For about half of my life, I was a compulsive nail biter. I’m talking raw cuticles, sore nail beds… the works. It took a lot of willpower (and a lot of that gross-tasting anti-biting polish) to stop, and today I prefer to keep my nails long and claw-like in celebration of dropping the bad habit. If you’re reading this with a thumbnail in between your teeth right now, keep scrolling for what you should know about nail biting, and how to stop.
It’s pretty common
Experts estimate that about half of all kids and teens bite their nails. And 20-30 percent of the whole population nibbles, so a lot of child nail-biters don’t grow out of the habit.
It’s considered a form of obsessive compulsive disorder
At least according to the American Psychiatric Association, which groups it along with other pathological grooming behaviors like skin picking and hair pulling in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Not everyone agrees with lumping it in with other OCD behaviors though — some experts say that, unlike OCD, nail-biting isn’t anxiety-driven.
There may be a genetic connection
About a third of all nail-biters say they have a family member who bites their nails, too. And among identical twins, it’s common that both children bite their nails rather than just one. Scientists aren’t totally sure yet if the habit is genetic, but research does show that kids whose parents are nail biters are more likely to become nail biters themselves. This is true even if the parents quit the habit before the child is born.
It feels good
This might be hard for non-biters to imagine, but chomping away on our nails might actually be connected to pleasure, according to some animal studies. And it’s easier for us to turn a pleasurable activity into a hard-to-break habit when we’re kids, since the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for making decisions and thinking twice before doing something that might gross others out — isn’t fully developed then. Same reason most of us go to town picking our noses as kids but not as adults.
It’s seriously bad for you
Sorry — as good as nail-biting feels, it’s not good for your body. Your nail and fingers are home to thousands of bacteria, so putting them in your mouth puts you at increased risk of gastrointestinal issues like nausea and diarrhea. And it goes both ways — warts and herpes can be transmitted from your mouth to your fingers. It’s bad for your teeth and jaw, too. Research has found that people who bite their nails might be at greater risk of bruxism, also known as teeth grinding, which can cause recessed gums, tooth loss, and tooth sensitivity. You can damage gum tissue with jagged fingernails, too.
You can break the habit
For me, the solution came in the form of weekly manicures. Not only were my nails literally harder to bite, the bright polish highlighted the shape of my newly neat (if teeny tiny) nails. I knew that any chomps would ruin the manicure and look even worse than bare bitten nails. If that doesn’t work for you, you can try anything from keeping a journal to identify your nail-biting triggers to keeping your hands busy with knitting when you’re stressed. Some experts even recommend weaning off the habit by picking one nail at a time to be off limits until you’re not biting any. There’s no one best way — if it works for you, it works.