Dermatillomania: The Skin Picking Disorder You've Probably Never Heard Of

At some point, we’ve all been there: Standing in front of our bathroom mirror, examining a pimple on our face, with the urge to pop it. There is something so satisfying in the act of popping; blemishes are reduced, infection and pus are expelled, the bump goes down and we can move on with our lives.

But what if that urge never goes away? What if we can’t move on? What if we end up in front of the bathroom mirror for hours on end, trying to rid ourselves of any imperfections?

The obsessive urge to pick one’s skin is called dermatillomania. Also referred to as the “skin picking disorder” or “excoriation disorder,” dermatillomania is a form of OCD that can significantly impair the life of the person suffering from it. Someone with dermatillomania will pick their skin to the point of causing wounds, which can result in scarring, discoloration, tissue damage, and infection, not to mention the mental effects of guilt, shame, anxiety, and obsession.

I know these effects firsthand, as I have suffered on and off from dermatillomania for years. For me, skin picking is triggered by stress, and I tend to focus on four key areas: my belly button, scalp, ears, and face. When I get to picking, I enter an almost trance-like state, where I pick, scratch, pinch, and tear at imperfections. The imperfections I am referring to are blemishes or old scar tissue, inflamed moles, scabs, or dry and peeling skin. The more I pick, the more it scabs and the more scar tissue builds up, resulting in a vicious cycle of picking and healing, picking and healing.

As I pick, I tell myself to stop. I tell myself that I know the consequences. But I can’t stop. I physically and mentally cannot stop because I’m so close, I’m almost there, just one more pinch and it will be gone. This past summer, during a particularly stressful time at work, I picked a spot in my ear so badly that it hurt and bled. When I left work and looked in the mirror, my ear was caked in blood, and I cried and hated myself.

I’ve picked entire moles off of my skin. When my grandmother was dying, I gouged out an entire freckle; I still have a huge, round scar from that.

My dermatillomania is mild compared to more severe cases. But this disorder is little understood, even by doctors. During periods of particular anxiety for me, when my picking was at its worst, I’d mention it to my doctor, psychologist, and psychiatrist, but it was never addressed head-on. It was never treated as a serious concern. I shared that entire moles were gone from my body by my own hands, but no professional asked me why I picked, which only made the shame and the desire to pick even worse. Why could no one understand this urge or recognize it as something I needed help to deal with? These gouges had infections; why was no one alarmed or concerned? Because no one took a serious look at the obsession to pick, there were no treatment plans to effectively help me to stop.

Doctors need to not only be aware of this condition, but they need to treat it seriously, because it is not just a teenager popping pimples in the mirror before prom. It can be debilitating, shameful, and painful, which it has always been for me. So how have I coped with it?

First, just having a name for it was immensely helpful. To know I was not alone, that it is a disorder, that other people feel these same urges. Second, reading message boards about it or talking to support groups online about it provided even more comfort. Third, reducing my stress level as much as possible, and redirecting my urges elsewhere: fidget spinners, stress balls, or other items that provide tactile and sensory stimulation. And finally, just educating myself as much as I could about the condition. When you begin to understand something, you begin to destigmatize it for yourself and others.

If you suffer from skin picking disorder, know that you are not alone, and that help is out there. Visit for more information and treatment resources.

By Kaitlin Konecke

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