How to quit nail biting


Besides the face, our hands are probably one of the most exposed, noticeable and frequently-used physical aspects of the human being. As someone who has had a serious nail biting habit for close to two decades, I’ve always been self-conscious of how gnarly my chewed-up digits look. 

There’s also the pain element, during simple daily occurrences from handling hot and greasy or acidic food, to slathering hand sanitiser onto my raw and skinless fingertips. Surprisingly, the fear of infection amidst a global pandemic was what it took to finally curb my nail biting addiction. 

But before that, here’s some backstory on how this nasty habit came to be, as well as my attempted ways to quit nail biting.

Check out other inspirational COVID-19 stories:


How it all started – biting my nails out of boredom and anxiety


Kindergarten Graduation Singapore
Apparently graduating kindergarten and advancing to primary school spelled a huge deal of stress for me, and that’s where my nail biting habit first began.
Image credit: Renae Cheng

You know those random memories from the early chapters of your life which you’re able to recall in vivid detail, despite not being able to even remember what you had for lunch just yesterday? Somehow, my brain has held onto the very moment where Little Me realised nail biting, picking and chewing was a thing I could do – and it all stemmed from boredom and anxiety.

It was my Primary One year, and I was seated cross-legged in the school hall for morning assembly amidst hundreds of other students. While the rest seemed to be able to focus on the principal’s speech, I found myself peeling away at my hangnails, using my teeth for assistance when my stubby fingers weren’t precise enough to reach tricky angles.

Dermatophagia Skin Peeling Singapore
Patches of skinless-ness from compulsive biting and peeling
Image credit: Renae Cheng

Besides nail biting, I also have a condition called dermatophagia (warning: graphic images in the Wikipedia link). It is defined as a “compulsion disorder of gnawing or biting one’s own skin, most commonly at the fingers, an action that can either be conscious or unconscious”. My dad used to joke that I was preparing myself for a life of crime by getting rid of my fingerprints.

Singapore School Hall Assembly
The school assembly hall, a.k.a. my favourite spot to go ham on my fingernails and skin.
Image credit: Nparks

To this day, I can still picture the exact scene back in that school hall where it dawned on me that I might have a problem: I looked down at my school bag which had been placed on my lap, and saw a sea of white flakes. 

Chewed up fingernails, and the surrounding skin on my fingers which I had haphazardly ripped off without being bothered by the pain. As we trudged off to our classrooms, I was less affected by the new skinless nature of my fingertips and more worried that my classmates would spot the “snowstorm” of falling white flakes when I stood up and dusted my backpack off.

Open Concept Office Singapore - The Smart Local

That self-consciousness came to be a continuing theme as I bit my nails throughout my adolescence and early adult life. Public situations like riding an MRT or sitting in a crowded open-concept office forced me to exercise self-restraint and keep my fingers out of my mouth.

But for all the fear I harboured of people judging me, I barely gave two hoots about the harm I was inflicting upon myself. The obvious self-destruction of my precious skin and nails is one thing, but my mum constantly chastised me for having terrible hygiene – introducing germs and bacteria into my mouth after touching all sorts of dirty surfaces out and about.

Was I afraid of unknowingly ingesting deadly bacteria, or cultivating tapeworms in my intestines? Of course. But surprisingly, my initial forays into quitting nail biting were actually for vanity reasons.


Ways to quit nail biting – methods I’ve attempted over the years


Gel Manicure Singapore - How To Quit Nail Biting
Image credit: Renae Cheng

The most common solution to quit nail biting, even if it’s just for several weeks at a time, is to treat yo’ self to a manicure. Especially if it’s a hardened gel mani, it’s unlikely to budge from typical picking and chewing. Aside from not letting the hefty salon price you’ve paid to buff, shape and polish your talons go to waste, the icky chemical taste also serves as a deterrence.

Nail Wraps Singapore - How To Quit Nail Biting
Image credit: Renae Cheng

I’ve also given nail wraps a go, which require so much time and care that you’ll think twice about gnawing on your hard work. These are a great alternative for those who can’t stand waiting for nail polish to dry. They also give you intricate nail art designs without having to painstakingly draw the patterns yourself, or glue on additional glitter or crystals.

In between salon sessions or DIY nail makeover projects, where my pathetic little nubs weren’t even worth an aesthetician’s time of day, I would attempt to grow my nails and surrounding skin out by applying an anti-bite polish

 

Anti-Bite Polish Bitter - How To Quit Nail Biting
Image credit: Renae Cheng

Kudos to the creators of this formula, as the taste can only be described as the gnarliest chemical solution to ever land on your tongue, coupled with the combined flavour of 10,000 bitter gourds.

I could never sustain this method for long, as the residual bitterness would transfer onto foods I ate with my hands. Anything that messes with the flavour profiles of my chicken wings or glazed doughnuts is a no-go.

Over the years, I’ve even attempted ridiculous, straight-up desperate methods like wearing gloves and sitting on my hands to prevent mindless peeling. 

Plastic Gloves
Image credit: Global Sources

Plastic gloves were like a hand-sauna and made my fingertips all pruney, whereas rubber gloves ruined my eventual chewing with a horrible latex taste. Needless to say, tucking my hands under my bum did little other than restrict the blood flow and cause a tushy ache.

At one point of time, my mum was so frustrated that she threatened to rub chilli padi on my fingers, believing that the consequence of having my taste buds scorched would be enough to keep my fingers out of my mouth. Alas, she factored in the highly probable side effect of me going blind, in the event that I use my spicy fingers to rub my eyes.


Struggles that all nail biters are familiar with


Whether you’re a man or woman, young or old, these nail biting struggles are pretty universal. Our hands are one of the most utilised and visible parts of the body, so good luck trying to conceal the physical imperfections as you go about your daily life. 

Fried Chicken Singapore
Skinless fingers + hot, greasy fried chicken = Pain City, population: Me.

Besides the self-consciousness and fear of getting judged over your unsightly fingers, there’s also a huge pain factor behind the most simplest of tasks. Because your nails have been ripped off to expose raw skin and nail beds, the pain when coming in contact with acidic and citrusy fruits or hot and greasy foods is no less than excruciating.

Cafe coffee HeyTea Bubble Tea Singapore
Image credit: Renae Cheng

On the topic of vanity, I’ve deleted many a photo where I’m holding an object or trying to show off some rings or a bracelet, just because my raggedy fingers have ruined the aesthetics. That, or an obligatory Instagram Story caption saying, “ignore my ugly fingers!”. Conversely, manicured talons just give your item-holding shots that touch of pizzazz.


Nail biting during a pandemic


When the pandemic first set in and Singaporeans started Working From Home, the lack of onlooking colleagues meant I could gnaw on my fingers to my heart’s content throughout the day. Only after I dealt the damage to my nails and surrounding skin did I realise that I was opening myself up to heightened risks of infection.

COVID-19 Safe Entry Check In
Image credit: TSL Comedy

COVID-19 introduced a lot of new rituals for Singaporeans, from masking up everywhere in public to temperature checks at the entrance of all business establishments. Whether it’s for personal protection or as part of a shop or restaurant’s check-in procedure, hand sanitising has skyrocketed in frequency.

Imagine skinless fingertips being subjected to alcoholic sanitiser on the regular; the pain is searing and it never gets easier or more tolerable. Alas, that discomfort would pale in comparison to getting a swab test, being hooked up to a ventilator if I do contract COVID-19, or the emotional distress I will experience if I bring the virus home to my loved ones.

In an era where everyone is doing their best to protect themselves and curb community spread of the virus, I was going the opposite direction and setting myself up for harm. Besides the increased chances of infection through cuts on my hands, I was also ingesting germs every time my fingers went into my mouth for a chew.

Elderly Grandparents Singapore
Image credit: Renae Cheng

Residing in a household with elderly grandparents suffering from preexisting medical conditions multiplied my fear and anxiety tenfold. I was all too aware how dire the situation would be should I test positive for COVID-19, and pass the virus on to them.

Just as I had the personal discipline to avoid going out to buy groceries or dabao food during Circuit Breaker unless absolutely necessary, and wait it out by almost a full month after Phase 2 commenced before I went on my first dining-out appointment, the sheer fear of contracting COVID-19 helped push me over the edge of kicking my nail-biting habit – for good.


Quitting a 17-year habit due to a pandemic


They say it takes 21 days for a habit to be set in stone. Even though nail-biting was a part of my daily life for close to 20 years, I had more than enough time and reason to quit it – the months of 2020 which we will forever remember as the time COVID-19 swept across the globe. And the motivation which finally set in after all else failed? Simple.

Keep myself healthy. And keep my loved ones alive. If stopping myself from peeling, chewing and biting my nails and finger skin off will help do just that, then it’s nary a price to pay.

For all that COVID-19 has taken from us, be it “regular life”, being able to travel, and economic stability, it has at least given me something I’m grateful for – a practical possibility so earth-shatteringly frightening that it shocks my system and erases a compulsive urge which has been hardwired for 17 years.

Check out our other perspective articles: