The hand to mouth habit, also known as nail biting or onychophagia, is a common nervous habit where people bite or chew their nails and the skin around them. This habit may start in childhood and can persist into adulthood. While mostly harmless, it can lead to short, broken nails, damaged cuticles, and even infections. The good news is that this habit can be broken with persistence and the right strategies.
Understanding the Causes
To stop biting your nails, it’s important to understand why you developed this habit in the first place. Here are some common causes of nail biting:
Boredom or Idleness
Many people report biting their nails when they are bored or idle. It can function as a distraction when you are bored.
Stress or Anxiety
Chewing on your nails may be a way to channel nervous energy or anxiety. It can act as a form of self-soothing.
Some people develop habits like nail biting due to an oral fixation or urge to have something in their mouth. This may stem from thumb sucking or other oral habits in childhood.
Physical Effects of Nail Biting
Understanding the physical effects of nail biting may provide motivation to quit. Here are some of the common effects:
- Damaged nails – Nails become ragged and uneven from biting. This can cause embarrassment.
- Hangnails – exiled, loose skin around nails from biting cuticles. Hangnails are prone to infection.
- Calluses – Repeated biting can lead to skin calluses around nails.
- Broken skin – Aggressive chewing can break skin and lead to infection.
- Tooth damage – Putting fingers in mouth can damage tooth enamel.
- Digestive issues – Swallowing nail fragments can cause physical irritation.
Many people are motivated to stop after recognizing these unsightly and potentially dangerous effects.
In addition to physical effects, nail biting can take a psychological toll:
- Embarrassment – Many people hide their hands to avoid embarrassment about damaged nails.
- Low self-esteem – There may be feelings of shame or low self-esteem about the habit.
- Social anxiety – Some people bite nails to relieve anxiety in social settings. This can become a self-fulfilling cycle.
Recognizing these psychological effects may provide further motivation to break the habit.
8 Tips to Stop Biting Your Nails and Skin
Breaking the hand to mouth habit takes time and patience, but it is possible with the right strategies. This complete guide provides 8 helpful tips to stop biting your nails and skin picking around your nails. Implementing even a few of these suggestions can help you on your journey to quit this habit for good.
1. Identify your triggers
The first step is increasing your awareness of when and why you bite your nails or skin. Many people do it absentmindedly when they are bored, stressed, anxious, distracted, or have downtime. Track your behavior in a journal or app for a week. Take note of times, activities, location, and any triggers or feelings associated with it. This can help you identify patterns and become more conscious of the habit.
2. Address anxiety, stressors, and other underlying causes
For many people, nail biting stems from underlying issues like anxiety, stress, depression, OCD, or other mental health conditions. Managing these through counseling, medications, meditation, exercise, social support, organization tools, or other methods can reduce the urge to bite. Getting treatment for the underlying problem is key.
3. Use distractions
When you feel the urge to bite, redirect the habit through distractions. Try snapping a rubber band on your wrist, squeezing a stress ball, playing with a fidget spinner, chewing gum, listening to music, calling a friend, painting your nails, or other substitutions. Having substitutes handy can help divert you from biting.
4. Practice mindful awareness
When you catch yourself biting, stop and practice mindfulness. Pay attention to the physical sensations, triggers, and your inner dialogue without judgment. Note the taste or feel of your fingers in your mouth. Then slowly remove your hand, take a deep breath, and make a conscious choice to stop.
5. Avoid triggers
Avoid known triggers for the habit, such as being alone, having bare nails, watching TV, reading, driving, feeling stressed, etc. If you pick while doing certain activities, try doing something different. This might include wearing gloves, keeping busy hands occupied, putting bandages on your fingers, or temporarily avoiding high-risk situations.
6. Announce it
Tell your friends and loved ones that you are quitting so they can support you too. Request that they point out kindly anytime they see you engaging in the habit. The more people who know, the more accountability you’ll have. Some people find that simply announcing the habit out loud helps them stop in the moment as well.
7. Reward progress
Use positive reinforcement and rewards for achieving goals as you retrain yourself. For example, treat yourself to something special each week you resist biting. Or move a token to a rewards jar each day you go without it. Having structured rewards and celebrating victories can motivate you to keep going. Start small, then increase the length of time between rewards as your progress.
8. Get professional help
For severe nail biting or skin picking, seek advice from a doctor, therapist or psychologist. They can assess if medication, behavioral therapy, hypnosis, meditation or other approaches might help. Working with a professional can teach you new coping mechanisms, get to the root of any underlying problems, and support your change process. Don’t hesitate to get extra help.
Tips for Damaged Nails and Skin
If you have significant nail or skin damage from years of biting and picking, it will take time to heal. Here are some tips to help improve the appearance and health of your fingers while quitting the habit:
- Use an antibacterial ointment and bandages on open sores or wounds
- Apply a nail hardener or strengthener to help damaged nails grow out
- Get manicures every 2 weeks to keep nails short, groomed and less tempting
- Take oral biotin supplements or use a biotin enriched nail cream
- Moisturize the skin around your nails daily to reduce roughness and heal cracks
- Consider getting acrylic nails or nail polish to limit direct biting
- See your doctor if wounds or nail infections develop and persist
With diligent skincare and allowing time for new nail growth, your fingers can fully recover from past biting behaviors.
Tips to Stop Picking Skin on Hands and Body
Skin picking disorder, known as excoriation or dermatillomania, shares some commonalities with nail biting. It involves compulsive picking and touching of the skin, most often on the face, arms, legs, chest, back, scalp or fingers. Though not officially considered self-harm, it can damage skin and lead to scarring or infection. Here are some tips to stop picking at your skin:
- Identify when, where and why you pick – certain triggers, activities, tools, lighting, mirrors or magnifying glasses might be enabling the problem. Avoid situations that encourage picking behaviors.
- Manage anxiety and stress through counseling, therapy, medications or other treatments. This can help reduce underlying compulsions.
- Limit time spent looking closely at your skin. Cover or remove mirrors and avoid magnified inspections of perceived skin flaws.
- Keep your hands busy. Fidget toys, stress balls, knitting, typing or playing an instrument can help redirect touching of the skin.
- Announce when you catch yourself picking. Saying “I’m picking my skin” out loud brings awareness.
- Use bandages, patches or gloves to prevent touching skin in problem areas. Keep nails trimmed short.
- Reward improvements. Note successes in a journal or app and build in rewards for achieving goals.
- Seek professional treatment for chronic skin picking. Cognitive behavioral therapy and habit reversal training can teach new coping skills. Medications may also help in some cases.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions about stopping nail biting and skin picking habits:
Q: How long does it take to break a nail biting or skin picking habit?
A: It depends on factors like the severity, longevity of the habit, triggers, and motivation to quit. With diligence, most people can fully stop within 2-3 months. But for life-long biters or pickers, it may take 6 months or longer to entirely break the habit. Don’t get discouraged by setbacks. Stick with it.
Q: Does nail biting or skin picking signify a mental disorder?
A: Most cases are just habitual bad behaviors, not psychiatric disorders. But some compulsive, excessive biting or picking can reflect underlying anxiety disorders, OCD, body-focused repetitive disorders or other conditions. Seek an evaluation from a psychologist if it feels uncontrolled. Treatment of the disorder can help manage the symptoms.
Q: Can I stop biting my nails cold turkey?
A: It is possible to quit nail biting or skin picking cold turkey, but this approach has high relapse rates. Going cold turkey means stopping suddenly without aids. Slowly tapering off with behavior modifications, tools and support networks often leads to better long-term success.
Q: How do I stop my child from biting nails or skin?
A: Children often mimic the habits of parents and siblings, so setting a good example is important. Provide gentle reminders, suggest substitutions like gum or toys, reward improvements often, trim nails to minimize temptation, and consider seeking professional help from
Q: Are there nail polishes or solutions to help stop biting?
A: Yes – some over-the-counter bitter-tasting polishes or clear solutions can help deter biting. Just be sure to use nail products made specifically for stopping nail biting, as other polishes may be toxic if ingested. These solutions reinforce awareness and make the habit less appealing.
Breaking habits like nail biting and skin picking takes commitment, consistency and time. But implementing even a few of the tips in this guide can set you on the path to quitting for good. Pay attention to your triggers, distract yourself when urges strike, announce it aloud, reward progress, avoid temptations, and get help if you need it. With diligence and patience, you can stop biting your nails or picking your skin and improve your health and self-confidence.