How to Stop Picking Cuticles in 2020 According to Doctors

I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t a cuticle picker. I know this sounds a little weird, but there’s something about picking the crap out of my cuticles that, IDK, soothes me? Especially when I’m stressed the f*ck out. But that brief moment of relief is usually interrupted by sheer panic when I look down at my fingers and realize my mindless picking has turned into a full-blown bloodfest.

I’ve ~flirted~ with quitting the habit every now and then, but the inevitable scabbing that follows a quick sesh is usually inconvenient enough to keep it under control (my coworkers and friends don’t need to see my bloody handiwork, TYVM). But as I settled into quarantine over the last couple months (and, you know, all the anxiety that comes with a global pandemic), my cuticle picking has slowly turned into a regular thing.

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It wasn’t until I picked my way through an entire season of Love Island—yup, all 50 hours—that I decided it was time to actually do something about my situation. So I called up two experts, a psychologist and a dermatologist, to figure out (a) why I pick in the first place, and (b) what I can do to finally, really, officially stop.

imaxtree

Imaxtree

Why do I pick at the skin around my nails?

Before I jumped into any solutions (which, spoiler alert, I have many), I first wanted to learn a bit more about cuticle picking in general—namely, why TF it happens. “Cuticle picking is a ‘body-focused repetitive behavior,’ which, in simple terms, means a repetitive self-grooming habit,” says Sanam Hafeez, MD, a neuropsychologist in New York City. “Unlike a ‘constructive habit’ that we repeat daily, like washing our face, cuticle picking falls under the category of a ‘bad habit,’” she says, adding that “people often pick their cuticles to relieve stress or when they’re bored and fidgety.” Which, tbh, has been my entire mood during quarantine.

According to Dr. Hafeez, 75 percent of all skin pickers are women—so apparently I’m one of the chosen ones. And remember when I said picking my cuticles felt oddly satisfying? Yeah, that’s super common for people with body-focused repetitive behavior (or BFRB), since “pulling, picking, or bitting can actually produce relaxing and pleasing feelings.” So when someone with BFRB feels stressed or anxious (it me!), “engaging in picking can have a soothing effect on the nervous system,” says Dr. Hafeez. Ding, ding, ding.

imaxtree

Imaxtree

Is picking your cuticles and nails bad for you?

Look, it’s not like I thought I was doing my skin any favors by picking my cuticles for years, but other than a few days of sores and scabs, I hadn’t experienced any long-term side effects. But apparently, I was playing a game of Risk the entire time. “Nails harbor all kinds of bacteria—in some ways, they’re dirtier than our butts,” says dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor at Yale University. “So when you pick, you’re basically giving your skin the green light for a potential staph infection.” Scary.

Bacteria aside, cuticle picking can also f*ck up your nail health. “That little moon shape at the base of your nails is called the lunula, and it’s where a healthy nail originates,” says Dr. Gohara. “If you destroy it by picking, things can go awry.” Think: disfigured and puffy nail beds.

How can I stop picking at my cuticles?

Now for the fun part. I asked Dr. Hafeez and Dr. Gohara for all their tips and tricks for quitting my habit for good and immediately put them all to the test. Here’s what worked for me:

Figure out your triggers

Dr. Hafeez suggested I start my journey by “establishing” my triggers. This process can look a little different for everyone, since you need to find something that works for you and your lifestyle, but for me, I decided it would be easiest to keep a running list on my phone. So every time I picked (or felt the urge to pick) for one week, I grabbed my phone and quickly jotted down what I was doing (e.g., 11 a.m.: stressed with a deadline, 8 p.m.: anxiously scrolling through Instagram).

By the end of the week, I had a fun little list of the situations where I’m most likely to pick my cuticles (and, no surprise here, they all were all triggered by stress). Not only did this step help me feel a bit more in control of my habit, but it also gave me a roadmap to the areas of my life that I should maybe, probably try to improve if I want to feel less stressed and anxious. BRB while I book a Zoom appointment with my therapist.

Get regular manicures

Dr. Hafeez’s second suggestion was something I could a hundred percent get on board with: getting—or giving myself—regular manicures. After cutting, filing, and (*cough* sloppily) painting my nails, I was kinda surprised by how aware I felt of my fingers. Every time I even touched my cuticles, I was immediately reminded to back the hell off. I loved how easy this one felt, and I definitely plan on keeping it up through quarantine (even if I have to rely on some nail stickers every now and again).

Try a nail-biting serum

I’m more of a cuticle picker than a biter, but I did appreciate how genius this trick was: coating your nails with a nail-biting serum or polish so you get a bad, bitter-AF taste when you go in for the kill. You can even layer one on top of your manicure (almost like a top coat) for good measure.

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Slap on a hydrocolloid bandage

You know those pimple patches you have lying around your bathroom? Yeah, you’re gonna need them for this step. “If there’s a single nail you often go at—like the thumb—put a hydrocolloid dressing on there to heal and protect your skin,” says Dr. Gohara. “I also love a little Vaseline there for the same purpose—the glide from the lube makes the pick less easy and helps heal the skin.”

I personally found that patches worked better during the day (I’m on my computer for most of the day, so I can’t hang with slippery fingers), while a thin coat of Vaseline was best right before bed. BTW: You’ll want to use a bandaid that’s made with 100 percent hydrocolloid because additives like salicylic acid aren’t exactly ideal for open wounds. These colloid patches are a safe place to start:

Keep your fingers busy

Remember: Bored and fidgety are two feelings you want to avoid when you’re trying to kick your cuticle-picking habit, so it’s not a bad idea to give yourself a few harmless distractions. “I suggest picking instead at the bottom of a pen or a pen cap, since it has a little ridge that is cuticle-esque,” says Dr. Gohara. I also tried two of Dr. Hafeez’s suggestions: squeezing a rubber ball and snapping a hair tie on my wrist (loved the former, could do without the latter—it kinda hurt?).

Moisturize your cuticles daily

Last but not least, Dr. Hafeez said I should try to keep my cuticles super soft and hydrated. “Moisturizing your cuticles so they aren’t dry makes it harder and less tempting to pick at them,” she explains. Alongside my favorite hand cream, I added a cuticle oil into my routine (which, like the Vaseline, was a lot easier to use at night) and loved how silky they felt after a few nights.

The final word

I’m now on week two of my journey and I’ve already noticed some minor improvements. Like, my cuticles aren’t 100 percent healed (and I haven’t completely stopped picking…I’m not perfect), but I’m way more aware of my habit than ever before. And, for me, that’s a big enough win to feel like I’m finally gaining some control over it. But I definitely plan on keeping up with Dr. Gohara and Dr. Hafeez’s tips—who knew cuticle serums were so damn nice?—while also trying to minimize a few of my triggers. Catch me in 2021 with the prettiest hands (and clearest head) of all time.

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