Reasons to Stop Your Bad Nail-Biting Habit for Good

Nail biting does more than ruin your manicure — from bacterial infections to lip warts, these potential effects will inspire you to nix the habit.

person looking at their phone and biting their nails
Photo: Getty Images/Jamie Grill

You probably think nail biting is just one of those gross things everyone does but won't admit, such as picking your nose and examining your earwax. And in fact, up to 50 percent of people will chew their nails at some point in their life, according to a study from the University of Calgary. For a common habit that you probably don't think is so bad, nail biting (onychophagia if you want to be fancy about it) actually does have the potential to do damage.

That's right: Just because lots of people bite their nails doesn't mean that it's a healthy habit. When you're biting your nails, you're potentially putting any bacteria or virus that's hitched a ride on your digits straight into your mouth. And while bad habits are hard to break (and good habits are hard to form!), that doesn't mean it's impossible.

Here, a few negative effects of your bad nail biting habit, plus expert-recommended strategies for ditching the habit.

Potential Health Effects of Nail Biting

Want to know some potential consequences of that bad nail-biting habit? You'll want to protect yourself from these potential effects:

Nasty Infections

There's a reason cops and coroners always clean out under a victim's nails on crime shows: Fingernails are perfect catch-alls for dirt and debris. When you chew yours, you're giving all those germs a one-way ticket to your insides, says Michael Shapiro, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Vanguard Dermatology in New York City. "Your fingernails are almost twice as dirty as your fingers. Bacteria often gets stuck under the nails, and can then be transferred to the mouth, causing infections of the gums and throat," he explains.

Painful Hangnails

Normal hangnails are painful, but have you ever had one that became infected? It'll have you typing with your knuckles, trust. "Chewing exacerbates dry skin, making peeling worse and leading to more hangnails," explains Kristine Arthur, M.D., an internist at MemorialCare in Laguna Woods, California. Plus, people who chew their nails often use their teeth to peel off hangnails, leading to a tear becoming longer and deeper, she adds.

And if you get really aggressive, gnawing on your cuticles or biting your nails to the quick, you can open up small sores on your fingers or cuticles, allowing dangerous bacteria to get inside and cause them to become infected. Prevention is your best defense against hangnails, so moisturizing regularly can help, she adds. (Or try using cuticle oil.)

Coughs, Sneezes, and...Hepatitis

It's not just bacteria that are a potential problem: Nail biting also increases your risk of getting viruses. "Think of every single thing you touch during your day, from doorknobs to toilets," says Dr. Arthur. "Germs can live on these surfaces for hours, so when you stick your hands in your mouth, you're exposing yourself to cold and flu viruses, or even serious illnesses like hepatitis," she explains.

Toxic Poisoning

Nail art is a permanent trend in the beauty world — but all the gel, glitter, jewels, dip powder, and holographic polish are concerning for nail biters because, you know, you're basically eating them, says Dr. Arthur. "Regular nail polishes have plenty of toxins themselves, but gel polishes have chemicals that are specifically approved only for topical use, meaning they're not meant to be ingested," she explains. It may take a long time to build up a toxic level in your system, but do you really want to take that chance? (Until you quit your bad nail-biting habit, try these clean nail polish brands free of formaldehyde and other harmful ingredients.)

Warts On Your Lips

ICYDK, warts on your fingers are caused by the human papillomavirus (aka HPV), and nibbling your nails can spread that virus to your other fingers, your face, your mouth, and even your lips, explains Dr. Arthur.

Fungal Growths

There's nothing cute about fungi on your fingertips. "Nail biters are particularly susceptible to paronychia, a skin infection that occurs around your nails," says Dr. Shapiro. Chewing your nails can allow yeast, fungi, and other microorganisms to set up shop under and around your nails, leading to swelling, redness, and even oozing pus, he explains. Yikes.

Cracked and Worn-Down Teeth

Nail biting isn't just bad for your fingers — it's also bad for your teeth. "It can interfere with proper dental occlusion, or the manner in which your upper and lower teeth come together when you close your mouth," explains Dr. Shapiro. "Plus, your teeth may shift out of their proper position, become misshapen, wear down prematurely, or become weakened over time," he adds.

Weird-Looking Fingers

Nail gnawing not only ruins your manicure but can make your actual nails look pretty rough — and no, this isn't just about the temporarily stubby, ragged edges. Constantly biting your nails puts pressure on the nail wall, which, over time, can actually change the shape or curvature of your nails, says Dr. Arthur. You could cause them to grow back in unevenly or with bumpy ridges, she explains.

Painful Ingrown Nails

Most people are familiar with ingrown toenails, but did you know that biting your nails can lead you to get them on your fingers as well? Worst-case scenario, ingrown nails can get so bad they cause infection and can even require surgery, says Dr. Shapiro. Best case, you still get all the swelling, redness, and pain you know and loathe while you wait for them to grow out.

How to Stop Biting Your Nails

Convinced you need to quit your bad nail-biting habit? Going cold turkey on biting your nails can be harder than you think — but it can definitely be done. As ingrained as the behavior may be, at the end of the day, it's "simply a habit, and you can change habits with simple behavior modification techniques," explains Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a psychotherapist and author based in Beverly Hills.

  1. Get to the root cause. First, you need to start with addressing why it is that you feel the urge to bite your nails, says Walfish. It might be a habit fueled by anxiety, for example.
  2. Replace the habit. Come up with an alternate, less damaging behavior you can do when you do feel anxious, nervous, or bored, suggests Walfish. For example, some people like to do something to occupy their fingers, such as crocheting or playing with a fidget toy.
  3. Be on the lookout. Do something to call your attention to the nail biting when you're tempted to do it. Some people get fancy manicures with jewels, acrylic nails, and other things that are hard or gross to chew on; others use a pretty ring or bracelet that will catch their eye when they raise their hand to their mouth; while some have found success placing a rubber band around their wrist and snapping it whenever the temptation arises.
  4. Treat yourself. Give yourself a fun reward when you reach milestones, such as one week and one month bite-free. The trick is to find what motivates you personally, adds Walfish.

If those tricks don't help and you still find yourself unable to quit your bad nail-biting habit, it may have become a full compulsion, says Walfish. In this case, see your doctor. They could have a remedy to help you combat the urge, or they may suggest cognitive behavioral therapy to help you with breaking the habit.

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