer other resources to help you kick the habit, such as behavioral therapy or oral medication, especially if you feel like your nail biting might be interfering with your life.
And remember — even though it can be hard to stop biting your nails, it’s not impossible. It will take time, a little trial and error, and maybe a chat with your doctor to find a solution that works best for you. But hey, don't you want to show off your next mani?
By: Valid Vicenty