One morning last month, I smoothed some moisturizer on my face and ran out the door. This doesn’t sound like a major victory, but just months earlier, it would’ve been a different story.
I might have made myself late for work, picking at some pimple until it bled, then waiting for the angry, bleeding redness to go down before I ventured out into the public. I have a compulsive desire to pick my skin, but I’ve finally discovered ways to allow my skin to heal.
Disclaimer: This is a first-person account of one writer’s experience with skin picking. It is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
I had relatively good skin as a teenager. And while I almost subconsciously destroyed any pimples that did turn up, there were so few that no one really noticed, and neither did I.
During college, though, my streak of “good skin” ended when I started a new hormonal birth control pill. For months, it seemed there were more bumps on my face than there were smooth surfaces.
These weren’t just whiteheads, either. They were deep, painful, sometimes throbbing cysts that bothered me constantly and took months to coax down.
I’d end up squeezing until the pus had long gone and my face was a bloody mess.
I knew that I made the situation worse by picking at my face and exposing my skin to infection. But somehow my brain made me think that if I could just get everything out of these cystic bumps, it would just smooth out.
It always started out innocently. I would peer into the mirror before putting on makeup in the morning or before getting ready for bed at night.
I would softly touch… then push… then squeeze — just a little! But it always got the best of me. I’d end up squeezing until the pus had long gone and my face was a bloody mess.
People tend to talk about acne like something that’s out of their control. I figured my skin was the same; if my acne weren’t so bad, I wouldn’t have anything to touch.
It wasn’t until about two years ago that I realized that wasn’t the case: My boyfriend matter-of-factly mentioned that I would end up with craters on my face if I kept picking at my skin. He forced me to talk about it.
Saying out loud that I had an issue was simultaneously helpful and terrifying. He’d managed to put words to the behavior I struggled against.
He couldn’t understand how I could keep doing something that so obviously harmed my skin. I couldn’t either.
Once we moved in together, I couldn’t avoid the problem. He would knock on the door if I had been in the bathroom too long, and he would cheer me on when I left my skin alone for more than a few days in a row.
Having this kind of unavoidable accountability helped enormously, but it didn’t solve everything. I love my boyfriend for calling me out on my picking — he was the reason I started searching for solutions.
As much as he helped, though, he couldn’t understand how I could keep doing something that so obviously harmed my skin. I couldn’t either.
I Googled “how to stop picking your skin” one Saturday afternoon and immediately burst into tears. I realized I wasn’t alone in trying to stop picking.
After that, I read articles like this one and couldn’t believe how incredibly common it was. Judging from the comments, it sounded like most readers couldn’t either. I learned about excoriation, an impulse control disorder that causes people to pick their skin. It’s related to OCD.
Somehow just knowing that this is an actual disorder — and that so many other people struggle with it — was a great relief. Thinking back, I realized it wasn’t just my face, either. I picked at scabs, mosquito bites, calluses… but my face was the only thing I couldn’t hide.
Once I knew it wasn’t just a question of lack of will to heal my face, I started researching strategies to get better. These were the ones that worked the best for me.
1. Buh-bye, nails
I cut my nails as short as they would go. Duller nails meant fewer opportunities to pick at my skin before I even realized I was doing it.
2. Hello, face masks
I put on face masks when I was home alone. Having a goopy mask on my face made it impossible to play with any zits and nourished my skin at the same time.
3. I got creative
I bought medical tape and put little squares over any pimples, which served as both a visual and physical barrier to picking.
4. I cleaned up my diet
I figured the only definitive long-term way to stop picking my face was to make sure there was nothing to pick at. I threw myself into research about the relationship between diet and hormonal acne.
I also completed Whole30 twice to learn about foods that aggravated my acne. For me it was dairy and grains.
5. I took down the mirror
The best solution happened unintentionally: Our bathroom pipes wore out, and we had to take down the mirror in order to remove the pipes and ceramic tiling. This turned out to be a major step in my healing. I could no longer stand alone in the bathroom and examine my face.
I wish I could say I have cured both my acne and my picking problem, but both require constant effort to keep my skin clear. The worst thing I can do, though, is beat myself up for something that is so much more than a bad habit — or stay silent about it.
Today, my skin is smooth and acne-free, but not without fading scars left over from my most intense skin-picking moments. I’m working with my dermatologist to help improve my scarring and prevent future breakouts.
None of these strategies worked perfectly, but using all of them together, consistently, has helped me to slowly fight my habit.