A nail biter since about age 8, I’ve tried to quit numerous times. But as those among us with professional-grade onchphagia (compulsive nail-biting) know all too well, kicking the habit is tough. Nervous habits like hair twisting, nail-biting and cuticle picking often begin in childhood and, while many simply grow out of these habits, for a few they become a means to cope with every day stress, frustration, boredom, loneliness or hunger into adulthood. As one of those unfortunate adults, I’ve recently made it a priority to stop for good.
Why Quit? Harmful Side Effects of Nail Biting
While the habit may seem innocuous, long-term nail biting can present certain health risks. Besides the inevitable transfer of germs from hands to mouth, your nail, gum and tooth health can all be negatively affected. In addition, at least one Russian study suggests lead in the environment, found in especially high concentrations in places like industrial cities, can accumulate in the bodies of child nail biters to the point where IQ may be damaged. While IQ damage is likely an extreme outcome of the habit, increased risk of illness from introduction of bacteria on fingernails makes it extra important that nail biters wash their hands frequently. Plus, who really wants to eat lead or any of the other heavy metals present in everyday life?
Want to Stop Biting Your Nails? Some Alternatives I Tried
My quest to stop this bad habit took me in a few directions.
Redirection and willpower
I started low-tech, with a stress ball. For someone who’s truly dedicated to never biting again or with just an occasional urge to nibble, this replacement technique might work well, but as a real solution for a nearly life-long habit, I don’t recommend it. In the end, it didn’t seem any more presentable to be whipping out a stress ball in the doctor’s office or at work than biting one’s nails. Nicotine gum as a cigarette smoking replacement works in part because it both alleviates some of the desire associated with the habit and is more socially acceptable; the stress ball failed as a nail-biting alternative on both counts.
- Cost: stress ball - $2, public awkwardness
- Effectiveness (scale of 1 to 5, 5 is best): 1
- Recommendation: If you’re an adult nail-biter, don’t bother
Not wanting to spend money on fancy professional manicures, I started by polishing my nails at home. Success! The nail-biting stopped instantly, and my nails started to grow back. The thought of accidentally ingesting the nail lacquer was enough to halt the habit. I purchased a few nail hardeners as well as several fun colors of polish.
But compulsive habits don’t just stop overnight – my replacement habit became picking off the nail color once it inevitably started to chip. My hands started to look worse than before – some nails nicely painted, others without color. I found I wasn’t interested in maintaining the upkeep needed for a presentable look. It was time to revise my tactics.
- Cost: $20 for nail polish and nail strengtheners
- Effectiveness: 4
- Recommendation: If it’s in your budget, spring for professional manicures – it’ll last longer, and the cost will give you an incentive to leave your nails alone.
Real Success - Mavala Stop Worked for Me!
Having had some success with polish, I looked for a product that would be a deterrent on the nail itself. Based on a few online reviews I selected Mavala Stop, a bitter-tasting nail polish.
The effect was immediate! I applied the product and found that the initial odor (which subsides after a few minutes) along with knowing it was on my nails was enough to discourage the habit. Because it’s a very thin, clear layer, the urge to pick at my nails was eliminated as well. Each application lasts about two days.
The only downside of the product relates to eating finger foods – once ingested, the horrible bitter taste lingers in your mouth (swishing with water will eliminate it, however); without water the taste will actually increase in the mouth. In my mind, it’s a minor sacrifice to stop the nail biting habit for good!
- Cost: about $9 for 0.3 fluid ounces
- Effectiveness: 5!
- Recommendation: Cheaper than manicures (even home manicures!) and more effective than redirection – it worked for me.
Is Mavala Stop Safe?
The product is recommended for ages 5 and up, and is described as non-toxic. I've had no health concerns related to use of the product, a result that is consistent with online reviews.