Why Do We Pick at Our Nails? Experts Explain—And Tell Us How to Stop

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Nail-biting can be a frustrating habit. Like biting your lips, it's a somewhat compulsive behavior that can result in damaged nails and dry, cracked skin on your hands. Though it may feel impossible to stop, we promise there's hope.

First, it's important to understand why you're doing it. Nail-picking and nail-biting are typically a response to anxiety, explains Nancy B. Irwin, a Los Angeles–based doctor of psychology and clinical hypnotist. Nail-picking can also reflect stress or anger, adds Chicago-based licensed therapist Rachel Kazez.

All of this sounds fairly dramatic, but nail-biting doesn’t always have to be. “Sometimes it can be just a habit with nothing much underneath (those can be especially hard to break),” Kazez explains. For instance, you might start biting your nails simply because a cool kid at school did it growing up.

Of course, if you go a little too far with your nail-picking, you could damage your cuticles, which could hurt or cause an infection in some cases. "Nail-biting can lead to non-reversible damage to the proximal nail bed," says New York-based dermatologist Orit Markowitz, MD. But in the grand scheme of things, mental health experts agree that a little nail-biting won’t ruin your life.

Keep scrolling to learn expert tips to help you stop biting your nails.

01 of 12

Try a Bitter Nail Polish

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If biting is your main concern, Markowitz recommends adding bitter-tasting nail polish to your nails. The "toxic taste" should stop you in your tracks. You can also try out some natural products that have a bitter taste to prevent you from biting your nails. Bitter melon juice ($10), also known as bitter gourd, is an all-natural juice that is often used in Asian cuisine and, as the name implies, has a bitter taste that is a good deterrent. Simply place some juice on a cotton ball and swipe on your nails. Vinegar also has a bitter taste, so just wipe it on your nails with a cotton ball and let it dry.

Another option is to go for a gel manicure. You could be less likely to pick or bite your nails when you know you spent a little extra cash to get them done.

Neuroscientist and author of The Source, Tara Swart, MD, agrees that "for mild cases, a gel manicure does help as it creates a pause during which you may be able to change your mind if you can regulate the emotions driving the behavior."

02 of 12

Make a Standing Nail Appointment

If you have the time and the funds, consider "getting your nails done regularly," suggests Markowitz. A fresh manicure "makes them look and feel good and gives you something to look forward to."  The fact that you spent money to have them professionally done may help deter you from chewing on them. Plus, a regular manicure will help keep your cuticles and nails shaped and clean—so you don’t have hangnails or ragged edges to entice you to bite them. 

You can also paint your nails yourself. "Complete a full manicure with a base coat and topcoat as well," says Rebecca Isa, creative director of the nail brand Zoya.

Have fun with different colors, designs, and prints. "You’ll be less inclined to bite your nails if they aren’t bare,” says Isa.

"To help with healing the nails from constant biting, I would recommend using the Zoya Naked Manicure Rescue Serum ($12)," says Isa. "It is the ultimate treatment for the nails and cuticles and promotes nail health to even the most damaged nails."

03 of 12

Practice Yoga

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Yoga and meditation can help relieve stress or anxious energy that makes you want to pick, notes Markowitz. The calming movements and breathwork will not only release some of your stress, but it might also distract your mind from wanting to subconsciously pick afterward. Plus, it's hard to bite your nails when you're in downward dog!

Incorporate yoga poses that help decrease anxiety, such as tree pose, triangle pose, tabletop, standing forward bend, and child’s pose. Focus on your breathing as you flow through each movement, allowing all the stress and anxiety to leave your body as you exhale. 

Yoga and meditation are a type of self-care that is such an important part of keeping balance in your life. Take the time to occasionally plan other types of stress-relieving activities as well, such as getting a massage or relaxing in the sauna.

04 of 12

Keep Your Hands Busy

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Think about why you bite your nails: “When we are feeling anxious and helpless, a repetitive motor task is useful to manage,” adds Jeanette Raymond, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in L.A. “Since the task involves a part of our body, we feel the effect on our somatic selves, which is much easier to bear than an emotional typhoon over which we have little control.”

There’s a rhythmic quality to nail-picking that is comforting and pacifying, Raymond says. Rather than picking, keep your hands busy by squeezing a stress ball or passing it from hand to hand. This mimics the psychological effects of nail-biting without the negative impact on your cuticles.

If, despite your best efforts at keeping your hands busy, you are still tempted to chew—try taking a more gradual approach.  Some experts recommend trying to first stop chewing just your thumbnails, then add on your pinky nails—and continue adding on nails until you longer bite any of them.

05 of 12

Try Aromatherapy

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Aromatherapy using essential oils can help calm the “fight-or-flight” part of the brain that causes tension, anxiety, and nail chewing. Chill out with some lavender aromatherapy, which will bring calm to your brain (and your fidgety fingers). Lavender is known for its calming effects and even has some anxiety-easing properties, helping relieve restlessness, which might help you stop picking.

In addition to lavender, there are other scents to choose from. Experts say that not everyone may find the same scent relaxing, but the following essential oils have fragrances that have been proven to promote relaxation and a feeling of calm.

  • Sweet Orange
  • Roman Chamomile
  • Bergamot
  • Vetiver
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Frankincense

 You can use a diffuser to have a light scent in one particular room, or throughout your entire house. Some people prefer to spritz the essential oil spray on a pillow or blanket. You can also find candles that have these calming scents. Some essential oils you can put directly on your skin, but test a small spot for an allergic reaction first. 

06 of 12

Pick up a Sport

Maybe you haven't played catch or picked up a yo-yo since grade school, but if you're trying to stop biting your nails, now might be the time. Consider trying a sport or activity that gets your hands involved. “Anything that includes throwing or jerking motions releases the trapped anxiety so the sufferer can achieve calm," says Irwin.

Exercise also releases serotonin and other “feel-good” hormones to help you stay relaxed and calm. It is important to pick a type of exercise or sport you enjoy. If yoga isn’t your thing, then try Pilates, cycling, running, or tennis. The bottom line is that whatever type of exercise you will stick to is what you should try to incorporate into your daily routine. Finding an exercise program you like may be the key to helping decrease the tension that breaks the cycle of nail-biting. 

07 of 12

Nourish Your Nails

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If you're a nail-biter, one of the best things you can do for your hands is to take care of them. Markowitz recommends "using thick ointment regularly." Her picks include Cutemol Emollient Cream ($24) or a 1 percent hydrocortisone ointment, which you should easily be able to find at your drugstore.

This will soothe some of the negative effects of nail-biting, which can include "painful swelling of the cuticle or chronic swelling and puffy nail cuticles, trauma to the nail that looks like dark streaks as a result of bleeding in the nail bed," says Markowitz.

You can also take the more natural approach and rub coconut oil on your nails and cuticles. It not only moisturizes your cuticles but also helps strengthen brittle nails. If you don’t have coconut oil, try using jojoba oil, castor oil, or olive oil as they are all great alternatives to help soothe and strengthen your cuticles and nails

08 of 12

Chat with a Therapist

While not all nail-biting indicates underlying emotional distress, if you've tried everything and can't stop, or suspect there's more to the story, consider seeking help from a professional. Talk therapy can be a great way to get at the root of the issue. "Often the bitten nails, picked skin and pulled out hair is a visible form of the emotional pain that no-one else sees, and the person is crying out for help with emotional pain they cannot articulate in words," says Swart.

If you are having a hard time stopping, know that you aren’t alone. An estimated 20-30 percent of Americans bite their nails and need help to break the habit. Behavioral therapy can help identify what triggers you to bite your nails and offers healthier alternatives. Therapies that include hypnotherapy or habit-reversal training can help break the nail-biting cycle, says the Cleveland Clinic. Your therapist can also make sure your nail-biting isn’t related to other disorders, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). 

09 of 12

Keep Them Short

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While there may be some hidden satisfaction in biting your nails regularly, there's also something to be said for taking back control and keeping them short to stop the urge. Long nails may be a distraction or a trigger for you to chew and pick on them. Set up a weekly or bi-weekly at-home routine of cutting your nails to a reasonable yet manageable length and over time your urges may subside.

Just because your nails are short doesn’t mean they can’t be manicured. You may feel more comfortable trying out a more daring color on shorter nails than a long nail. As mentioned previously, getting your nails professionally manicured is often a great deterrent to chewing as they don’t only look good, they also cost money. Not to mention, it is easier to type and do some sports and hobbies with a shorter-length nail.

10 of 12

Get Creative

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Turning a negative into a positive has its perks when it comes to this beauty hack. If the nail salon budget is a bit tight, spark your creative side by dabbling in at-home nail art. Not only will you take the time to invest in an awesome new hobby, chances are you'll be less inclined to bite your new work of art. Scan YouTube and Pinterest for inspiration (we're partial to the Dip Powder trend and nail stickers) and you're well on your way!

Nail stickers are a fun and easy way to get creative with your nails to deter the urge to nibble on them. Choose from designs including rainbows, flowers, and even jewels. You can even get festive and match the stickers to the upcoming holiday! Simply place the stickers on your nails—they can be bare nails or with a coat of polish—and finish off with a topcoat. 

11 of 12

Keep a Journal

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The truth is, you're less likely to break this habit if you're afraid to get to the root cause of why you started biting your nails in the first place. Is nail-biting a habit that's recently surfaced? Have you been fighting these urges for more years than you care to count? If so, it's time to nail down those triggers once and for all. A great way to hold yourself accountable is to jot down your thoughts at the end of each day. Keep track of any noticeable trends or triggers and have an honest chat about what you can do to finally get some relief.

You can also find online groups for nail-biting support. It is often reassuring to talk to others who are going through the same thing. They can offer tips and suggestions that worked for them, as well as encouragement and support. We're rooting for you!

12 of 12

Visual Aids

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When desperate times call for old-school measures don't be afraid to turn to a DIY solution that works wonders for tiny tots. While this is a judgment-free zone and we'd be wary of suggesting thumb guards for ourselves, a more grown-up solution could have you reaching for a more fun alternative: themed bandages. Painless and, let's face it, kind of cute, this is the ideal option for anyone in need of a quick fix without the foul taste of other remedies.

Another old-school measure that may help satisfy your urge to bite is chewelry, also known as chewable jewelry. That’s right, chew toys aren’t just for tots! Made of 100 percent food-grade silicone, you can find cool designs, such as this one from Mayberry ($9), that will keep you distracted from biting your nails. Make sure you aren’t biting or chewing too hard or vigorously to damage your teeth. Talk to your dentist about any concerns.

When to See a Doctor

It takes time to break a habit, but if you feel like the tips above aren’t helping then it is time to talk to your doctor. Frequent nail-biting not only can damage your nails, but it can also make you more susceptible to getting sick from transferring bacteria and viruses from your nails to your mouth. If your nails are sore and appear to be infected, you should see a board-certified dermatologist who can provide medications to help you heal. 

You should also talk to a therapist who can discuss treatment options to help you break the nail-biting habit. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you should seek professional help if your nail biting is causing you to have shame, depression, or low self-esteem—as well as ongoing damage to your nails and even your teeth. Chronic nail-biting is called onychophagia and your doctor can help come up with a treatment plan to help you break the habit for good.

FAQ
  • Is there a single underlying cause for nail-biting?

    While this habit is often linked to anxiety and stress, triggers can vary from person to person and can stem from childhood. For more concrete reasons, consult with your doctor.

  • Is there medication to stop nail biting?

    Officially, no. For cases that are often more severe and can potentially disrupt a person's day-to-day life consulting with a therapist to map out an effective treatment plan is your best bet.

  • Will my nail beds recover after I kick this habit?

    Good news, yes! While it may take some time and a bit of TLC, nails will grow back. Also, depending on the severity of the habit, you're better off practicing patience as some tend to see results in as little as one week while others see changes at the six-month mark.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Stop Biting Your Nails. (n.d.)

  2. Main Line Health. What are Some Good Essential Oils for Anxiety? January, 2020.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Nail Biting: When Does It Go Too Far? March, 2020.

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