How to Stop Biting Your Nails (and Why You Really, Really Should)
“Fingernails are full of germs — literally millions of bacteria, fungi, yeast and viruses”
Do you bite your nails? Chew your cuticles? Whether your fingers are constantly in your mouth or only when you’re anxious or bored, you could be doing more than ruining your future as a hand model.
“Fingernails are full of germs — literally millions of bacteria, fungi, yeast and viruses,” explains Lauren Ploch, MD, a dermatologist in New Orleans. By biting your nails, you’re more likely to spread the wart virus and cold sores to the skin around your mouth, develop yeast and/or bacterial infections and wind up with intestinal woes that lead to vomiting and diarrhea.
“In my practice I regularly see paronychia [an infection of the skin around the nail] caused by candida and Staphylococcus aureus bacteria,” adds Ploch.
If there’s polish on your nails and you gnaw on them, you may ingest toxic ingredients. “Nail polish is made up of countless chemicals, including formaldehyde, that aren’t safe for human consumption,” notes Ploch. Many nail polishes also contain phthalates, endocrine disruptors that upset hormone signaling in the body.
If chewing nails or cuticles really gets, ahem, out of hand, it could be a sign of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Excessive skin picking (excoriation) or nail biting (onychophagia) could require medication, cognitive behavioral therapy or both.
Do hangnails bother you? The best way to stop yourself from chewing the skin around your fingers is to keep it and your nails and nail beds well hydrated, advises Ella Toombs, MD, a dermatologist in Washington, DC. Ploch suggests massaging your fingertips with an emollient such as petroleum jelly.
Of course, it’s okay to trim a hangnail with nail scissors (not your teeth!) if it’s bothering you or catching on your clothing.
Related: The Right Way to Trim Your Toenails
Try the “mani-cure”
You may be less likely to put your nails in your mouth if they’re neatly filed and polished a pretty color — especially if you paid good money to have a pro groom them. Plus, now that you know some nail polishes can be toxic, that may help sway you as well. Keep your nails on the short side and apply a layer of topcoat every couple of days to keep your mani looking clean and fresh.
Lose your taste for nail biting
Try an over-the-counter remedy. These are harmless, colorless liquids that brush onto nails like regular polish but taste bitter. The taste may be enough to convince you to keep your fingers out of your mouth.
Nail down your triggers
Note when and under what conditions you’re mostly like to nibble on your nails. “I encourage patients to keep a journal to write down what they’re doing and feeling when they have the urge to bite their nails,” says Ploch. Once you’ve figured out your triggers, try soothing yourself with another activity. Some recommendations from Ploch and Toombs: knitting, kneading a stress ball, meditation, yoga and deep breathing.
Stop your kids from gnawing
If your child bites her nails, keeping them trimmed and her cuticles soft will help discourage her. If she’s over 4, take her for a kid-friendly manicure (don’t allow the technician to cut her cuticles) and let her pick out the wildest color she wants. You also can try putting mini stickers on her nails. Keep track of your child’s triggers so you can step in to distract her as soon as you see her hand heading toward her mouth. Setting up a reward chart or calendar can work, too.