Servicing Nail Biter Clients

Nail biting clients can be the most challenging, difficult, and frustrating clients a nail technician encounters. Instead of throwing in the towel and letting them continue to chew and pick, you can help your clients to reform while creating a loyal, long-term customer in the process.

Nail biters make very loyal enhancement clients, so it behooves you to help and cultivate them for long-term professional success and a full book. For many clients, simply the price of a full set of nails is not enough of a deterrent to prevent them from biting and picking at their nails. So what’s a nail tech to do with these clients? There are enhancement application methods to help you help nail-biting clients and turn them into successful enhancement-wearing, non-nail-biters.

Many salons turn nail biters away when they request a full set of nail enhancements, telling the nail biter to first grow out her nails and then come back for manicures. Ironic isn’t it? If the client could get her nails grown out at all, she wouldn’t be looking for professional help to begin with; so a new potential long-term client will be thrilled when you say, “Yes, I can help you.”

Choosing the Length

The length of the new nail enhancements will usually not be an issue with a nail biter, she just wants to look “normal” and not have to be embarrassed by her hands anymore. Many nail biters dream of just being able to see their nails from the back.

The optimal length of extensions for a non-biter is 25%-50%, allowing for balance and less stress on the matrix of the nail. With a nail biter, just getting the nail extended from the bitten middle of the nail bed to where the normal hyponychium should be, or to the top of the fingertip, can already mean doing a 100% or more extension. For this reason, on nail biters you will need to keep the nails short at first.

If you have a nail biter client who wants you to apply nails that are too long, you should advise her that it is not a good idea because of breakage and lifting problems. Let her know that maintaining her nail enhancements regularly and following your advice will result in additional length as time progresses.

Compulsive Perfectionism

Many nail biters pick at their nails and cuticles. If your client is not already a picker, she usually will be once she has nail enhancements. She may even tell you with a perfectly straight face that she has not been biting her nails, but she will leave out the part about the picking. Nail biters sometimes actually think that they are doing you a “favor” by picking away the lifted areas before each fill. Nail biters need lots of education and rules to follow. Don’t assume she knows to not pick at the nails!

Part of the compulsion to bite or pick is to “fix” a rough or uneven nail or cuticle. A nail tech needs to let her client know that if she should accidentally break one nail (or bite one nail more likely) that the compulsion to attack the other nine nails will be very hard to resist for more than a day or two. For this reason, it is extremely important that she get broken or lifted nails repaired immediately. Also, any rough or uneven spots at the cuticle, sidewalls, or free edge left by the nail tech will be almost irresistible to this client. Be meticulous in your prep and application to prevent lifting, and be sure your finish work (filing and buffing) is perfect and flush all around so that there is nothing to pick at.

Weekly Fills

The number-one (and often overlooked) factor in success with nail biter clients is that weekly fills are mandatory. In order to succeed, nail biters need to commit to a program and keep weekly fill appointments at least for the first four to six weeks. This is not only because she may pick at her new nails, but also because a nail biter’s nails will grow at a much faster rate than those of someone with healthy natural nails.

Start the client out on the right track by setting up her next three to four fill appointments before she leaves the first appointment. Let her know that for the program to work, she has to make a commitment to the program — monetary and time. It is best to be up front about costs (both initial and ongoing) and what your policies are for repairs and what is expected of her as a client.

At some point between weeks three and six, your client will be very happy to start seeing that her own nails are indeed growing out under the enhancement. But, beware — trouble may be looming ahead. Once her own nails are grown out under the enhancement, she will most likely have some free edge separation problems, which can lead to service breakdown and needs to be addressed promptly.

Because the unhealthy nail has now grown out to the free edge, that first bit of nail will once have been ragged and bitten, and will likely be thinned from peeling layers of nail during the last biting session before the enhancements. Service breakdown can also be caused by improperly fitted forms, or when the nail tip adhesive breaks down (due to time and water exposure) or accidental under-sizing of the tips at the full set — a common mistake to make, due to the flatness and shortness of the once-pitiful little stubs.

You will need to expect, address, and monitor these problems as they arise. The general remedy is to file the nail enhancements thin as part of the fill and rebalance service, and then shorten the free edge length. Next, apply forms and then re-overlay, extending just enough to encase the free edge. Continue with fills from then on as usual, allowing the nails to keep their length as they grow to keep that free edge sealed. Be very careful to rebalance the arches meticulously at the slightly longer length.

Clients should also be advised to use cuticle oil at least twice daily. The cuticle oil should be a non-mineral oil based professional brand that you retail in your salon. Preferred oils include most edible ones as well as almond oil, apricot kernel, sesame, rice bran, avocado, and vitamin E to name a few.

The cuticle oil can be especially effective in deterring nail biting or picking. When the nails and cuticles are oiled they will taste bad, and they will be slippery and harder to play with or pick at. Applying cuticle oil from a brush-on bottle also serves as a substitute behavior when the urge to bite hits. Your client should keep oil in several rooms at home, as well as in her purse, car, and office. Every time she starts to pick, she should oil instead.

Home maintenance tools that can be helpful for the nail biter client include a 240-grit file or buffer to gently file any rough spots she feels tempted to pick at when she can’t get in to see you. Also, small baby-sized fingernail clippers can be easily carried on a key chain, and make a better solution for hang nails than the nail biter’s usual solution, which is to bite, pick, and rip them off.

Tips for Nail Biter Full Sets

There are several methods that can be employed to ensure success in applying nail enhancements to nail biters. Some methods are better than others depending on the situation, and also on the nail tech’s skill level. Some nail techs will only use tips with biters, while others swear by free-form sculpting techniques. Once you have chosen your method, the hints and tips below can help you make the most of it.

If you choose to use tips with a nail biter, you may find the fleshy and puffy nail bed at the fingertip to be a hurdle. Be sure to use a high-quality nail adhesive or resin, and hold the tip for longer than usual to ensure that it is set. Sometimes using an adhesive dryer or resin activator can be helpful. Apply either the adhesive or activator to the tip, and the other to the nail, then apply the tip as usual. Don’t use too much activator or adhesive though, or the client will feel a burning sensation on the nail bed.

Before you can apply a tip, you have to decide which tips to use. Each has advantages and disadvantages and will be best determined by the client’s nail bed type and what the technician is confident working with.

Using white tips on nail biters can be a problem because they make the smile line too far down on the nail bed, therefore looking very unnatural and fake. Clear tips are great because you can put the smile line wherever you want it, but they sometimes tend to be a little thicker than ordinary tips, so by the time you overlay you may end up with a nail that looks too thick. Half-well tips can be difficult to size into the corners, so watch out for that pitfall. Cutting the wells out of tips entirely gets rid of blending problems, but then does not give a water-tight seal. The best option is to custom refine full-well tips.

When using regular natural-colored tips, the key is customizing the tip for fit and complete blending. For flat nail beds, after shortening the well and refining the sidewalls, you can also cut out a V or an X in the well to expose more natural nail bed to the overlay and less to the nail tip. This will also allow you to fit flat nail beds more easily.

With all tips, sizing is the key point. When between sizes, go to the larger size and file the sidewalls as needed. Many nail biters’ nail beds may be wide and flat, making sizing more difficult. Also consider that nail tips should never cover more than 1/3 to 1/2 of the nail bed. The less nail covered with tip, the better. Cut back and shorten the wells of tips (using tip cutters) so that less of the nail is covered with tip, and more is covered with your overlay product.

Sculpting Nail Biter Full Sets

There are three schools of thought on the sculpting methods for nail biters. All three options are summarized below, along with some other tips, and a fourth option that combines sculpting with tip application. (Pictures to be added soon.)

  • Option 1: Build a nail bed and free edge first on the skin and then form up to that. First, prep and prime the natural nail. Apply a medium size ball of acrylic (or gel) so that it covers half of the existing nail bed and flows out onto the skin where the free edge should be. Place product far enough so that you will be able to get a form under it just as you would do if starting a new full set on normal non-bitten nails. Let the acrylic harden, or cure the gel (don’t cleanse if using gel). Gently pry the product up a bit from the skin so that you can get a form under this newly built free edge. Apply the form, and then continue sculpting as usual by applying white acrylic or gel to the form and making your smile line. Then add clear or pink product through the stress zone and in the cuticle area as usual. Overlay the whole nail to build the bridge between the free edge and the nail bed. If using acrylics, pinch a C-curve before it dries. If using gels, cure and cleanse. Continue with regular finish work of filing and buffing. This method requires that acrylic or gel touch the skin.
  • Option 2: Form up to the bitten nail. This method requires you to customize the form and use creative methods to get a fit between the form and the end of the bitten nail. Since you won’t be able to get under a corner to hold the form down, you’ll have to make your best estimate. Prep and prime as usual. [photo 1] Apply the form, then use other pieces of custom-cut form (from the donut holes) to fill in any gaps between the form and the nail. [photo 2] While applying product, hold the form snug and in place (pointing slightly downward) and with proper C-curve with the other hand as you hold the finger. Apply white free edge where a free edge should be on the form, then continue and apply pink or natural on the form to fashion what should be a nail bed, continuing with your acrylic or gel application down through the cuticle area. [photos 3, 4] Do finish work as usual. This method keeps acrylic and gel off of the skin. [photo 5]
  • Option 3: Apply the form as if a nail and free edge existed. Prep the nail. [photo 6] Then place a form on the nail as if a real natural nail and short free edge actually existed in the place where the donut hole is cut out of the form. [photo 7] Then continue sculpting as above, the only difference being that you will first be sculpting white onto the form, then pink onto the skin (ignoring the fact that it is skin, and forming as if a form or nail was already there), and then pink onto the actual nail. Use clear over it all to bridge the three distinct areas and to keep your white crisp. Continue with regular finish work. This method requires that acrylic or gel touch the skin. [photo 8]
    Some helpful hints: When doing pink-and-whites on nail biters, exaggerate the smile line. Make the smile line a deep U shape so that the corners go deeper into the sides than they normally would. This will help to elongate the nail bed. If using gels, adding fiberglass or silk between layers of gel can help greatly in bridging the gaps between the zones. If the client will be wearing polish, consider using only clear acrylic or gel. This will help prevent breakage at the bridge points (color-change) between free edge, nail bed, and real nail. If you can’t tolerate all clear, or the client feels a need to have a pretty looking nail under the polish, then consider using all pink or natural. Natural will hide nail bed imperfections, yet give some color to the free edge.
  • Option 4: Combine sculpting with tips. This technique uses acrylic to apply the tip to the nail biter’s skin. Basically, after prepping the nail and priming, you apply a medium size ball of pink or natural acrylic so that it rests half on the natural nail, and half on the skin. Before the acrylic hardens, set the tip (which you have already sized for fit before the acrylic application) into the acrylic and hold there until dry. [photo 9] Then continue as usual with overlay techniques.

This technique can also be used with gel, however, you will need to first cure the gel and cleanse it, buff the shine from the gel, and then apply the gel with nail adhesive or resin. The advantage to this method versus regular tipping methods is that no tip or adhesive makes contact with the natural nail, thus reducing the problems associated with the breakdown of the adhesive over time.

Remember, nail products were meant to be applied to nails and not to skin. Repeated exposure to nail products on the skin can cause sensitivity. Take measures to protect the skin such as barrier creams (like an invisible glove), or covering the area with cuticle oil first (this will also help with the release of the product from the skin).

Nail biters can become lifelong clients, so they are good clients to cultivate for your long-term professional success and a full book! Use a slogan such as “We love nail biters” or “Nail biters welcome!” in all your advertisements, on your business cards, and in the tag line for your phone book listing and watch clients flock to your salon.

Makeover: From Nail Biter to Pink-and-White Devotee

Diana, a police officer, has been a biter for years and has been wanting to quit for almost as long. So we decided to do our own “makeover” on her. We tried this once before — years ago — and Diana reformed for a while, but eventually reverted back to her old ways. We set Diana up with Tiffany, a local nail technician with an impressive resume.

“At my first appointment, Tiffany only slightly gasped when she saw my nails and hands,” says Diana. “I had been chewing badly the last few days and got a hold of my nippers, so they were looking very bad. She put on a cool cleaning solution, which was very comforting and then pushed my cuticles back. My nails were so sore and swollen that the preparation was a little uncomfortable.”

After learning how rough Diana is on her hands as a police officer, Tiffany applied clear nail tips, and acrylic a little bit thicker than usual. “She listened to what my problems had been in the past with nails, which I appreciated,” says Diana. Tiffany sent Diana home with cuticle oil, telling her to apply it the minute Diana starts to chew. After Diana’s initial appointment, the program that we set her up on lasted for six weeks, going in to see Tiffany every two weeks for a fill.

“I love my new nails and love going to Tiffany,” she says. Now that her bitten nails have grown out, Tiffany sculpts Diana’s nails, giving her regular fills every two weeks. “I have noticed that there is no breakage,” says Diana. “That is incredible because all of the other times I’ve had nails put on, I always had breakage before the two-week appointment.”

So is Diana a fully reformed nail biter? “OK, I do bite (and pick) a little,” she admits. “But not to the extent I have in the past. And keeping the nails on, whether they are painted or not, has stopped me from chewing my cuticles. I have been better, but I still need to improve. And I have had so many compliments on the nails!”

Male Clients

The same methods used for female nail biters can be refined for male nail biters as well. The main differences in doing a man’s nails versus a woman’s are:

  1. Tips are generally NOT a good option with men, you should form the nails.
  2. Use natural-colored powder for acrylics rather than pink to hide nail bed flaws.
  3. Use clear acrylic or gel where you might have chosen pink for a female.
  4. Keep the length short enough so that they cannot be seen from behind.
  5. Use a more muted white for the free edge. Mix your white powder or gel with some natural or clear.
  6. Sculpt mostly nail bed, and then just a very small smile line and free edge.
  7. Competition smile lines are out. The smile line does not need to be crisp or deep in the corners for a male. A little blurring and less crispness is a more desired and natural look for males.
  8. Generally, do not buff the nails to a high shine unless he specifically wants that.
  9. Keep the nails thin. Since you are not extending past the free edge at all, there won’t be the same need for balance and arching as when there is an extension.

Method: Tip With Overlays on Nail Biters

A full-well tip covers too much of the nail bed with tip and glue, so the tip will need to be refined. First, size the tip from sidewall to sidewall, and pay attention to how the “stop” of the “well” fits at the free edge to form a water tight, three-dimensional seal. You can ignore how the tip fits further down the nail, as that part of the well will be removed. You will usually need to oversize the tip one or two sizes to get a good fit. With a file, taper the sides of the tip to fit the nail. [photo 10] Here, a full-well tip was sized and refined to fit a nail biter with as little natural nail as possible covered by tip or glue. Notice that the well has been cut down, and a “V” cut into what remains to increase product contact with the natural nail, thereby increasing adhesion and success rate with nail biters. Sidewalls have been tapered so that the nail does not appear “fat” due to it being flat in most cases. Continue by applying, shortening, shaping, and blending the tip as usual. [photo 11]Next, add gel or acrylic overlay on the tip per your usual method, concentrating on really building the nail with product over the tip, and not relying on the tip for strength. In this example, clear gel was used with a regular natural-colored tip.