Study Finds New Way to Stop Nail Biting, Other Repetitive Habits

2 min read

July 21, 2023 -- A strategy called habit replacement helped more than half the people in a research project ease repetitive habits such as nail biting, hair plucking, and skin scratching, according to a new study. 

Researchers worked over 6 weeks with 268 people diagnosed with a condition in which they repeatedly bite their nails or the inside of their cheek or pluck out hair because they’re feeling stress. 

Half the people in the study, which was published inJAMA Dermatology on Wednesday,were instructed in habit replacement, which calls for them to gently rub their fingertips, palm, or back of the arm at least twice a day or whenever they felt the urge to perform the unwanted habit. The others were placed in the control group and told they were wait-listed for instruction, which they received when the study ended.

Around 53% of people said they experienced some improvement compared with about 20% of people in a control group. Nail-biters seemed to benefit most from habit replacement, the study said. About 80% of participants in the treatment group said they were satisfied with the training, while 86% said they would recommend it to a friend.

“The rule is just to touch your body lightly,” lead study author Steffen Moritz, PhD, head of the clinical neuropsychology working group at University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany, told NBC News. “If you’re under stress, you might perform the movements faster, but not with more self-applied pressure.”

Those kinds of habits are called body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRB, and affect about 5% of the world’s population, according to the advocacy group TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors. 

Researchers told NBC News they hope habit replacement will be added to behavior modification therapies such as decoupling and habit reversal. In habit reversal, people are taught to do something like clench their fists tight when they have an urge to perform the BFRB. In decoupling, a BFRB is unlearned by switching up a movement at the last minute. Nail-biters might move their hand toward their mouth but end up touching another part of their face.