Do You Pick Your Skin? Here's Why And When To Stop


Whether it’s an old scab on our shin, that bit of dandruff on our scalp, or popping a zit that popped, it’s safe to say that we all – to some degree – pick at our skin. The question is why? What is it about the whole thing that satisfies us, and why is it that sometimes a seemingly harmless habit can go sideways? Curious for the answer, we hit up a psychodermatologist and dermatologist.

Why We Pick, Pop, and Scratch

The reason why we pick isn’t exactly straightforward, but we can try to simplify. Dr. Stacy Chimento, a board-certified dermatologist for Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, Fla., breaks down skin-picking into three categories:

Mild / Minor Picking Habits: “This category refers to people who pick at their skin when they see that there is a stubborn blemish that they are not used to on their face. Usually, people that fall into this category don’t fixate on picking at their skin,” she says. Think: a few minutes to address the issue, then moving on.

Intermediate Picking Habits: “This level of picking refers to those who pick at their skin if they see anything abnormal, from a change of texture, dry patch, or raised bump on the skin’s surface. These patients tend to also pick at their scalp if they notice any flakes or rough textures,” says Dr. Chimento. Think: turning skin-picking into a pastime.

Severe Picking Habits: “At this point, patients are picking at their skin incessantly even when nothing unusual is present. Patients who develop severe picking habits can often find themselves probing their skin in search of anything to pick, whether that be a scratch, a blackhead, or a scab,” she says. People in this category pick so much it can cause damage or impact their day-to-day life.

Mild skin-picking is understandable and normal; we want to look and feel our best and eliminate anything “weird” or “different” from our bodies. For some, however, picking becomes a slippery slope.

“[Severe] skin picking is often used to help regulate emotions; it can be a coping mechanism to relieve emotional discomfort, physical discomfort, or a blend of the two. If [a severe skin picker] is stressed or anxious, skin picking allows temporary relief,” explains Matthew Traube, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in the field of psychodermatology.

This behavior actually has a name – “Body-Focused Repetitive Behavior” (BFRB). It is defined as repetitive self-grooming behavior, including skin picking or even pulling hair from your body. In addition to soothing during times of stress or discomfort, Dr. Chimento says that skin picking can also provide a sense of “control” or can even be done out of sheer boredom.

“Picking can occur both consciously or unconsciously,” adds Traube. “Ultimately, the underlying issues do not get addressed and generally people feel awful about it afterward.”

The Dangers of Skin Picking

Carefully addressing a singular zit (or two), futzing with a scab, examining a new bump or patch, or occasionally scratching at dandruff are all within the realm of normal picking. It’s okay and healthy to pay attention to our bodies and groom ourselves.

The line is drawn when skin picking becomes compulsory and/or excessive – to the point you’re inflicting real damage or pain versus trying to quickly address a skin issue. This damage can range from mild to extreme. Dr. Chimento says that bleeding, bruising, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), secondary infections, and permanent scarring are not uncommon.

In addition to physical damage, severe picking can also impact your life and wellbeing. Compulsory skin pickers can spend hours obsessing in front of a mirror and still feel like they must keep going. Like other addictions, it can distract them from important things in life, such as work, relationships, exercise, and social engagement.

How to Curb a Picking Habit That’s Gone Too Far

To cease the picking, it’s important to take thoughtful action in order to set yourself up for success.

“In the early stages of trying to ‘quit’, try wearing gloves when your hands are not occupied. If you are at work, keep a squeezable ball on your desk. Each time you experience urges to pick, will yourself to resist for longer durations,” suggests Dr. Chimento. “Sometimes the urge to pick is manifested by skin conditions such as dry, cracked skin, or oily skin that produces acne. Instead of picking at it, treat the problem instead.”

If you’re working through a skin-picking addition and experience breakouts, it’s also better to visit your dermatologist for a facial or cleanup to prevent you from slipping down that slope. Another way to help is to keep your nails trimmed, which makes it harder to pick. And while you’re at it, toss those tempting instruments, such as tweezers, small manicure scissors, and anything else you use to pick your skin.

Traube adds, “It’s common for people to pick more when they’re alone, so I might suggest creating a weekly social schedule to assure that you are more often engaged with others. Social support can make a significant impact on skin picking.”

If small steps fail, even when aware of the issue and attempting to address it, consult a licensed therapist. A therapist can talk you through the process and help you understand the root of what is causing and magnifying the disorder.

“Professional help usually involves a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy, habit reversal training, mindfulness, and psychodynamic therapy,” says Traube, “We want to address both the act of skin picking and the deeper emotional issues that can provoke it.”

Bottom Line: To a degree, we all pick at our skin, and in the mildest cases, it’s perfectly normal. If you sense yourself slipping or feel like you’re losing control of the situation, tackle the underlying issue and set yourself up for success by following the above advice. If you do find yourself picking to an extreme degree and are struggling to gain control, you’re not alone. A professional can help guide you to the other end.