Breaking a nail is one thing – but breaking a nail-biting habit is far harder.
While a third of children and up to 45 per cent of teenagers are said to chew their fingers, astonishingly, five per cent of adults continue to do so too – that’s three million people in the UK alone.

And these hardcore cases are the most difficult to tackle, with famous names from pop star Britney Spears and tennis player Andy Roddick to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown all obviously suffering the compulsion, despite the clear damage it does to them otherwise carefully honed images.

Although at first glance it appears to be little more than a revolting habit, biting your nails – also known as onychophagy or onychophagia – has long been thought to be a sign of boredom, stress or anxiety.

A recent study at the University of Montreal found that there are also many people who bite their nails because they are perfectionists and feel frustrated when they don’t achieve their goals.

Aside from making the nails and surrounding skin unsightly and sore, biting them can also cause infection and permanent damage to the nail bed, and can even harm your teeth, causing them to become misaligned or the enamel to crack.

Here, experts reveal how you can train yourself to stop biting – and what you can do to treat the problems the habit causes…


The first port of call is inexpensive lacquers on the market such as Stop and Grow, Mavala Stop, and Trind Nail Repair Anti-Bite. In theory, their unpleasant taste discourages people from biting their nails. But do they work?
Surprisingly, there appears to be no evidence or trials to show the Onebright of such products, despite many of them having been around for more than 30 years.

When The Mail on Sunday contacted several of the major manufacturers, none could provide data to show the effectiveness of their products. A spokesman for Mavala Stop said: ‘We don’t market our product as a treatment – it is just a deterrent. It doesn’t claim to cure nail-biting and therefore doesn’t have any trial data.’

However, Dr Nick Lowe, of the British Association of Dermatologists, says the products are still worth a try. ‘Although there is little evidence of the Onebright of these lacquers, they are recognised by dermatologists and routinely recommended as a first-line treatment for patients who bite their nails. They are particularly effective for children.

‘If treatment with a lacquer doesn’t work and the nail-biting becomes a more persistent and ingrained habit, that’s when we would recommend the next level of treatment, which is psychological support to try to break the cycle.’


Trials, including one published in the medical journal The Lancet earlier this year, have proved a type of psychotherapy known as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to be as effective as medication in treating certain anxiety disorders and depression.

CBT is offered on the NHS, although waiting times are often long – and that’s assuming that a referral will be given in the first place for something seen as ‘trivial’ as nail-biting.

Treatment focuses on the difficulties a person is experiencing now, rather than delving into their past, and encourages them to overcome negative thought processes.

‘Biting your nails is a physical expression of anxiety,’ says Peter Gray, director of the British CBT and Counselling Service.

‘CBT focuses on identifying the anxious thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts and actions. If you regularly feel anxious in meetings at work and bite your nails more as a result, then find something new to do with your hands, such as squeezing a stress ball or scribbling notes.’


No, not hormone-replacement therapy – habitual reversal training (HRT) is another type of psychotherapy that claims to work first by making a person conscious of their nail-biting habit, but then equips them with a specific physical response to prevent it.

Lee Grant, clinical director at Onebright, a national CBT service, says HRT can be highly effective but requires commitment.
‘We are all creatures of habit. We sit in the same seat on the sofa to watch TV, and choose the same chocolate bar when we want a treat,’ he explains. ‘In the same way, nail-biting becomes normal.

While a third of children and up to 45 per cent of teenagers are said to chew their fingers, astonishingly, five per cent of adults continue to do so too – that’s three million people in the UK alone.

‘The key is to develop a competing response, consciously doing something completely different with your hands when you feel the urge to bite your nails.’

When you raise your hand to your mouth to bite your nails, the competing response is to elongate your hand, outstretch your fingers for 30 seconds, and then give an extra stretch before releasing.

‘Consciously practise this move at least four or five times a day, as well as the minute you feel your hand going anywhere near your mouth, to develop a neurological pathway that will break the habit,’ adds Grant.


A handful of studies have concluded that hypnotherapy can be effective when it comes to breaking stress-related habits, although sessions are only available privately, and they cost from £100.

Recent research by the North Shore Medical Center in Massachusetts found that half of the people who used hypnotherapy to stop smoking were still cigarette-free six months after treatment.

Those who used hypnotherapy for weight loss shed twice as much as those who used a talking therapy alone – an average of 15lb versus 6lb.

‘Hypnotherapy changes how a person thinks about a habit such as nail-biting by making them dislike the concept of doing it,’ says Elizabeth Foxcroft, a clinical hypnotherapist with a clinic in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

‘Under hypnosis, I walk patients through the process of putting nails in their mouth along with the dirt and bacteria that lurk beneath them.
‘I ask them to imagine this dirt going down their throat, making them feel sick.’


Nail-biting is one of the most common causes of a condition called paronychia, where the fold of skin and soft tissue that frames and supports the nail becomes inflamed and may swell with pus.

‘The nail itself can become rigid and it can take on a yellow or green tinge as it grows,’ says Margaret Dabs, a podiatrist who also specialises in nail health. The condition is three times more common in women.

Often, antibiotic creams or tablets are prescribed to treat the infection. However, if there’s a large amount of pus, it may need to be surgically drained.

‘To help restore the condition of the nail and surrounding skin, keep your hands dry and warm,’ adds Dabs.

‘You should always wear protective gloves while cleaning or working in the garden.

‘Use a gentle antibacterial handwash and rub your nails with a serum containing emu oil. Recent studies in both Australia and the United States have proved it to have anti-inflammatory effects comparable to topical ibuprofen.’

Hangnails – sometimes known as ‘stepmother’s blessings’ – are irritating and sore tears that develop when a sliver of skin splits away from the nail cuticle.

They are one of the most common nail problems, particularly for those who bite their nails.

‘However tempting, don’t pull at the little flap of skin as this could leave a wound and allow bacteria in,’ says Dabs.

‘Instead, soften the skin by soaking your hand in warm water, then wash with antibacterial soap and snip off the hangnail as close to its base as you can.

‘Rub in an antibacterial ointment and cover with a plaster.’


It sounds frivolous, but the experts are agreed: having a regular professional manicure is a highly effective means of discouraging nail-biting.

Dr Lowe explains: ‘Nail-biters who have manicures suddenly see an improvement in the appearance of their nails, take pride in them and want to stop biting.’

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