Compulsive Skin Picking


Dermatillomania, or compulsive skin picking, is classified as a mental health disorder. It’s a serious and chronic psychological problem linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It can lead to serious skin damage.

What is Dermatillomania?

Dermatillomania is the uncontrollable urge to pick, squeeze, rub, scratch, or dig at the skin with an object like a needle or pin. The person is usually trying to remove an apparent abnormality or flaw like a pimple, freckle, flake of dry skin, or scab, although sometimes no abnormalities are visible. This picking may be performed with fingers, fingernails, needles, tweezers, or any other device.

Picking can be done on any area of the body or in multiple areas. Skin picking is generally preceded by an extreme urge to fix the flawed area or areas. The urge becomes the person’s focus of attention until relief is obtained by acting on the urge to pick.

Often the person appears to be “out of it” or in a kind of trance, and in severe cases, the individual will spend hours picking trying to “smooth out” or completely remove what they see as the problem area.

The act of picking is generally followed by a feeling of guilt, embarrassment, shame, and/or regret about the damage caused to the skin, even though the person believed they were improving the area they spent hours picking at. Sufferers are sometimes also diagnosed with depression, social anxiety disorder, and/or other psychological disorders.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the average age of onset of dermatillomania is 19 years. However, younger people can develop the condition and some people develop it later in life.

The primary target of picking is the face (More on Face Picking). However, picking can involve any part of the body. Skin picking is classified as a severe form of self-inflicted injury, as people who suffer from picking can experience bruises, bleeding, infections, and scarring and permanent skin damage.

Cause of Dermatillomania

Often times, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are thought to have a serotonin imbalance. Therefore, it is believed that this imbalance is present in people who suffer from picking. Although, a serotonin imbalance does not cause everyone to pick their skin. Scientists do not understand why picking is a serious problem for some people but not others.

Some doctors believe that picking at skin is an emotional outlet and a soothing method for people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are several reasons why people with compulsive skin picking continue the behavior:

  • They find picking to be soothing. Picking has a soothing effect on their central nervous system and reduces the level of stimulation.
  • Some people may also find picking stimulating. If there central nervous system is in need of stimulation picking can provide that stimulation.
  • Some people need to pick in because they are perfectionists. They may stare in a mirror for hours examining their skin looking for a something that needs to be “fixed” even the smallest of flaws like a tiny bump will be seen as an abnormality to the picker. Therefore, once that imperfection is found they will pick at it for hours until they realize that the small flaw is now a large mess. That is when the shame, guilt and regret start to set in.

Treatment for Compulsive Picking

Dermatillomania is a serious problem for many people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Skin picking disorder can become a major problem for people and it can interfere and disrupt personal and professional relationships, work, and the overall happiness of the person. Picking can be treated with certain medications used for obsessive-compulsive disorder and therapy. Many people have had great success with one of the other treatment options. However, the most effective way to stop skin picking comes from combining both options.

Additional Reading:

Follow the link to learn more about scab picking.



More than dermatillomania on our Self Care Home Page




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