18/02/2016 6:01 AM AEDT | Updated 19/02/2016 1:59 AM AEDT

How To Break Unhealthy Beauty Habits, From Nail Biting To Hair Twirling

First step is acknowledging the problem.

You may notice that you have a family member, friend or co-worker who is constantly biting their nails, twirling their hair or picking at their skin. And you may think, "How gross?" or ask, "Why won't they stop doing that already?" However, there are countless reasons that trigger this type of behavior and many aren't always aware of their actions. 

To recognize and overcome these unhealthy beauty habits, we turned to three medical experts for their best advice. Read on below to find out what we learned.  

Nail Biting

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Patience and slow, steady change is the sure way to stop nail biting. 

Habit and stress can trigger an individual to nibble away, according to Carol Mathews, M.D., a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco. "In some extreme cases, nail biting becomes more of a problem -- causing infections, tissue damage, etc. This is fairly rare, but can also cause significant distress for the person, particularly if they are unable to stop," she adds.

Under these conditions, Mathews believes it could be considered a medical or psychiatric problem, falling under the category of pathological grooming behaviors.

Patience and slow, steady change are the sure way to stop nail biting, however, Mathews has a few useful tips for breaking this stressful habit:

Delay biting when you get the urge. First, for a few seconds, then for a minute and eventually increasing slowly. Set a timer if necessary and progressively shorten the time you "allow" yourself to bite. 

Try Band-Aids to cover the nails as they provide a physical reminder. They don't keep you from biting if you are motivated, but they do slow you down so that you can consciously try not to bite.

Bad-tasting nail polish like this one can also act as a deterrent to nail-biting.


Hair Twirling

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Self-inflicted hair loss can start as innocently as hair twirling, perhaps while watching TV or studying, which then can develop into the pulling of individual hairs.

Any action like twirling, brushing and twisting can cross the line from normal to compulsive, leading to trichotillomania, according to Elizabeth Cunnane Philips, trichologist at hair health-focused brand Philip Kingsley.

The extreme self-inflicted hair loss condition can start as innocently as hair twirling, perhaps while watching TV or studying, which then can develop into the pulling of individual hairs. It's much more likely to affect women than men, with an approximate ratio of four to one.

"Repeated and constant twirling and pulling can lead to frizzier hairs regrowing, and in some cases where the pulling is long term there can be follicular damage where the regrowth potential can be diminished," said Philips.

While Philips believes this is a complex condition that must be identified by a professional in order to receive the required attention, she has some advice to control the urge to twirl:

The continuation of any therapy that has proven helpful in the past. Managing any emotional and psychological issues is both vital and mandatory.

Identify individual triggers and set up ways to catch those.

Wear gloves while reading, watching TV or talking on the phone. 

Explore therapy balls that are often used for sensory therapy or rehabilitation post-hand surgery. 

Skin Picking

When deciding whether you need to seek professional treatment for skin picking, pay close attention to "the intensity and frequency of the behavior."

Skin picking disorder, or dermatillomania, is a repetitive behavior of picking at one's own skin, usually on the face or fingers. Laura Lokers, a licensed clinical social worker and cofounder of the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan, told The Huffington Post that it is difficult to get accurate statistics for the number of individuals who suffer from skin-picking disorder because they often suppress the severity of it behind dermatological conditions such as acne and eczema. Not to mention, there are few resources for treatment and support. 

Some people have attempted to self-treat picking with videos that magnify the disorder. However, Lokers has discovered that this isn't a helpful method. 

When deciding whether you need to seek professional treatment, Lokers said its best to observe "the intensity and frequency of the behavior."

She explained, "If you're stressed and once a month you notice for a couple of days that you’re picking at your fingers a little bit more, thats probably not a big deal. But if you notice that it's happening every day and you're having really severe damage that's being caused -- infection, scarring, that kind of thing -- that’s where it starts to cross that line."

Portions of this feature was previously published on November 11, 2011, February 4, 2013 and June 10, 2015. 

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