A Reformed Nail-Biter’s Guide to Growing Long, Healthy Nails

My nails with a purple french manicure I gave myself

I’ve tried several times in my life to quit biting my nails, but often my efforts were thwarted more by the weakened state of the pathetic little things than by my own ability to keep from snacking on them. Often I gave up with the firm logic of “what’s the use?” at my back after several nails had already ripped, broken or split, long before I even got them past the tip of my own finger. However, over the last three years I’ve figured out through lots of trial and error, reading, researching and product trials, just what makes a healthy, strong, flexible nail that will grow and last.

I don’t remember a time before I began biting my nails and I was certain if I ever had false teeth, I would figure out how to bite them even then. Luckily, I still have my teeth and at 43, I have long, beautiful, even nails. They are ridge free and spotless. They have warm pink beds with pearly white crescent moons to hang over each one. They look like the women whose hands I used to admire and covet in magazines, on TV and movie screens. I can hardly explain to the average person how proud I feel every time I look at them.

It may seem a simple thing to someone who has never had the problem of biting one’s nails. They’ve never understood the shame surrounding the act, the constant torment of being told to get your fingers out of your mouth as a child, or worse, what it’s like as an adult. When I was in business or academia, I used to try to hide my hands. I was so ashamed of my torn up little nubs. Hands say a lot about a person and mine said “Hi, neurotic freak right here.”

Of course just stopping isn’t enough. More likely than not, your nails are weak from years and years of ritual abuse. Layers have been savagely ripped away. The nail bed may have been damaged, but with luck it’s only temporary. The harsh acid in your saliva has stripped away all the natural oils and protective layers on your nails. Your cuticles are rough and ragged. Boy do you need help and you have no idea where to start.

First of all, forget the topical stuff to help you stop biting your nails, or if you feel you absolutely need it to keep off your digits, use it for the briefest time possible. It’s not healthy for your nails either. The capsicum it’s made with isn’t exactly the pH your nails hunger for. Instead, try starting with a new mindset; your hands are two of your most precious assets (think of all the things they do for you!) and you must pamper them at every turn. They should be coddled and protected, soothed and moisturized. They crave moisture, vitamin E, healthy oils called ceramides which are actually incredibly healthy for your skin and hair, too.

The best way to begin is from within. Find a good hair, skin and nail multi-vitamin. Some women like to use prenatal vitamins instead. You can do this, they do have some similarities, but you’re going to pay a lot more for the prenatals and frankly I think the hair, skin and nail vitamins work better. I’ve been taking Deva Vegan Hair, Skin and Nails, which costs about $9 for a 90 day supply and is soy, dairy, shellfish and gluten free. It’s loaded with all the things hair, skin and nails need. The added bonus is healthier skin and fuller, stronger hair.

You also want feed your nails directly. Find a good cuticle oil and use it every day. I use California Mango Magic. Cuticle oil is a bit of a misnomer, because it actually feeds the whole nail. When I have naked nails, I apply it to the entire nail and leave it sit for 5-15 minutes (whatever is convenient for me). Then I blend it in with my lotion (usually Curel ultra healing because it contains even more cerimides) and massage it into my nails and hands, stimulating blood flow.

As your nails begin to grow out, carefully file them, using a fine grit nail file. Be careful to keep your strokes light and mostly in the same direction. At this point, just try to remove rough edges so they don’t bother you or tempt you to chew them. As they grow out more, you can begin shaping them, but don’t be surprised if they break easily. At this stage, you really just want to let them grow and be happy about whatever successes you can achieve. For file choices, I like Beauty Secrets Fine 240/400 grit and the highest I will go is to the medium 100/180. These grits are for natural nails. Anything higher is for artificial nails and could easily harm your natural nails.

You can use a file (very gently) to begin smoothing down the skin around the nail if you’re a skin/cuticle chewer, too. It’s also a good idea to get some good cuticle remover and a cuticle removing tool and start taking care of these as well. For me, keeping everything looking and feeling nice and smooth went a long way to keeping me from being tempted to chew. If you’re unsure how to do it, check out a tutorial online, there are tons.

Once you have selected your nail tools put them in a handy little case and slip them in your purse so they go everywhere you go. You don’t want to break a nail at work and be stuck with nothing but your teeth as a guide for how to handle the jagged little remains.

When cleaning, especially when using solvents and strong detergents, wear gloves. I’m allergic to latex, so I buy boxes of non-latex exam gloves and keep them under my sinks. I actually love having them because now I don’t ever have to stick my hands in anything I would have preferred not.

Once you have a basically sound nail growing, you can use a little nail strengthener. I really like FingerPaints Hard As Steel Nail Strengthener. I wear it as a base coat every time I paint my nails. I also use it for a few days once a week even if I don’t paint them. Do not wear nail polish without protecting your nails with something fortifying, especially if you found something at the drugstore you just couldn’t resist!

On the subject of nail polish, I would also like to mention that all nail polishes are NOT the same. There is a reason salon polish is $9-11 a bottle and you can get others at the drugstore for $1-6 and you’ll see that difference in your yellow, brittle, flaking nails as they die from oxygen depletion and toxicity levels. Spend the extra. It’s worth it.

Also, avoid gels and while you’re at it, avoid salon manicures. One of the two times I had to start over completely was because I went to a salon and had them do a gel manicure. It weakened my nails to the point that they were destroyed. If you don’t mind your nails being artificial and paying $30-40 a week for them, stop reading here and just go to the salon. If you want healthy natural nails, read on.

Either way, it’s best not to wear nail polish too often. Nails flourish best au natural. I try to wear nail polish no more than a couple times per month. However, my cardinal rules regarding nail polish are these two: If you can’t keep from picking at it, don’t wear it at all and the only way nail polish should ever come off is with remover and a cotton ball.

Early on, don’t be surprised if you put nail polish on and it begins flaking off the next day; if your nails are weak and easily bend this will happen. It’s probably best to keep your nails fairly short to prevent bending, flaking and breakage, while relegating the nail polish to special occasions only until your nails are a bit thicker and stronger.

Sometimes nail polish problems are an indication of the ways in which we’re mistreating our nails, too, so pay attention to what it might be saying to you. I discovered this around the time of my second downfall. No matter what I did, my ring finger nails would begin chipping in the exact same place and sometimes my middle finger nails would do the same thing. Then I noticed an odd notch in my right thumb nail… and it wasn’t just the polish! I knew better than to use my nails as tools and I thought I’d learned my lesson, but I was using them to scrub my head when I shampooed (causing the chipping of both polish and nails and separating the nail layers in some cases) and the notch in my thumb was from playing with my stupid cell phone. And while I hadn’t been biting my nails at all, I was still sticking my hands in my mouth getting hydrochloric acid all over them frequently and then scraping my teeth over my nails. I also spent more than my fair share of time chewing my polish off, which does the same thing.

But don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself doing these things. I mention them because knowing is half the battle, but it’s the small half. If you backslide and have a fingernail snack (or an all out 10 piece meal), don’t panic! It isn’t over. Keep taking your vitamins and just start from scratch. It happens. It happened to me twice! Keep trying. The only way you lose is if you give up!

Be patient with your nails and yourself. With the nail vitamins, your nails will grow quick and thicker with each iteration. Consider each break an opportunity for replacement with stronger nails. I would estimate my nails are at least 5 times stronger than they were 3 years ago, quite possibly more. There were more than a few frustrations in between, but now my nails are super-strong and while I don’t want to jinx myself, I haven’t broken one in a long time.


Questions? Comments? Do please chime in. I would love to hear your opinions.


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