There are no upsides to picking, only downsides. So why do I do it? I've always been fidgety and I tend to move around when I'm bored, anxious, or preoccupied with something. Without realizing it, I'll scratch and pick even when I made up my mind to specifically avoid it.
Reasoning with Yourself
- You're not going to resolve it with picking. I think a lot of us have this, ahem, romanticized idea that if we squeeze a hard, painful pimple, some little thing will be expelled and the whole problem will go away. In reality, you should already know that the vast majority of swollen acne aren't resolved so neatly. Usually the swelling is not due to a single hard seed, but attributed to a general swelling and filling with fluid. Which means your popping will make your skin bleed and weep, but there won't be a satisfying ending, and the pimple will continue on, angrier than before.
- Your makeup will look worse when you pick. This is true for all types of acne and all people. Acne may look troublesome under makeup, it adds texture and obviously is not pretty to look at. But if you've ever attempted to cover a weeping red hole in your face, you know how much more difficult it is to do so. If your aim is to look good for others, picking is not the answer.
- It makes the "system" of your skin worse overall. You may think- hey, what's the biggie, just this one spot gets picked, it doesn't affect the rest of my face. Wrong. Picking your skin disrupts your barrier by introducing more germs and dirt from the outside world onto and into your face. What you do to one side of your face affects the other side, period, and generally speaking, picking causes much more harm by producing redness, inflammation, and irritation that lasts long after a pimple would have gone away on its own.
The reasoning above is the reality of things- but it's not always possible to access that reality and logic. For me, skin picking is an activity I do to relieve anxiety, boredom, and frustration. It comes with an immediate high that accompanies most harmful behavior. I try to coach myself to remember the reasonable reality of skin picking in times of stress, but just knowing the truth doesn't mean I'll act reasonably. I used to beat myself up for "forgetting" the truth in the heat of the moment, but that's not really what was happening. It's just that I had conditioned myself to respond positively to bad behaviors, which means I need to recondition myself not punish myself for forgetfulness.
- Identify the emotions commonly associated with the picking habit. Write them down on a post-it or notecard that you keep at your desk or in your purse. Use the card as a checklist if you start to feel the urge to pick- try to see if your desire to pick comes from one of the listed emotions (anger, sadness, fatigue, anxiety, loneliness, boredom...)
- Write up a second notecard or post-it note with a list of strategies for "treating" each emotion in the short-term. If you're fatigued, maybe your technique will be to make yourself a cup of hot tea or coffee. If you're lonely maybe your technique is to text a friend. If you feel anxious, go for a run or a walk.
- Wear a ring to twiddle and twirl when you want to make a repetitive movement that's not harmful. They make special rings with movable parts but I just twist a normal ring I wear daily. It has the benefit of being nowhere near your face, so your hands are unlikely to wander.
- Wear a rubber band or hair tie around your wrist. When you feel like you want to pick, snap the rubber band instead. Usually people only do it once to jolt themselves out of the urge, but as long as it's not too painful, you can snap it a few times in a row.
- Set time goals- tell yourself instead of picking now, you can do it in 5 minutes (then 10, then 20, then 1 hour.) The point of this is to get used to the stop-and-wait technique. You may have to build it slowly and it feels like a failure at first, but it's better to wait 5 minutes then pick than to do so at 0 minutes.
- Touch up your makeup every time you have the urge to pick your face. I find that if I get an unbearable urge to tear into my face, I can get relief if I go to a mirror and fix my brows, base, or lipstick. After spending a few minutes concentrating on a beautification ritual, not only have I broken the immediate urge off, I also have improved my appearance to the point where ruining it by picking seems like a very bad idea. You can make a habit of this by popping a few beauty products in your purse to carry everywhere- a single lipstick, a pressed powder, and a brow or eye pencil will serve as simple tools to help distract you.
Anti-Picking Skincare Products
I tend to pick less when I'm on the go (since the shame of strangers' horrified looks is usually enough to dissuade me) but I have picking binge-marathons when I'm sitting at home, usually by myself. In order to block my skin picking from every taking place, I like to do the following:
- DIY honey mask: this mask can be left on for an hour or more, and it's impossible to pick your skin through the mask. You will just be a goopy, smooth creature with nothing to pop or pick at. The added benefit is once you rinse it off, you will have spent an hour conscientiously doing something nice for your skin, which makes it more troublesome to start messing it up again. It's why you're likely to binge on donuts after a few days of being lazy, but less likely to do so right after you go to the gym.
- Sheet mask: Sheet masks are great for 2 reasons- first they form a literal barrier the entire time they're on your skin. You can't get through to pick when you have a sheet on your face. Second, they tend to soften the type of dry, scabby patches that are most tempting to pick at. They're good for general healing once you've found a few that work for you. Here are my favorite anti-acne sheet masks.
- Hydrocolloid bandages: Whether it's the CosRX Pimple Patches or a large hydrocolloid dressing you trim to size, these bandages serve to both drain open pimples and keep your fingers away from the skin. There's no way to pop or prod a pimple when it's under a thick layer of bandage, and you have a nice flat, drained area to look forward to when you remove it in the morning!
I need to make it clear that, whether you're interested in skincare or not, picking at your skin is a form of self-harm and is not healthy or productive. If you are a skincare hobbyist like I am, that can help with the picking issues, but it can also make them more prominent and worse. For me, picking my face is not a skin problem. It's a mental health/emotional issue that is a manifestation of the same few negative impulses I've had for a long time. I always need to keep an eye on it, see how it's developing and why, and seek help from a doctor if it gets out of hand. I do see a therapist specifically for my issues and I feel it's made a huge difference in my ability to process my emotions in the last few years.
If you have your own specific techniques or exercises for your skin picking habits, I'd love to hear it in the comments! And if you enjoyed this post and want to see more of me, check out my Instagram @faceonomics!