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Why Do I Pick at My Skin? Dermatillomania Causes and Symptoms

"I can't stop picking my skin!"

"I can't stop picking my skin!"

Why Do I Pick At My Skin?

Something that has been plaguing my life since I was three years old is a constant habit of picking at the skin around my fingernails. Over the years, I've asked many people, "why do I pick at my skin?" I finally decided to do some real research on this habit and found that it is indeed more than a mere habit—it is a disorder similar to OCD.

Dermatillomania is the disorder of one who has the urge to pick at their skin, especially in times of anxiety or stress. If you have a problem of picking at your skin, I hope you will find the information in this article useful and encouraging.

Causes and Symptoms

Dermatillomania is an anxiety disorder that affects a person's integumentary system (skin) and is not only annoying to the person who has it, but can also be painful and embarrassing. The area of picking varies from person to person. Personally, I have always picked at the skin around my fingernails. For others, it is often the skin on one's arms, legs, face, and scabs in general.

Apparently, dermatillomania is not recognized as an official condition at this point in time, but in my opinion, it has a right to be up there alongside OCD and OCPD. In fact, many scientists and medical researchers say that this condition is like a form of OCD and sometimes comes along with anxiety disorders like OCD or generalized anxiety disorder, etc.

So we now have the gist of what this condition is, but what exactly are the signs and symptoms? Are there any other symptoms besides skin-picking?

Yes, here are some of the symptoms associated with dermatillomania:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Hangnails
  • Scabs that have been picked off
  • Bleeding fingernails

We have to look into what causes this condition so that we can better understand the problem of skin-picking.

Dermatillomania is thought by some to go hand-in-hand with some other form of emotional disorder such as OCD, depression, bipolar disorder, and other anxiety disorders. Sometimes schizophrenics may show symptoms of dermatillomania, as well. Does that mean that everyone who picks at their skin is a schizo? Of course not!

Other causes of skin-picking are thought to be repressed anger or insecurity over some unspoken & forgotten traumatic event in life. Personally, I know that my skin-picking started when my parents split when I was just about three years old. There's definitely a correlation with the timing there that I have to acknowledge. It is very well likely that I started my habit of finger-picking when my parents split as a way to take out my anxiety. I've never been very vocal about my emotions, and so that was a way to get them out. I've continued this horrible habit, and now I am 26 and still find myself picking in stressful situations. Is this happening to you, as well? Look deep...think hard about when you started the picking. You may figure out the root cause.

How to Stop Picking Your Skin

There are many different ways to treat the symptoms of dermatillomania. Here are a few examples:

  • Mavala Stop, Zeva No-Bite, and other nail-treatment polishes: These get applied around your nails or on your fingernails and if you bite them, it leaves a nasty after-taste in your mouth. This is supposed to discourage you from biting your nails & the skin around them.
  • Bandaids: It sounds crazy but if you get home and find yourself picking at home, place a bandaid over the spot to remind yourself not to pick it!
  • For nail and finger picking/biting: Try getting your nails done professionally if you are a woman. If you have fake fingernails, some find that it is less likely that they'll bite their fingers. (this worked for me for a long time)
  • Medicine: Serotinin re-uptake inhibitors can be prescribed by a doctor to aid in taking your levels of anxiety down a notch and possibly stop you from the incessant picking.

Treating the symptoms is one thing. But does this ever really solve the skin-picking problem? No, not really. It is better to treat the cause than just the symptoms with any other condition, so why ignore that truth in this situation? Find the root cause of your picking. Are you nervous around other people? Face your fears head-on. Join a social group and make it a point to yourself to keep your hands away from whatever skin you feel the urge to pick. Is work stressing you out? Do you need to talk to your parents or someone who has caused you stress in the past in order to work issues out with them? Do it! Don't hesitate.

Behavioral Therapy

Maybe even counseling will aid you on your path to no more picking. It is very likely that if you can figure out why you pick your skin and what triggers that urge in your brain, then you will be able to slowly get out of the habit. I'm working on that now myself.

If you are unable to do this by yourself, sometimes therapy is necessary. There are certain therapists in almost every state that specialize in treating disorders such as OCD and even dermatillomania and trichotillomania.

Many people believe that behavioral therapy is the key to getting over the habit of picking skin. This makes sense, as many of us say we can't "just stop picking," as the people in our lives would like to believe. It's not as easy as that, especially if it's something we've been doing our entire lives. Behavioral therapy is a type of therapy that trains the mind to discontinue behaviors that are negative and replace them with positive ones.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


MelindaArguelles on July 11, 2017:

I just read this. I was wondering why I do it. I pick at dry skin in my ear and on my outer ear. I use to pick on my lips a lot. But I keep doing it. It was about the time I met my now husband. I have been down quite a bit. Also around the time my daughter tried to commit suicide. This all happened around the same time. on September 23, 2013:

Hi Kitty, thanks for posting this. I've made a video reply on Youtube. I'll also post it there. But I am glad you've mentioned this. It's hard to talk about ones imperfections.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 01, 2013:

Thanks for reading!

Audrey Surma from Virginia on January 26, 2013:

Interesting hub - wasn't aware of this disorder. Voted up and interesting.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on January 11, 2013:

Pollyannalana - Im so glad you got over it, as Im still doing it and I'm 27!

Pollyannalana from US on January 10, 2013:

Wow, I use to do this as a kid. I pulled skin around my nails and sometimes into the quick and sometimes getting infected. Glad I got over it, whatever it was! Great write.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on April 01, 2012:

bborello - Your ideas are wonderful to keep your hands busy...typing & writing helps me tremendously. :) Thanks for sharing, maybe we'll figure it out together one day.

cherylone - I'm so happy I helped out with this hub. Good luck to you & your family. :)

Cheryl Simonds from Connecticut on April 01, 2012:

Kitty, thank you, my daughter is a bad picker and we never thought to link it to her illness. Thanks for the information, I shared it with my daughter.

bborrello on March 31, 2012:

Wow Kitty - we do have a lot in common. I pick my cuticles. Most frequently at times of more stress. I have no recollection of when or why it started. It helps me to do things with my hands, never leaving them idle. I knit, do puzzles, eat sunflower seeds...anything. I have been working for years on the why behind it and haven't figured it out yet. Thanks for this hub, it's encouraged me to take another look.

flashmakeit from usa on March 31, 2012:

I think you are a very clear thinker who may need more vitamin c in your diet, which well stop the hang nails I hope. Try eating a lot of green vegetables and take gelatin pills for your split nails. I took gelatin pills and they made my nails strong. Now I do not bite my nails and they are very long.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on March 31, 2012:

fancifulashley - I understand completely how you feel. I am trying to quit picking myself. Good luck and blessings to you! Thanks for sharing. :)

fancifulashley on March 31, 2012:

I love that you wrote a hub about this. I used to bite my nails and when that stopped I graduated into picking my skin. Even though it would hurt, that pain felt strangely good. Now this information explains it to me so I know I am not completely weird and that there is something I can do about this.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on March 30, 2012:

Nell - That's a very good sit on your hands. I've actually done that a few times. As I'm sitting here thinking about school, I am picking my skin. Ugh. Hopefully I can stop soon.

Nell Rose from England on March 30, 2012:

Hi, Yes I totally agree that it is a form of OCD. I have always bitten my nails, thankfully I stopped a few years ago, and now they are really nice, but the urge is still there when I get stressed. Sometimes I actually sit on my hands to stop myself from biting them! as you said, yours started when your parents split up, this makes total sense. I did try the nail stuff once, but it was revolting to me, hopefully they have changed it since then, great info, voted up!