Skin Picking is a Compulsive Behavior

One Writer

And it often starts in childhood.

and I’ve been doing it since I was a small child An, Pexels

Trigger Warning — this article may be triggering for those suffering with chronic skin-picking tendencies. No triggering photos are included to avoid triggering.

I am 45-years-old and I am still struggling with this. How is this possible? When I go into public places I can see the eyes leave my face, distracted by the blemishes all over my arms. I pull my sleeves lower, speak a little more enthusiastically to try and distract them, but it’s hopeless. My blemishes are just too noticeable.

In varying stages of healing these blemishes dot my arms like chicken pox. The ones on my face I have carefully covered with makeup. The ones on my scalp, hidden by my mane of curly hair. Thank God they can’t see my legs. I have given up on shorts.

What must they be thinking! That I must be on drugs or have some weird disease.

And I do this — to myself. So why can’t I stop?

I pick when I am tired. I pick when I am bored. I pick when I am stressed.

The first time I remember doing this was in grade school. I was a terribly anxious child, fearful at school, uncomfortable around other students, afraid of my teachers. I recall digging at sores on my scalp — although I don’t recall how those sores got there. I’d find that spot and pick at the scab until it bled. No one could see the sore, but I knew it was there. It seemed there was always a sore there, somewhere, hidden beneath my hair.

It was a method of coping.

I also remember picking at mosquito bites and at the frequent scabbed knees of an active outdoor-play life. It took forever for things to heal.

And here I sit, a mother, a grandmother, a college-educated woman — and I am still doing this?

For the longest time, I did not know that this thing had a name!

If you are doing this — you are not alone!

The condition I am describing to you is called Dermatillomania, or Excoriation Disorder, a chronic skin-picking disorder related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People suffering from this mental illness may pick at healthy skin, scabs, pimples or acne, their nails or cuticles, lesions, moles, or callouses.

Excoriation Disorder (Skin Picking or Dermatillomania)
Excoriation disorder (also referred to as chronic skin-picking or dermatillomania) is a mental illness related to…

The Mental Health America website (article above) details the symptoms associated with this disorder:


To be diagnosed with excoriation disorder, a person must show the following signs and symptoms: [3]

  • Recurrent skin picking that results in skin lesions
  • Repeated attempts to stop the behavior
  • The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment
  • The symptoms are not caused by a substance or medical, or dermatological condition
  • The symptoms are not better explained by another psychiatric disorder

Psychology Today provides more detailed information about the nature of this condition. It is interesting to note that the majority of “Dermas” are female. By comparison, according to 2–3% of the population suffers from OCD and those numbers span ethnicities and equally affect men, women and children.

It is an impulse-control disorder and one of several body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) currently classified in the DSM-5 under Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. Dermatillomania affects up to 1.4 percent of the total population, and approximately 75 percent of those affected are female. There is a difference between dermatillomania and normal picking at skin imperfections and irregularities — the behavior is chronic, results in severe tissue damage, and causes the individual marked distress and dysfunction. — Psychology Today

I joined a Facebook group for “Dermas” and learned that there are a lot of people out there sharing my experiences. I learned terms like:

  • Triggering (this could be photos or even discussing details of picking experiences)
  • Derma (the nickname for someone with this condition)
  • Scanning (the act of running the hands, eyes, fingernails over the skin, looking for something to pick)

I learned just how hard others were also trying to overcome these impulses. I noticed they were almost all decades younger than me. I felt less alone but I also felt like as far as I have come in my life, as much adversity as I have overcome, and as content as I feel in my life, the picking remains, and it is something I simply cannot stop on my own.

Excoriation Disorder May Harm Your Health

Pathological skin-picking can have serious health consequences, including disfigurement, infection, or worse, but to know this is simply not enough to deter this compulsive behavior.

Individuals who pick their own skin often make repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop on their own, as the shame and embarrassment associated with dermatillomania may prevent them from seeking professional treatment. In fact, fewer than one in five people with dermatillomania are thought to seek treatment. — Psychology Today

Seeking Treatment

Treatments involve both therapeutic and medicinal approaches or a combination of both. It is an embarrassing, often isolating disorder, but talk to your doctor. Discuss the medication options that are effective in treating Obsessive Compulsive-related disorders. Find a therapist knowledgeable in treating these kinds of mental illnesses. Find a local support group or join an online support group.

Talk to your family. Involve your support system. Treat this issue as you would any other illness. There is no reason to feel ashamed or to continue to pull down your sleeves in the grocery store.

I repeat this — there is no reason for you to be ashamed.

My name is Christina, and I am a Derma.

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