I have a confession to make: I am an obsessive skin picker.
Obsessive skin picking, also called dermatillomania or skin picking disorder, is a disorder where you can’t stop picking your skin. It affects an estimated 1 in 20 people.
I didn’t always realize I had a problem. Picking was encouraged in my childhood home (close family members are also obsessive pickers), which did nothing but fuel my focus on my skin. I remember picking when I was a teenager to the point that I had noticeable scars on my arms, and a friend in high school once asked about them.
But I didn’t realize my skin picking was an issue until I was in a long-term relationship with my now-husband and tried to hide my picking from him, which led me to wonder how to stop obsessive skin picking.
I have struggled with skin picking for two decades. It has been worse at times and better at times, but it has always been a problem.
I won’t say that I am in recovery because I am and will always be a skin picker. But I will say that my picking has improved dramatically, and it has been almost two years since I have gone on a “picking binge” where I have obsessively picked at and ruined my skin to the point that I either refused to leave the house or had to cover up my arms (my target area for picking).
So what helped me? What didn’t? Here are five things that did and didn’t help me when it comes to how to stop obsessive skin picking.
1. Keeping My Nails Short
The longer my nails are, the more damage I can do to my skin. The more damage I do to my skin, the easier it is for me to quickly ruin my skin and feel angry, depressed, and hopeless, which fuels my unhealthy cycle of picking and abstinence.
I started keeping my fingernails trimmed really short, which helps prevent my fingernails from cutting into my skin when I pick. This way, when I do pick (and I want to be clear that I do still pick, just not obsessively), it doesn’t cause as much damage and I feel more at peace about picking without ruining my skin.
I have spoken with another skin picker who says that she finds it helpful to have fake nails, which makes it impossible to pick her skin. I thought I’d mention this because the short fingernail trick may not work for every picker wondering how to stop obsessive skin picking.
2. Paying Attention
Mindfulness has been one of the most helpful things for me in stopping the obsessive-picking tirade that I would engage in almost daily.
I read many books, including all of Eckhart Tolle’s books, that talk about mindfulness and noticing how you feel and being present in your body. I started noticing things that were major clues on my journey to not picking obsessively.
First, I noticed that I was never present when I was picking. I was in a type of trance (I hear other pickers talk about this) where I am hyper-focused on my picking and nothing else matters. The second I become present, I am able to stop picking.
Secondly, I was almost always upset, stressed, or angry when I was picking. I started to realize that my emotions were directly linked to my picking the majority of the time. When I was picking, I was usually upset about something that I didn’t even consciously realize because I was using picking to distract myself from the feeling.
By paying attention to my body, my emotions, and my current state of mind, I am free to not pick. Even now, there are times when I will be stressed and zone out and start picking, but I can quickly reign myself in by realizing how I’m feeling, taking a deep breath, and coming back into the present moment.
I also noticed that I needed to be much more mindful of my picking in the summer because I wear a lot of tank tops (one of my major life goals is to look like Channing Tatum in Step Up), and since my arms are my area of choice for picking, I am much more likely to start picking in the summer than I am in the cooler seasons when I am wearing a hoodie.
3. Addressing My Core Issues
Like many people, I have a lot of unhealed mental and emotional wounds.
Mindfulness and many of my self-help readings made me realize that deep down, there was a wounded child inside me that never healed from her childhood trauma. By giving my inner child a voice—and more than that, making her a priority in my life—I was able to start healing.
How did I do this?
For one, I started working with a therapist. My therapist has been instrumental to my growth and helping me shine a loving and compassionate light on the dark, terrified parts of myself that never healed and were slowly rotting inside me and poisoning my life.
These parts were trying to protect me from what I had falsely learned would harm me—but those things are no longer true for me.
I realized that my childhood trauma formed the foundation for my social anxiety and my obsessive skin picking. It also fueled my feelings of unworthiness and shame.
By addressing my core issues, which is an ongoing process, with therapy, a lot of journaling, and reading self-help books, I started to believe that I was worthy of having beautiful skin without obsessively picking at it. In other words, I was worthy of healing and having the life I wanted, which didn’t include obsessively picking my skin.
4. Taking Care of My Body
I noticed that taking care of my body helped encourage me not to pick. For me, taking care of my body looks like:
- Eating healthy
- Maintaining a skincare regimen
Working out helps me feel strong and confident. I like the way I look when I take care of my body, and it encourages me to maintain a healthy appearance I can be proud of by not picking. The same is true for eating healthy. I feel good and look good when I eat healthy and I am encouraged not to pick.
Honestly, having a skincare regimen has helped so much. I’ve gotten really into skincare the last few years and now use body lotion nightly (this is my all-time fave body lotion—not sponsored) and also skincare serums and creams on my face.
Taking care of my skin in this way makes me feel beautiful, worthy, and like I don’t need to pick my skin for it to look beautiful. It also gives me something else to do with my skin rather than pick!
5. Getting Tattoos
This might be a controversial one, but yes, it’s helped!
I originally didn’t plan on covering my body with tattoos, but that’s kind of where things are headed. Once I started getting more tattooed, I realized I could cover the picking scars on my arms with art.
First, I got my tiger, and I noticed that it helped hide both my picking scars and my current picking marks. It made me less ashamed of my picking habit, even when it wasn’t carried out obsessively.
I have a scar on my other arm of a broken capillary I tried to get rid of myself by burning it, which turned it into a bigger scar (when done properly, this method does make them go away, but I was a newbie at it). I covered that scar and a lot of my picking scars up with a second tattoo by the same artist.
My tattoos have made my skin feel more beautiful and help me feel better about my picking history and my current level of picking.
Thank you anka.tattoo for making my arms so beautiful.
5 Things That DIDN’T Help
These are things I tried that did not help me when I was looking for the answer to how to stop obsessive skin picking.
1. Guilting or Shaming Myself
Wow, did this one not work. I did this for YEARS. I would tell myself these kinds of things:
- “You have that pool party this weekend, you CANNOT pick!” This made the picking worse, as I would try to “fix” my skin before the event, which would turn into…
- “Your arms look terrible. Look what you did. Everyone is going to see how messed up you are.”
- “You have to wear a long sleeve shirt because people will notice your arms.”
- “You are so stupid. You can’t stop this one bad habit you have.”
For anyone who obsessively picks their skin, you know that it is not merely a habit. It is something you cannot control.
Guilting and shaming myself either before or after picking never made me feel better. In fact, it often had the opposite effect—I would feel worthless and continue to pick because I figured it didn’t matter how bad my skin looked when I was such a shitty person who couldn’t control their life.
2. Making My Skin Slippery
I tried this one too many times. I would use oils or lotions to make my skin slippery and impossible to pick. The oil or lotion WOULD make my skin impossible to pick. But here’s the thing—it didn’t get rid of the urge to pick.
Also, it was super inconvenient. The oil would stain my clothes, so I had to wipe it off before I got dressed. I spent some afternoons sitting in my house wearing a strapless dress with oil slathered all over my arms so I couldn’t pick. But eventually, it would have to come off. I couldn’t stay in my house wearing that strapless dress forever (although some days, I dreamed…)
So yeah, this was a waste of time.
3. Trying to “Manage” My Picking
I really thought this one would work.
I made rules for myself around my picking in an attempt to manage it. I thought that if I could exercise some control over my picking, I could get it to the point where it was manageable.
(For the record, I find my picking manageable now, but it’s not because I “control” it. It’s because I’m addressing the underlying factors that drive me to pick, like negative emotions and unhealed trauma. So instead of trying to control the urge to pick, I’m reducing it in the first place.)
The rules were:
- No picking in the bathroom
- No picking in the closet
- No picking at night
- No picking my arms
These were my two primary picking locations, my primary picking time, and my primary picking spot. So guess what happened?
- I found time to pick outside of these times and locations
- I started picking my legs, back, chest, and face
- I eventually ended up breaking the rules (because I wasn’t present or mindful of what I was doing) and would guilt and shame myself when I did so, which fed the cycle
My picking only became manageable when I stopped trying to control it and instead focused on healing myself from the inside out.
4. Trying to Stop Picking Completely
Ok, so I knew when I started looking for how to stop obsessive skin picking that it was impossible for me to stop picking completely. But I had seen people online say that they tried this. I remember watching one YouTube video of a girl who said she was X days into not picking and she had a pimple on her face.
I don’t care how strong of a person I am. I would never be able to not pop that pimple. I could not have arms and that pimple would still get popped.
I will always be a picker. I have accepted this about myself. And here’s the thing—I LIKE picking. I just don’t like obsessively doing it because it makes me feel terrible about myself and my skin looks like I got in a fight with a very aggressive rose bush.
Trying to stop picking completely is not realistic for me. I have tried it. It did not work. And I will always WANT to pick certain things at my skin. I am at peace with my picking nature.
5. Wearing Long-Sleeve Shirts
Yes, I pick less when my skin is covered. No, it does not stop my picking or the urge to pick. I will find other things to pick.
It’s true that I pick less in the winter when my arms are covered. But I still pick at my face. And for years, my nighttime routine was stripping down before getting in the tub and doing a full body pick, then soaking in Epsom salt and herbs to try and calm my red and wounded skin.
Wearing long-sleeve shirts was just another way I tried to manage my picking, which did not work.
Do I Still Pick?
Yes! I do still pick.
Do I still pick obsessively? No.
For me, there is a difference. For some people, there may not be. Everyone is different.
Are you a fellow picker? If so, I’d love to know if you’ve found anything that has helped or hurt you on your journey to having a healthier relationship with your skin and feeling good about yourself.
Thanks for reading and not judging!