Techniques to Stop Skin Picking

I have a bad nervous habit where I pick my face, whether I have aggravated acne or no blemishes whatsoever at the moment. It's never a good idea. When you have active acne, it makes them more prone to infection and inflammation. When you have no active acne, it disturbs the relative calm of your skin.

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.

    Mindfulness Check-in

    • 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.

    Distraction Techniques

    • 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!


    1. I have a really bad nervous habit of picking at my cuticles, so I can't say I have any additional advice to offer, but I'm definitely grateful for this post! I'm going to try setting time goals and see if that works for me.

      1. I find with most things that short-term goals are better for building habits. So just tell yourself you will go...like 1 or 2 days with no picking. And have your cuticle cream/lotion/some gloves in a convenient spot so if the urge becomes unbearable, do a hand treatment. Tell yourself after those 2 days are up, you're free to pick. Even if you DO pick at the end of those 2 days, now you know you can go 2 days...next time you can try 3 days or 4 :)

    2. > 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.

      Same @ all of the above. For me, no short-term coping strategy really helped with my picking, but gradually working on my mental health with my therapist did. I still occasionally give into the impulse, but it's much less frequent.

      1. > I still occasionally give into the impulse, but it's much less frequent.

        This is the key! I have always been that person who gives up ANY progress because I can't tolerate the idea of "partial failure." But in the last few years I've internalized the whole "perfect enemy of good" thing. I just want to be better than yesterday. If we fucked up yesterday or once last week...that doesn't mean we do this week.

    3. I'm really glad for this post. It is so easy to pick at acne or scabs on my face. I have a tendency to do this when I'm at my desk and I think no one is watching but I need to distract my hands with something else. I know its damaging my skin but I just can't help it sometimes.

      1. I'm hoping you do find this helpful. I think you see from the comments above that many others struggle with this issue, and it's not an easy habit to be rid of. Best of luck :)

    4. Thank you for this! I recently decided to try being gentle with my skin - something I've honestly never considered before. I'm used to throwing as many harsh ingredients at my acne as possible. Part of my gentle routine is my resolve to stop picking! I've had whole nights where I made an event out of picking my skin. As you mention, picking your skin gives you instant gratification (even though it's really a negative thing) which can feel so good after trying actives that take so long to yield results. Lately I'm struggling with the urge to pick when I'm sitting at my vanity. I sit there to do other things like pluck my eyebrows and paint my nails, but I find myself constantly staring at my blemishes and wanting to do something about. Now unless I need the mirror for my task, I just turn it away so I can't stare at my face while I do other things. - Victoria

      1. Hi Victoria! I'm glad you've resolved to stop the picking. It really does help to focus ont he problem- even if you feel like you're failing, just TRYING to do better will lead to a better outcome. Acknowledging that it's taking a toll on your skin health/mental health is important.

        I would definitely suggest you find a hand-occupying hobby you can do anytime. I've heard from people that cross-stitching/crochet/knitting is a good option.

    5. Hi there! I follow you on instagram and your posts on reddit. Love your blog. I am trying to stop picking... and have been successful with most of my blemishes. What about those whiteheads they are right on the surface? Do you leave those alone?


      1. Yes, LEAVE em alone!! Try putting a pimple patch on top (NexCare and CosRX make them.) If they are that near the surface, they will usually resolve on their own with gentle cleansing, moisture, acid use, and the use of a pimple patch overnight.

    6. I know this blog was 2 years ago but I found it on a google search. I am just starting out on my no picking journey. I am 40 and have been having a lot of closed comedones lately on my cheeks. Problem is I think I'm causing them. I'm a constant face toucher/scanner. Always rubbing my cheeks looking for bumps and then scratching at them. I rarely wash my hands first so I'm sure I'm causing most of my clogged pores. Mine stems from anxiety, I pick when I'm stressed the most and the touching just started up with it. My husband and kids even tell me to stop touching and if I'm in the bathroom too long they yell at me. I picked yesterday before a school event for my son. I knew I had to go, I told myself don't pick and I did anyways. Attempting to cover my red swollen mess left me in tears. After seeing what I did and how bad it looked I said no more. I know I will struggle but I will do everything I can to leave my face alone. I'm currently slathered in cocokinds turmeric spot treatment, it's thick and you can't really touch it since you will get yellow everywhere. I've also started an instagram to document with pictures and hold myself accountable. I will also be utilizing your tips which I think are great!