Do you bite your nails? If you do, you’re not alone. Sixty percent of children, nearly half of teenagers, and a smaller but significant percentage of adults bite their nails. You may be surprised to learn that it’s recognized as a mental illness, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder of a type known as pathological grooming. That puts it in the same category as compulsive hair-pulling, or trichotillomania.
There’s a reason it’s classified as a disorder rather than a harmless habit. Biting your nails is, in fact, not harmless. For one thing, your fingernails end up with unsightly ragged edges. But the problems go beyond the merely aesthetic. Putting your hands near your mouth puts you at severe risk of catching cold, flu, or similar diseases—you wash before eating, but not before biting your nails. By leaving the skin under the cuticle exposed and possibly broken, it opens you up to infections. It can damage the teeth, too, being associated with malocclusion. Here are some tips to help you stop:
- Make a practice of deliberately noticing when you’re biting your nails, and remind yourself to stop.
- Set a specific date for when you’re going to quit nail-biting.
- Find alternative stress relief methods. Nail-biting is often a stress reaction. Similarly, find a substitute activity to occupy your hands, such as squeezing a stress ball.
- Keep your nails short. If you have no nails to bite, it might help break you of the habit.
- Cover your nails with something like an adhesive strip, to make them unavailable when the urge strikes.
The most common clinical remedy for nail-biting is a clear but bitter-tasting coating. The bitterest taste known to chemistry is a substance called denatonium benzoate, which can be applied to the nails to dissuade people from biting. In extreme cases, a therapist can use a technique called habit reversal therapy to retrain someone out of biting their nails.