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We’ve all been there: You notice a small bump on your skin and start to pick, attempting to extract something so that it will “heal faster.” But once you start, you can’t stop, and suddenly you’re poking and prodding just about every pore on your face, leaving your skin red, damaged, and inflamed with weeks of healing ahead.
While picking your skin once in a blue moon probably resonates with most, there are also some people — myself included — who face this scenario regularly, as they suffer from a disorder known as dermatillomania. According to Dr. Azadeh Shirazi, a board-certified dermatologist based in California, dermatillomania is a mental-health disorder where a person repeatedly picks at their skin and has a hard time stopping, creating wounds and injuries that often leave scars. Dr. Shirazi went on to explain that dermatillomania varies in intensity and is most commonly related to underlying stress or anxiety.
As far as my own journey goes, I always knew that I picked my skin more than the average person, but I wasn’t formally diagnosed until my move from New York to London, as the combination of moving stress and social anxiety triggered brutal picking episodes. I would feel around my skin for hours, searching for any sort of bump, and, once I located one, would sprint to the bathroom to mine for it, using my nails to dig something out. More often than not, I wouldn’t actually extract anything from it, but I convinced myself that if I pushed hard enough, something would eventually come out. I’d hole up in my bathroom for 45-minute stretches (sometimes even longer), my eyes glazed over in an almost dissociative state, as I attacked my skin. In this time, I would transform teeny-tiny, unnoticeable bumps into a multitude of gaping wounds that would take months to heal. It was a horrible cycle.
Seeing as dermatillomania is a spectrum, Dr. Shirazi explained that many cases are treated with a combination of therapy and medicine. However, there are things that you can implement into your daily life that can help reduce the possibility of picking episodes. Below, a list of tips and tricks from me — a recovered picker — and licensed professionals that can help keep your hands busy and create an environment that discourages skin-picking.
If you’re a picker, your bathroom is likely the place to go to for hyperfixating on your skin. To lessen the possibility of going to town while you’re in there, Dr. Shirazi suggests creating a space that makes it, quite literally, harder for picking. One way to do this is to replace your lightbulbs with a dimmer setting. These bulbs are bright enough to see where your toothpaste and toothbrush are but dark enough that you won’t be able to see, say, a freckle or blackhead. This might sound extreme, but on a personal level, it’s one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done!
Another option is to turn off the lights and use candles in the bathroom. This is a great way not only to ensure that you’re minimizing the possibility of picking by once again making your skin less visible, but it can also create a relaxing, spalike environment. This adds a level of calmness to your night routine, which may even help reduce your anxiety a bit and, therefore, the inclination to pick in the first place.
The only mirror I have in my bathroom is a handheld mirror. When I’m washing my face or brushing my teeth, I don’t look in any mirror at all. If I need to make sure my makeup is off, I’ll see if any product comes off on my towel, and if it does, I’ll go in with another cleanse. And when I’m doing makeup, I use this handheld mirror. Even though that may sound cumbersome, I’ve actually found that I can get quite up close so that my makeup looks flawless and crease free. And since I have to use one hand to hold up the mirror, I can’t use both hands at once, making it harder to pick my skin.
Dr. Shirazi recommends icing as a way to distract yourself from picking. I’ve personally found that on the most basic, tactile level, icing makes me feel like I’m actually doing something. It’s the closest sensation to skin-picking I can have without actually ruining my skin. Ice globes are a great way to get that icelike effect without the risk of burning your skin. Not only does it feel satisfying to actually just touch and feel around the area you would normally want to pick at, but it’s such an incredible way to reduce swelling and make the pimple smaller.
Out of sight, out of mind! Any time you feel the urge to pick a pimple, just slap one of these on it. The physical barrier will protect your skin from your fingers and bacteria even if you do find your hands wandering over the area. And since these are especially adorable, you can leave the house wearing them, too.
Same goes for Vaseline: It creates a physical barrier that can help protect the skin, whether you want to prevent yourself from picking further or if you want to stop yourself from doing it in the first place. That slipperiness of the product can also make picking more difficult.
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