During stressful times, some people lash out at their loved ones. Me? I prefer to unleash my frustrations on an even more unsuspecting bystander: my fingernails.
Okay, so my nails also cop a gnawing when I’m not overly stressed. I chew them when I’m bored, I nibble at them when I’m thinking, and when I don’t have nail scissors handy… carnage ensues.
Nail chewing and picking is a decidedly unpleasant habit, and most of us are fighting a constant battle between the urge to bite and the desire to have lovely, strong, smooth nails that actually look good under a coat of varnish.
Kicking the habit is one thing — but what next for your embattled nails? I took my many (mani?) questions to Erin Margrethe, the manicurist behind Melbourne's glitter-happy Blonde Tiger salon, to find out how to help your nails heal and undo any trauma your teeth have inflicted.
Rather than tut-tut me for my chewy ways, Erin says nail biters shouldn't be ashamed by their habit. "It's quite normal. We all have our little quirks and habits, and we go through periods of indulging them and starting up the whole shame cycle that comes along with it," she explains.
Now we've moved past the "shame spiral" stage, here's what you need to know. (Post continues after gallery.)
So, what's the damage?
"Biting the nails is unsanitary and gross, but I have yet to see any long-term damage. Weirdly, ex-nail biters generally have the strongest nails. The constant trauma seems to encourage nail growth," Erin says.
Well, that was unexpected. However, if your biting and picking extends to your cuticles and the skin around your nails, Erin says you're in a bit more trouble: "Aside from unsightly sores and scabs, you'll end up with overgrown, hard, callused skin around the nails — which just begs to bitten and picked at all the more."
You're also not out of the woods if you pick off your nail polish or Shellac. Erin says each time you do this, a layer of your nail is simultaneously removed, leaving them thin and weak. One-time offenders probably don't have to worry, but over time you could leave your nails so thin they can't even support gel polish. Uh oh.
When you stop biting, how long will it take for your nails to heal?
Happy(ish) news: if you've only been biting your nails, your recovery time is shorter because it's the free edge of the nail that's been compromised, not the surface.
"Stop biting today, see new growth in a few days!" Erin says. "I like to take photos of nail biter clients' nails at each appointment so they can see their progress — otherwise you won't notice the new growth as you look at your nails every day."
If biting has caused an open wound in your cuticle, healing will take a few days with the aid of an overnight antibiotic cream. For the hard skin around the nails, they'll be healthier after a few weeks. Erin recommends not cutting the skin, and using moisturiser or cuticle oil as often as you can. "Buffing the skin with a very soft file (as you would do for the calluses on your feet) prior to moisturising can help, just BE GENTLE," she adds. (Post continues after gallery.)
Again, it's the "polish peelers and gel pickers" who have the most work to do. Sorry, guys.
"As the entire surface of the nail has been compromised, you're going to be dealing with that thinned-out nail plate for 3-6 months, to be exact," Erin says. "That's how long it takes for the base of your nail to become the free-edge of your nail. Keep the nails short to reduce the chances of any rips or tears as they grow out."
Will certain products or techniques help my nails become strong and healthy again?
With its bright colours and indecipherable ingredient labels, the mani-care aisle can be a daunting place. It's easy to just grab anything with the word "harden" on its label and throw your money at the checkout attendant. But it seems not all products are created equal.
First, Erin suggests buying a cuticle oil that contains jojoba oil, or just pure jojoba oil, to moisturise your embattled fingertips. "It's the only oil molecularly small enough to penetrate the nail plate and replenish the natural oil in your nail. Do this every night before you go to sleep and you'll be amazed at the difference in your nails and cuticles," she says.
As for those 'hardening' products... Erin believes they're generally a waste of money because their active ingredients can't actually penetrate your nail because they're molecularly too big. But the concept behind them is sound.
"Keeping something on your nails - even just regular polish - will protect them by giving them an added layer of strength and reducing the amount of water and solvent (soap, shampoo, household cleaners) that strip away the natural oil in your nails," Erin explains.
If you choose the DIY polish route, be sure to remove and re-apply every seven days; for Shellac lovers, ensure your manicurist is reputable and uses proper removal techniques to avoid further damage. If you are a salon regular, Erin says there's a new professional treatment on the block that could be a game changer for your pool ol' nails.
"The IBX System is an in-salon strengthening treatment that makes your nails instantly stronger and healthier in less than 10 minutes. It's the first treatment that works inside your nail and doesn't sit on top of it," she says. Noted.
Do you have any tips to stop nail biting in the first place?
Look, it's hard to stop biting. All the bright, distracting polishes and yucky-tasting deterrents in the world can be easily overcome when you're a lifelong chewer. Erin says the key to overcoming the habit is mindfulness —recognising that you have the desire to bite or pick, and looking at why that might be.
"By giving in to picking/biting, you are triggering the reward centre of your brain, because you've come to recognise it as a self-soothing activity. Try replacing it with something else — when you feel the need to pick, rub cuticle oil into your nails instead. Make a cup of tea. Play a game on your phone for five minutes," she explains.
As long as your chosen alternative is positive and health-friendly, Erin firmly believes you'll retrain your brain within a few weeks. If a bit of 'treat yo'self' will help you get there, go ahead.
"Some people like to reward themselves with a manicure after a month of no biting. I say get the manicure at the start! If you've spent money at the outset (and have a cheering squad of a manicurist), made what little nails you have look pretty, you'll be less likely to relapse," Erin says.
"And if you do? Be kind to yourself. Start over. It's just your nails. They'll keep growing no matter what."
Have you successfully stopped biting your nails? How did you make it work?
Erin Margrethe runs Blonde Tiger nail salon in Melbourne, as well as Tiger Claw — the nail art subsciption box. You can check out Erin's work on Instagram at @blonde_tiger, and we strongly suggest you do.
If you need even more nail Insta-ration, here are some more nail whizzes to follow: