Customer Service

Psychology of a Nail Biter

Rebecca Byrne was passing a nail salon in the local mall when an idea popped into her head. Stopping, she gathered the courage and went in to ask the nail technician if she could put acrylics on her bitten-down nails to help her grow them out.

Recently, an oral medication has been used to successfully treat chronic nail biters, according to Jim Broge, spokesperson for the Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation in Milford, Conn. However, only sever cases would benefit from Anafranil, a brand name for a drug called clomipramine. Anafranil is one of five medications used to treat patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders, although doctors and researchers have not been able to conclusively classify nail biting as such a disorder. However, they do agree that some of the same treatments used for patients with obsessive compulsive disorders work on nail biters, hair pullers, and other patients with “impulse control” disorders, according t a spokesperson at the Obsessive-Compulsive Information Center in Madison, Wis.


How Nail Technicians Can Help

In addition to any medical treatment prescribed by a doctor, regular nail grooming is an important part of reforming a nail biter, according to both doctors and journals. “If I can put artificial nails on my clients that are smooth and tight, they will usually not bite the artificial nail,” explains Byrne, who says that if the nails are ridgeless, there is nothing for the clients to “fix,” so she leaves her nails alone.


It may also be the alpha hydroxyl lotions that both Byrne and Lopez recommend and retail to their clients for between-service maintenance that helps their nail biting clientele. “The lotion will slough off all the dead skin around the nails and keep it smooth,” says Byrne. “That way, there will be nothing to bite or tear.” She also recommends that her clients keep a file with them to smooth any hangnails, tears, or ridges that may occur.


Nadine Galli, Southern California regional manager for OPI Products (N. Hollywood, Calif.), recommends that mire nail technicians take advantage of this common nail ailment instead of turning nail biters away. “If you start nail biting-clients on a salon-care program, they can become your best customers,” she says. “If you can show them that they can have 10 beautiful nails, then you will probably have a good client for life.”


The first step is to get the client to commit to an extended nail care program by having her pay for future services up front. Chances are that financial commitment will also provide encouragement for the client to break her of the habit.


Galli says that if the clients wants nail extensions, set up an eight-week program and charge her accordingly for you time and the services. Explain to her that she is entitled to a certain number of weekly visits and can call in should she have a nail emergency.


Don’t extend the tips of the nails beyond the edge of her fingertips; by the eighth week, the nails should be long enough to attach longer tips or grow on their own. (See “Give Nail Biters a New Lease on Nails,” on page 40 in April 1996.)


Galli recommends following the same type of program for clients who prefer manicures; a six-week program for these individuals for, say, $10 an appointment. She emphasizes that the program is successful only if the nail technician is willing to serve clients who may require extra attention. “The program will only work of the client makes a full commitment to you and the services, and you make a full commitment to help the client.”


Nail technicians who do not (or will not) treat nail-biting clients are missing a big opportunity. “Nail biters become profitable, loyal clients,” Galli explains, adding that they appreciate the fact that the nail technician can make their problem hands beautiful with treatment. “Any nail biter who will go in regularly to a nail technician will see a marked difference in her nails.”


A common problem that is largely dismissed as a minor nuisance, nail biting can be anything from a bad habit to an outward symptom of a medical or emotional disorder.


Nail Biter Profile

Nail biters are more often male than female after age 10 (10% fewer bite their nails than boys), and individuals with a higher rate of intelligence tend to bite their nails more than those of less intelligence. (Studies seem to suggest this is because people with a higher rate of intelligence have more responsibility, which may provide more anxiety.) Studies show that some relationship between nail biting and low self-esteem may exist. In general though, nail biting was not shown to lower a biter’s self-esteem.


While no studies revealed an overall success rate for curing nail biters, Rob Dahmes, M.D., suggests that those with a habit may be harder to cure than those who bite their nails in relationship to a psychiatric problem. Nail biting that manifests itself due to emotional trauma can possibly be cured with medicine and/or counseling. Unfortunately, no treatment exists for bad habits.


Drastic Measures

Nail Biting Client: Gina, 38. While most people would agree that nail biting is not a large enough problem to cause a job change, a well-timed switch from one sales position to another helped this professional get a handle on her habit. “I bite my nails when my anxiety level rises,” Gina admits, recalling her extremely short, ragged nails and dry cuticles. “But I recently switched positions, so I feel that I am under a lot less stress. I haven’t bitten my nails for two weeks.”


Embarrassed in front of clients, Gina used to let her thumb nails grow (while biting the rest of her fingernails) because they were the ones she thought were the most directly exposed to clients when she handed them paperwork.


When asked if she thinks she’s kicked her bad habit permanently, Gina jokes, “Well, take a look at the cap of my ballpoint pen…”


How to Spot a Nail Biter

Look for these possible signs if the individual is a habitual biter or picker:

1.Rough free edge or no free edge

2. Extremely short nails or nail beds

3. Rough, red, cracked, and/or bleeding cuticles

4. Puffy skin around the nail

5. Ridged with calcium deposits

6. Transmission of oral diseases


Look for these possible signs (in addition to those mentioned above) in nail biters with emotional or psychological problems:

1. Gastrointestinal problems (stomach cramps, aches, etc.)

2. Mood swings/erratic disposition

3. Sociopathy (antisocial behavior)

4. Lack of self-monitoring or self-esteem (may manifest itself as poor hygiene)

5. Muscle tension (hard to get client to relax fingers)

6. Excessive perspiration

7. Cardiovascular and respiratory problems (heavy breathing or complaints of difficult breathing)


Nail Technician’s Nightmare

Nail Biting Client: Yumio, 23. This sailmaker admits that he has chewed his nails and cuticles until they bleed, ever since his baby teeth came in. “I don’t remember starting,” he says, adding that boredom keeps his habit alive. The urge to bite or chew sometimes comes when he is waiting for his computer to process large amounts of information.


Yumio’s hands are constantly exposed to saltwater and so his cuticles are always dried out. “In many cases it is just easier to bite off the dead skin than to find a file or a nail clipper,” he explains. He is a nail technician’s nightmare as he views going to a salon as a major inconvenience.


Because he feels that his nail biting bothers no one but his girlfriend, Yumio admits he has no inducement to rid himself of his habit.


Biting Complications

Nail Biting Client: Judy, 51. As an art director and graphic designer, Judy’s career rests in her own hands, one with badly bitten nails tat also have splits in them. She says that her nail-biting habit stems from on-the-job stress and sometimes boredom.


Her habit is so inborn, that Judy may not even know she is biting until pain warns her that damage was done. “I will be watching an exciting movie and before I know it, I feel a sharp, stinging pain and then I realize that my hands have been in my mouth,” she explains.


Judy’s nails have always been naturally thin, except for when she was pregnant and taking pre-natal vitamins. With the exception of a five-month period, and during her pregnancy, Judy’s nails have never been longer than the tips of her fingers. She is allergic to artificial nails so enhancements have not been a viable solution.


Judy owns beautiful rings, which she refuses to wear because they might call attention to her hands. “I am the same way in a professional situation, such as a meeting,” Judy says. “I will hide my hands under the table or fold them to keep people from seeing them.”


Nail Biting Articles Available

For more information on nail biting, the Obsessive-Compulsive Information Center has 127 articles on file. Many are medical studies related to various types of treatments available. The center can be reached by mail or by phone: Obsessive-Compulsive Information Center Dean Foundation 8000 Excelsior Drive Madison, WI 53717-1914 (608) 836-8070


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