January 11th, 2010


How to stop biting your nails

I don't remember when I started biting my nails but there is not a memory in my childhood in which it is not a prominent fixture. After many frustrated years of failed attempts to drop the irksome and embarrassing habit I finally succeeded for the first time when I was twenty. I have started and stopped a few times since then and every time the topic comes up someone asks with desperation in their eyes, "How did you do it?"

A friend of mine once wrote, "Imagine trying to quit smoking while being forced to walk around all day with a lit cigarette in your hand." Reading that was an ah-ha moment for me as to just why this insidious habit is so difficult to break.

I stopped again a week or so ago at the end of a particularly stressful stretch in my life. I've got a system down pretty well at this point, so I thought I'd I would share what I have learned.

Step 1: Timing is everything

One of my many unsuccessful attempts to stop biting my nails involved a nail polish marketed for the purpose. The taste was intended to be unpleasant enough to cause you to jerk your hands away from your mouth in disgust. Halfway through the first day of trying it out, I found myself idly pondering the likelihood of success ...which made me to realize that I was gnawing away at my fingers that very moment.

Those of you who have this habit know that it is a deeply ingrained subconscious action. Initially breaking it is going to demand your constant and rigorous attention. If you are worrying about your mom in the hospital, finding a job, or how you are going to meet that deadline, you won't have the mental cycles to spare for a project like this. Wait until things settle down.

If you find that you are always in a time of overwhelming stress, you'll need to fix your life first. It's cool, go ahead. I'll wait here.

Step 2: The tools of the trade

If you are like me, the thing that compels you to worry at your fingertips (aside from the bundle of nerves itching for a way to manifest) is that one little jagged edge. There you are, minding your own business when a rough edge of a nail demands your attention. "Well, that won't do," your hind-brain proclaims. And it sets about to resolve the nagging imperfection with the tools at hand.

Unfortunately, teeth are not designed for such fine detail work and tend to botch the job, leaving more of a gnarled mess than what started.

Instead of leaving your poor digits to the mercy of your well-intentioned but clumsy subconscious, acquire the tools to do the job right.

The Nail File

The canonical nail tool. If you get nothing else, carry a nail file with you at all times. The moment you notice a precious bit of density protruding from your recovering derma, stop what you are doing and smooth it out Right. Now.

If you forget your nail file one day, there is nothing to stop your jaws from closing in on your poor budding nails. They won't stand a chance. I... I speak from experience.

The Cuticle Trimmer

It always starts out innocently enough. A little vertical tear in the skin around the edge of your nail bed. But it doesn't take long to develop into a little triangle of unrelenting aggravation. And worst of all, you can't get at it! For all your fretting at it, you've massacred the surrounding flesh, while it remains insolently untouched.

This is where the cuticle trimmer comes in. Made for fitting into the curve of your nail, it cleaves off the stubborn dry bit leaving behind a neat and healthy nail bed.

The Cuticle Nipper

The flat patch of skin further back from the nail bed can be trouble too. A hang-nail torn off in absent-minded chomping will scab over and leave more of a mess. Attack these with the precision of the cuticle nipper, which leaves no ragged edges in its wake.


There are lots of fancy products for softening your cuticles. Go as crazy as you like with the skin products, but I've found that plain ol' lotion will do just fine. Apply to the tips of our fingers at least once a day in the beginning, until your skin is a little more skin-like.

These are your tools. Take them with you everywhere. Keep a backup in your glove box, your purse, your desk at work. If you notice a hang nail or rough edge, stop what you are doing and address it right this moment.

Step 3: The actual stopping

Here is the moment you've been waiting for. The secret to defeating the habit that has afflicted you since childhood. Ready?

Stop biting your nails.

Sorry to say, but in all of my experimentation and machinations battling with this particular affliction, I have never discovered a magic bullet. There is no trick, there is no get rich fast, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and no, you can't have a pony. In the end, the only effective strategy is to just... stop.

The first three days are the hardest. This is about the length of time it takes for your nails to grow out enough that they can be filed, your skin to heal enough that it can manicured.

Step 4: The trick

Okay, I lied. I have discovered one trick. Develop an alternate nervous habit. Tap your foot, twirl your hair, chew your lip. I've found that worrying at my nail bed with the pads of my fingers can be an effective, if somewhat odd, expression of my nervous energy.

Train yourself to use some substitute habit as a crutch while you get through the toughest stretch.

Step 5: Fail

You are going to fail. At some point in this undertaking, you are going to have a shit day, your boss is going to yell at you, your kid is going to push you to the end of your rope, the car won't start, the deadline was missed, and you look down and realize that your fingers are bloody stumps once again. You have failed.

This will happen. It's best if you just accept that right now.

The important thing to understand is that failure isn't failure. Failure means that you have discovered the part of the process that doesn't work for you. You've identified the weak link in the chain. Now you have the insight to tweak your behavior to account for this new information, and start again.

If you take failure as a sign that you are hopeless and will never be able to stop biting your nails, you won't be disappointed. If you accept your inevitable slip-ups as an opportunity to debug your habits and behavior, you can eventually find a configuration that can be sustainable integrated into your life.

Step 6: The aftercare; getting professional help

Alright, you're two weeks in and you seem to have the situation under control. For the first time in years, your nails are just barely peeking out beyond the nub of your fingers. Now, how to keep them from retreating again?

I strongly recommend regular manicures. I know, I know. If your paws have served as lifelong, ravaged gauge of your stress level, the idea of going in for a mani might seem a bit odd. But a regular appointment will keep your nails and surrounding skin happy and healthy. Besides, the thought of showing up to the salon with mangled claws might be just embarrassing enough to keep you on the straight and narrow.

In summary

The crux of this strategy is quite simple: Smooth nails and soft neat cuticles do not make appealing victims for your nibbling nerves. Getting them that way is the hard part, but luckily once you're there an entire industry just waiting to welcome you and your dollar bills with open arms.