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. Thought it may feel impossible to stop, we promise that it isn't.

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-picking 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-picking won’t ruin your life.

Regardless of how the habit starts, it invariably becomes difficult to quit. Keep scrolling to learn expert tips to help you stop biting your nails.

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01 of 08

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. Or, if you think it would help, go for a gel manicure. You could be less likely to pick or bite at your nails when you know you spent a little extra cash to get them done.

Neuroscientist and author of The Source, Dr. Tara Stewart, 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 08

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." You can also paint your nails yourself. "Complete a full manicure with base coat and top coat as well," says Rebecca Isa, creative director of the nail brand Zoya. "You’ll be less inclined to bite your nails if they aren’t bare."

"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 08

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 breath work will not only release some of your stress, but it might also distract your mind from wanting to subconsciously pick afterwards. Plus, it's hard to bite your nails when you're hanging in downward dog!

04 of 08

Keep Your Hands Busy

hand gripping a stress ball

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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, Ph.D., 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.

05 of 08

Try Aromatherapy

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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.

06 of 08

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.

07 of 08

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 ($29) or a 1% 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.

08 of 08

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 Stewart.

Up next, the 12 best nail strengtheners for durable nails.

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