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Is Nail Biting a Problem for You?



Nail biting is a surprisingly common habit that often starts in childhood, usually around the age of ten.  While some children will soon grow out of this habit, others will carry on with this distressing habit into adulthood.

Officially known as onychophagia, it is what psychologists call a "body focused repetitive behavior" or BFRB.

Why do we start to bite our nails?

Clare Mackay (a professor of imaging neuroscience at Oxford University in the UK) has a special interest in nail biting having suffered from this habit herself. 

She says: "BFRBs are very much overlooked despite being common and causing significant distress."  She adds that almost everyone engages in some nail biting, skin picking or hair pulling but that this becomes disordered when it is  uncontrollable and causing distress.

She goes on to say: "One of the major reasons we don't have better data is that these behaviors are often hidden."

Clare believes that BFRBs are a consequence for most people of emotional or psychological distress, saying that it does not have to be something obvious and that nail biting can be self-soothing.

While for many, nail biting happens automatically rather than being a conscious decision but...

  • Nail biting may be a sign of anxiety or stress. The repetitive behavior seems to help some people cope with challenging emotions.
  • It may simply be something helping to keep your hands busy.  Nail biting (along with other habits) can be common when bored or hungry.

In some cases it may be related to ADHD, separation anxiety or other areas concerning mental health.

How can we kick the habit?

 While it is unlikely that nail biting will cause any long-term damage, there are some risks:

  • You may increase the chance of infection by damaging the skin around the nail.
  • There is an increased risk of catching colds and other infections as you spread germs from your fingers to your mouth.
  • You can harm your teeth.

Here are some tips to help you to stop biting your nails.

1.  Finding the trigger

Is it when you’re feeling anxious? When you’re bored? Or maybe you start nibbling when you want to forget a certain feeling - for example, anger?

Try to keep a record of when you bite your nails and how you’re feeling or what you’re doing, to help to identify any patterns so that you can try and change your reaction to any nail-biting triggers. For example, filing your nails into a nice shape when you’re worried instead of biting them all off.

2.  Consider the germs!

Nail biting can be unhygienic.  Perhaps go and wash your hands instead of biting your nails!

3.  Help from friends and family

They can remind you not to bite your nails and give you the support to help you stop.

4.  What about the health of your mouth and your teeth

Biting your nails can cause problems down the line like cracked and chipped teeth. Use this as another motivation to stop biting your nails.

5.  Get your nails done

If you can manage to grow your nails a little bit, reward yourself with a visit to a nail bar.  It could help you to kick the habit.

6.  Give those nails a horrible taste

  • There are several nasty tasting formulas on the market to try that could help to put a stop to absent-minded nail biting.
  • You can also try a natural way such as malt, apple cider or wine vinegar.  Dilute a few drops into water and dip your fingernails into it as long as you don't have broken skin.  Let the vinegar solution dry naturally on your nails.
  • Another suggestion is to chop up some garlic cloves before adding to some olive oil and leaving it to infuse for a day.   Apply the mixture to your fingernails and let it dry. The olive oil will nourish them and the bad garlic smell will remind you not to bite your nails. 
  • A further suggestion is neem oil which is naturally extremely bitter and serves as a great reminder to stop biting your nails. Simply apply some to your nails and let it dry.
7.  Reward every little victory

Whether you’ve managed to get through a whole day without biting your nails or as long as a month, it is time to celebrate!  And plan some rewards for reaching any milestones.  Positive reinforcement could help you kick the habit for good.

If you do find yourself biting your nails, don’t be too hard on yourself.  Instead, acknowledge the mistake and start again.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

8.  Trim your nails short

If you do manage to start growing your nails, keep them short by trimming or filing them, then you’re less likely to bite them.  Less nail, less to bite and less temptation.

9.  Keep yourself occupied

When you feel like biting your nails, try keeping your hands busy.  Keep something handy such a stress ball to keep your mind off it.

10. Try stopping gradually

A different approach could be to stop gradually, first stopping to bite one set of nails, such as your thumbnails.  Then when you’ve been successful, begin to eliminate other nails  with the eventual goal of stopping all together.



Nail-Associated Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors: Habit-Tic Nail Deformity, Onychophagia, and Onychotillomania - PMC (nih.gov)

Chronic nail biting, orthodontic treatment and Enterobacteriaceae in the oral cavity - PubMed (nih.gov)

 nail biting - PMC - NCBI (nih.gov)