Recent Blog Articles
Harvard Health Ad Watch: An IV treatment for thyroid eye disease
Taking up adaptive sports
Cutting and self-harm: Why it happens and what to do
Discrimination at work is linked to high blood pressure
Pouring from an empty cup? Three ways to refill emotionally
Give praise to the elbow: A bending, twisting marvel
Sneezy and dopey? Seasonal allergies and your brain
The FDA relaxes restrictions on blood donation
Apps to accelerometers: Can technology improve mental health in older adults?
Swimming and skin: What to know if a child has eczema
Harvard Health Blog
Picking your skin? Learn four tips to break the habit
- By Lisa Zakhary, MD, PhD, Contributor
If you can’t stop picking your skin, you may have a very common condition called skin picking disorder (SPD). We all pick at a scab or a bump from time to time, but for those with SPD, it can be nearly impossible to control those urges. Apart from the cosmetic impact of recurrent skin lesions and scarring, SPD can lead to serious infections, shame, depression, and anxiety.
You may be feeling alone or embarrassed, but you should know that this condition affects at least five million Americans. A diagnosis of SPD, also known as excoriation disorder, is made when there are repeated attempts to stop picking, and the skin picking is either distressing or interfering with social or work functioning. SPD is one of a group of disorders that is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
You already know that it is not a matter of will — trying to stop is the equivalent of telling one not to have high blood pressure. The good news is that therapy, medication, and dermatologic treatments can help. For most, though, no one treatment will be curative, and you will experience remission and recurrence.
Having realistic expectations and arming yourself with a variety of skills for skin picking flares will make this condition much more manageable. Here are four tips that can help you tackle your picking.
1. Know your triggers
You may be tempted to pick for a variety of reasons, from boredom, itch, or negative emotions, to blemishes or simply looking at or feeling your skin. You may even find the experience of picking itself pleasurable. Understanding your triggers can be a first step in deciding which treatments to pursue. For example, if your picking is triggered by a skin condition such as acne or itch, you might be best served by first seeing a dermatologist. If, however, your picking is triggered by depression, anxiety, or more of an urge, you should consult with a mental health professional with expertise in skin picking.
2. Make it harder to pick
One simple strategy to reduce picking, called stimulus control, involves changing your environment to make it harder to pick. Examples of this technique include keeping your nails short, wearing gloves at times when you are most likely to pick, and making the skin more difficult to access by wearing tight-fitting clothing or long-sleeve shirts. You can also try distracting your hands with any number of items including silly putty, stress balls, fidgets, and tangle toys. Once you have found an item that works for you, make sure to have one everywhere you spend time such as work, home, and your bag, so you are fully covered.
3. Get therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a structured type of psychotherapy that aims to produce healthier behaviors and beliefs by identifying unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. A specialized type of CBT has been developed for SPD. This type of CBT includes more of the stimulus control techniques described above, as well as habit reversal training, in which individuals are taught to engage in a harmless motor behavior (like clenching one’s fists) for one minute when triggered to pick. Clinical trials have demonstrated that skin-picking for CBT can be extremely effective. But because it is different than other types of CBT, it will be important to work with a therapist who is trained in treating SPD. You can find skin-picking experts at the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.
4. Consider medication with your providers
While no medication has been formally approved by the FDA to treat excoriation disorder, there is evidence to suggest that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an antioxidant supplement, can be helpful.
Please be aware that even over-the-counter, well-tolerated supplements like NAC should always be taken under the supervision of a medical professional for guidance on dosing, duration of treatment, drug interactions, and side effects.
For more on overcoming SPD, visit the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors and the International OCD Foundation.
About the Author
Lisa Zakhary, MD, PhD, Contributor
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
You might also be interested in…
Anxiety and Stress Disorders
Everyone worries or gets scared sometimes. But if you feel extremely worried or afraid much of the time, or if you repeatedly feel panicky, you may have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses, affecting roughly 40 million American adults each year. This Special Health Report, Anxiety and Stress Disorders, discusses the latest and most effective treatment approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapies, psychotherapy, and medications. A special section delves into alternative treatments for anxiety, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness meditation, and biofeedback.
Free Healthbeat Signup
Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!