Obsessive face picking
Originally Published: November 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 13, 2015
My girlfriend has a terrible obsession with picking her face. It is not that she has bad skin or acne, but, when she is in a certain state, she will stand in front of the mirror for hours and pick her face to shreds. It leaves her with horrible sores and open cuts covering her face. One day, she will be fine, and the next day, she will look like a war casualty. After she does this, she feels that she has to hide for days.
Aside from these concentrated sessions in front of the mirror, she is constantly picking her face while she is studying or reading or talking on the phone. Often, the state of her picked face affects our plans -- for example, she may not come with me to see my family even though we had planned to go together. When she is particularly self-conscious about it, she forbids me to look at her. She will cover her face with her hand or hair if I am even gazing anywhere near her. It is hard to communicate when I cannot see her face, and it affects our kissing and other intimacy.
We are very close and have been together for two years. We have talked about this many times and it does not seem like there has been any change. Mostly, I have been supportive by listening to her and comforting her. But, at times, I have been upset and have let her know. Some of her family members do not hesitate to be cruel to her when she "looks like shit." But she is well aware of her problem, but cannot seem to stop. She has had this obsession for over three years, and it is really making her miserable, and is making me wonder if it will ever go away on its own.
We have talked about the possibility of some kind of therapy, but she does not feel that it could help. She seems to be terrified of having to see any kind of therapist. I feel that somewhere inside, she needs to stay feeling miserable even though she is clearly genuine when she is cursing the terrible life this habit makes for her.
I have every intention of staying with her, but I feel that her obsession and the self-consciousness and misery that come with it are keeping us from getting closer. How can I have more of a role in affecting some kind of change in this? I feel that there are things that I have no control over, but they affect me and the one I love deeply.
—No pock marks
Dear No pock marks,
What you are describing is a basic compulsive disorder. Compulsions fall under the rubric of anxiety disorders. Remember that fear is a basic and useful human emotion — it provides motivation for self-protection and learning to cope with new or dangerous situations. Only when fear is out of proportion to real danger can it be considered a problem, and this seems to be what's happening to your girlfriend. Anxiety is another word for fear, referring especially to a feeling of fear that is not directed toward any definite threat. When anxiety is experienced almost daily, or is related to life situations that recur and cannot be avoided, it becomes an anxiety disorder. Compulsions, such as excessive face picking and hair pulling, are repetitive actions, difficult to resist actions, and often associated with obsessions (recurrent, unwanted thoughts or impulses).
Treatment for compulsions range from medications to psychological interventions that concentrate on a person's conscious or unconscious thoughts or overt behavior. Fill your girlfriend in on this when she says she doesn't think therapy will help — there are so many therapeutic models that she is sure to find one that will help her overcome her face picking. Strongly encourage your girlfriend to see a therapist. Finding a good therapist — someone you can trust and believe you can learn from — is important. You can offer to go with her to keep her company at her appointment, and/or meet her up afterward. Make her feel safe in the knowledge that you support her. It's commendable that you are willing to stick with her through this; it's also important that she get some help so that she can regain control over her own life.
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June 4, 200721195
I found your website today and it was a relief to find so many people suffering from the same thing I felt I was suffering from but was not sure. I usually feel alone...
I found your website today and it was a relief to find so many people suffering from the same thing I felt I was suffering from but was not sure. I usually feel alone because it is a devastating disease which leads me to be antisocial in my personal life and at work. I have been seeing a dermatologist and have undergone some procedures in hopes of starting me on the right path. All of your readers had great suggestions about methods to help stop the compulsiveness. I too look in the mirror several times a day and cannot seem to stop. As long as I keep busy, I do not think about picking or looking in the mirror. I recently told my husband and my father what was going on with me and I got total support, especially from my husband. He goes to all appointments with me and constantly encourages me to fight this problem. If it weren't for him, I do not know what I would do. I will keep reading your website and feel that it can be somewhat therapeutic to hear that others are dealing with the same problem.
February 27, 200721160
I am in my early twenties and have been picking for ten years! In many ways, my acne has dictated my life. My skin is only clear for maybe one week a month and the rest of the...
I am in my early twenties and have been picking for ten years! In many ways, my acne has dictated my life. My skin is only clear for maybe one week a month and the rest of the time I WILL NOT go out because I am ashamed of my face. I feel like everyone looks at my skin and knows I pick at it. I wish I could stop but I do it automatically.
I have tried every kind of reasoning from "I'll just scratch the white head off" to "I'll just flatten the bump" to "I'll only pick the bad ones" to going "cold turkey" and nothing seems to work. I can't stand bumps on my face. If I don't pick I will touch the spot all day until I actually pick.
I think it is compulsive because before I had acne, I would pick off my scabs. I also hate seeing my pores filled, and I release them even if there's no bumps present. I have done enough research to know that I'm just making it worse, but I can't seem to stop! I sympathize with everyone inflicted with this condition.
November 27, 200621164
I too have had this disorder for a long time, almost ten years, I believe. It is a struggle that continues. I go through periods where I get better and, of course, through those...
I too have had this disorder for a long time, almost ten years, I believe. It is a struggle that continues. I go through periods where I get better and, of course, through those where I cannot seem to stop destroying my face. I just want to be free from wearing make-up every day. I am ashamed of my face sometimes.
I am steadily defeating my compulsion despite my periodic setbacks. I find that, indeed, keeping busy and distracting yourself is truly helpful. Doing so helps you avoid mirrors, in fact. If you must look in the mirror (I would avoid it), refrain from getting very close. I have learned to keep trimming my nails so that I am less capable of inflicting damage. That said, get rid of any "tools" you may have--tweezers, needles, pins, and the like. This is a vicious cycle that needs breaking; I find that it is better to simply prevent yourself from starting. I remind you that this problem is a compulsion (meaning that it is a state of being forced to do something or being unable to resist stopping).
I often find that I need to keep my hands busy in order to avoid touching my face. I just tell myself to stop before it's too late; I may end up with terrible scarring. Remember, one day at a time. You have had the power to change all along.
August 31, 200621111
I'm a 27 year-old from the UK who typed in 'face picking' half expecting a cosmetic surgery site to appear, which would let me pick my new face!...
I'm a 27 year-old from the UK who typed in 'face picking' half expecting a cosmetic surgery site to appear, which would let me pick my new face! However, I was amazed to find people, like me, who also picked at their faces.
I have been doing this since I was a teenager, convinced my face is full of pus, bumps, and spots that only I can see. I spend ages in front of the mirror making sure I remove all these 'imperfections' because I would be embarrassed to think that someone could see a spot on my face. The irony is of course that instead of spots on my face (that would probably disappear in a couple of days) people can see red raised marks, usually in the shape of my fingernails. Yet, incredibly, this doesn't stop me. When I am lost in the systematic destruction of my skin, none of these sensible thoughts occurs to me.
I think everyone who has contributed to this site is very brave. To admit a problem like this in a world where imperfections are not tolerated, let alone self-inflicted ones, is to take a stand against the impossible pressures put upon us to look 'perfect.' Good luck to you all, and thanks for the advice.
April 4, 200621045
I'm stunned that my situation is shared by so many. Reading these entries has helped me realize that I have a serious problem, and that I am not alone. I notice when I pick it's...
I'm stunned that my situation is shared by so many. Reading these entries has helped me realize that I have a serious problem, and that I am not alone. I notice when I pick it's usually when I am stressed out, anxious, or bored. I'm not a perfectionist by nature but when I am in that "zone" I feel the need to purge my pores of everything that's in them to get "clean." It is, as others have described it, a torturous cycle. You feel this uncontrollable need to do it, even though you know that by doing it you are making your skin worse, and yet it feels good. I feel accomplished when I get a lot out a pore. And then afterwords there is that feeling of utter dread, helplessness, and disapointment, of asking oneself "why?" and then waiting till the morning to see how much damage was done. I think part of the reason I do it is because in a way, odd as it may sound, it makes me feel like I have control. I have problems with body image and emotional eating, but when I pick, to me its as though the pimple is a problem I take care of simply and immediately and be done with it. Of course, that's not really how it works. It's humiliating to have hide away from public or even intimate situations with other people because of this problem. I've only been doing it for 2 years and I am going to stop. Thank you for offering an outlet for sufferers and those who support them, as well as for the tips on how to stop.
March 2, 200621036
Everyone has guessed it by now. Me too. Picking, squeezing, scratching, ... anything to get the horrid stuff off my face and of course, the more I pick, the messier it gets. Each...
Everyone has guessed it by now. Me too. Picking, squeezing, scratching, ... anything to get the horrid stuff off my face and of course, the more I pick, the messier it gets. Each time I pick at one, I am convinced that its the last one standing between me and a flawless face. It never works that way, but an observant and understanding boyfriend helps. Without knowing any fancy names, he figured that like everyone says, scratching was spoiling my face and helped distract me each time he saw me do it, till I started expecting it and even anticipating it myself whether he was there or not. Slowly, I began stopping myself too. It's tough, but not impossible. I found that whenever the urge gets really bad, it helps if I massage in an anti acne cream. That way, picking gets difficult, and I have the satisfaction of knowing that I'm doing something about it. I do wash the cream off, if I overdo it, but it still beats trying to kill the stuff bare handed.
February 24, 200621019
I am twenty-one and have been suffering from dermatillomania for about seven years. I wore long pants even before I started, so no one has noticed the scars on my leg, except my...
I am twenty-one and have been suffering from dermatillomania for about seven years. I wore long pants even before I started, so no one has noticed the scars on my leg, except my doctor. She gave me the 'domestic abuse' survey once, and as my family life is perfectly normal, the scars were never mentioned again. I don't wear tank tops in public, I don't own anything that shows my back, I can't wear low-cut shirts, and I own five different types of concealer. . . but I've never had acne, all my skin problems stem from this compulsive behaviour. Reading these letters has given me the courage to begin counseling at my college. I'm tired of hiding in long sleeve T-shirts, hoodies, and sweaters. I'd like to wear a strapless dress to the graduation party and NOT have to put make-up on my back and shoulders, but I know I have to start working now. Hopefully, with the short term solutions suggested here and counseling, some day I can be pick-free!
August 2, 200520942
I have been picking since I was 12, about when my parents got divorced. As a teen, I begged my mom to take me to a dermatologist and get me treatment; she said it was just hormones...
I have been picking since I was 12, about when my parents got divorced. As a teen, I begged my mom to take me to a dermatologist and get me treatment; she said it was just hormones. At 25, I am still suffering from these 'hormones.' I am tired of feeling like a monster so I looked to the Internet. First, I typed in homemade masks for acne treatment... After a strange trip to the store for various ingredients, I started mixing 20 different concoctions of cucumber, plain yogurt, honey, and other kitchen ingredients. Throughout the weekend, I decided this was not working. (Perhaps it was part of the OCD to try all 20 in two days.) So I decided to check out the laser surgeries online, before and after pictures, etc... That upset me, because I know I can't afford it. So I went into the bathroom and tore up my face as best I could. I backed away from the mirror and looked at the swollen red face I had given myself in less than 10 minutes. Finally I mustered up the courage to get out of the bathroom and type in the dreaded words, "help me stop picking my face," into the search engine. Eureka, there is an issue! The problem is that every over-the-counter and home remedy is useless against my picking, not that my acne is that severe. It feels good to know that this self-inflicted torture can come to a halt. Thank you, Alice, and thank you for all the other comments. It is really comforting to know that there are others who suffer from this. I am going to put post-it notes on my bathroom mirror that say "stop it," "It will go away if I quit!" and "Give it time." Thanks again.
April 25, 200520892
I am 20-years-old and I, too, have been suffering from this problem for about three years. I also do not have bad skin, but rather inflict these horrible things upon myself and...
I am 20-years-old and I, too, have been suffering from this problem for about three years. I also do not have bad skin, but rather inflict these horrible things upon myself and create marks on my face. I have been diagnosed with OCD and was at one time on medication to help me with my obsessions. The main reason that I seeked medical help was because of my obsessive face picking, which at one point was so bad that I had scabs covering my entire face. I eventually went off the medicine because it was making me exhausted (a common side effect of anxiety and obsession medications), and even though I have learned how to better deal with my OCD and picking, I have flare ups all the time. It seems that my picking is a constant problem and I am so tired of having to cover up my face and deal with this. I think the hardest part is trying to explain to people about this disorder because they don't understand that you cannot just stop and make it go away. This is a constant struggle that can only be dealt with, but not completely cured. I agree with a lot of the tips given by people and thank them for sharing their experiences. I have also found that applying cortisone cream after picking helps heal the skin and the redness. I also used to obsessively pull my hair out when I was about age two and was misdiagnosed with having night terrors, when it was probably the start of my life long struggle with OCD. I mostly recommend that poeple go seek help about this problem because it is a mental disorder that is not controllable. I had to learn that having OCD is not my fault and talking to someone really did help. I used to feel guilty about this until I learned that it was not my fault, and everyone else who suffers should know that, too. Good luck to everyone and thanks again!!
January 27, 200520840
This topic and this article really helped me a lot. At least I realized I'm not alone like everyone else. I'm in my twenties and my skin is really good, that's what the dermatologist...
This topic and this article really helped me a lot. At least I realized I'm not alone like everyone else. I'm in my twenties and my skin is really good, that's what the dermatologist said, too, but I'm an obsessive face-picker. The habit is ruining my life. Sometimes I, too, lock myself up for at least a couple weeks, till my scars heal, and just don't leave my house. I call in sick and don't show up at work, and also cut lectures in school when I look "bad." Thanks to you, I'm going to the psychiatrist now to help me overcome the problem, and I can actually do things. I can leave my house and go out and my skin looks great. I realized I never actually had a problem with my skin, except the one I created for myself.
September 16, 200420807
I am fifteen-years-old and have been picking at my face for maybe five years now. It's really hard because I have darker skin and it scars really badly. I know that picking at my face is...
I am fifteen-years-old and have been picking at my face for maybe five years now. It's really hard because I have darker skin and it scars really badly. I know that picking at my face is why I look so bad, but I seem to have no control over it. It's like I have to squeeze it all out, and dig and pick until there is no sign of the zit left, just a bloody mess. And of course, the kids at my high school are just awful and make me feel even worse. And it's hard to use any suggestions like covering mirrors or wearing gloves when you live in a house where parents or siblings or their friends are always around to see. I'm just relieved to know that there are other people with this same problem and I think writing about it just now has helped me some, too.
August 25, 200420789
I really can't believe this. I knew there was something that would not let me stop, but I was ashamed and had no idea it was a real obsessive behavior. My face and neck have had...
I really can't believe this. I knew there was something that would not let me stop, but I was ashamed and had no idea it was a real obsessive behavior. My face and neck have had sores (the same sore) that would last 6 months because I continued to pick at it. I visited this site for something completely different, but I am so excited to have read this. Thank you.
August 12, 200420780
I would also like to thank you for your posting on obsessive face picking. I, too, suffer from it, as well as hair pulling....
I would also like to thank you for your posting on obsessive face picking. I, too, suffer from it, as well as hair pulling. I'm currently seeking help for drug addiction, as well, and I feel extremely overwhelmed and hopeless. I've tried having people in the bathroom with me at night while washing my face, and that didn't help. But I want to thank everyone for the suggestions about fake nails and leaving the bathroom lights off at night... I'm so thankful to know I'm not alone.
July 28, 200420768
Wow. Wow. Wow. I also typed in "face picking," like many of your readers, and boy was I stunned to find out that I am not the only person who does this. I can stand for hours (I MEAN IT)...
Wow. Wow. Wow. I also typed in "face picking," like many of your readers, and boy was I stunned to find out that I am not the only person who does this. I can stand for hours (I MEAN IT) in my bathroom mirror just hacking away at my skin. I'm eighteen-years-old and I have been doing it since I can remember, usually when I've had a stressful day or have felt excessively self-conscious about my skin. I don't have acne, just random zits and black heads that turn into huge scabs and messes all the time with my habit.
I never thought it was a problem until my parents pointed it out... I waste a ton of time in the bathroom and I make my skin look terrible.
The best things that I can do is keep my nails extra short and try to stay conscious when I am going to do anything where I'll see myself alone. I have to tell myself that picking will make it worse, and I give myself a reward if I can handle not picking (i.e., shopping). I also go tanning (bad for your skin, really), but having color helps me from noticing any flaws. Lastly (and probably the most beneficial), I take Zoloft, which is prescribed for my depression, but is also good for obsessive thoughts.
It's nice to know that I'm "not alone"... good luck to all of you... (oh yeah, I use Neosporin or vitamin E to help fix scars, and also if there's a bunch of stuff on a zit, I don't touch it!) Take care!
July 13, 200420765
Like so many people who have written in here, I have been a picker for as long as I can remember. I'm almost 38. My mom does it, my sister does it, and now I see my 2-year-old son's...
Like so many people who have written in here, I have been a picker for as long as I can remember. I'm almost 38. My mom does it, my sister does it, and now I see my 2-year-old son's fingers sometimes scratch at his face for no apparent reason when I'm reading to him. It seems to me to have a genetic component, but I've seen about 10 counselors/psychiatrists over the course of a lifetime and no one has come up with a specific diagnosis or cure. OCD meds haven't helped me somehow.
Like others here, I don't just pick my face. I have scars all over my body — even my breasts — from the damage I've done to my otherwise fairly clear skin. I, too, like one reader, have even wondered whether all these years of cell damage might result in cancer. It's like being a chain smoker, the compulsion is so strong for me.
Just reading this site tonight, however, I am extremely moved and encouraged. Thank you to Alice for addressing this topic and to all those pickers out there who have courageously shared their stories and vowed to quit! Just knowing there are others like me out there, who have shared what I've always thought of as "my own private hell," makes me feel even more resolved to quit myself.
June 25, 200420755
My comment on OBSESSIVE FACE PICKING:
The photographic evidence of when I started picking at my face is in my pre-...
My comment on OBSESSIVE FACE PICKING:
The photographic evidence of when I started picking at my face is in my pre-school pictures, almost all of them. I finally got some help beyond "well stop picking at yourself" when I saw a good Psychologist (for anxious depression), who recommended a sympathetic Dermatologist. The Lexapro I am taking for my anxiety helps a great deal. The big breakthrough came after the dermatologist prescribed Benzaclin topical to keep the acne down and Atarax (given to kids for psoriasis) for the itching, to take at night. It was helping a bit, but after I got poison oak, I started taking a few to get through the day (it makes me drowsy like cough medicine). Doing this for two weeks proved that if I did keep my hands off my face (and I did!) — it would work. Knowing that for sure has made it a lot easier to hold out... One other major thing that has helped, and I wish I'd done this sooner, is to get electrolysis. The stiff hairs (not many — but it doesn't take many, does it?) coming in on my jaw line used to be the worst ones to deal with. I'd tweeze them, but waiting till the tweezers could get them was excruciating. And I'd go in under the skin to get them. Now they are gradually thinning and disappearing!
You are entitled to help to beat this! Don't let anyone tell you you just have to stop without help.
May 7, 200420581
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May 7, 200420583
This letter is in response to face picking in general. I have had this problem for over 30 years. Yes! That is true. I have had to use a concealer every day for over 30 years. I have...
This letter is in response to face picking in general. I have had this problem for over 30 years. Yes! That is true. I have had to use a concealer every day for over 30 years. I have been married for 18 years and recently went to a dermatologist for a non-related problem and during a follow-up visit asked the dermatologist if he could help me clear up my skin. To my amazement and embarrassment, he diagnosed me as a face picker. After admitting it to myself and my husband (who already knew that I had this problem), I was able to get some control of it. For the first time in all those years, I can now actually go without any concealer at all. Here are some of the things that helped me:
1. Get rid of any kind of magnifying mirror or close-up mirror.
2. Get rid of any kind of pin or knife or sharp objects that can be used to pick.
3. I got fake nails and I asked them to make them thicker so they are ineffective.
4. I wash my face and right away put on lotion so I won't start anything.
5. It is also helpful to keep the light off when you wash at night before bed.
6. The longer you can hold off, the easier it gets. I had to fight the urge many times, but as I saw results, it is getting easier. I am actually starting to forget about doing it as much.
7. It might be helpful to get a dim light in your bathroom if you can.
8. Admit the problem to yourself and others.
9. Pray for strength.
I know it is hard to stop because I am still dealing with it. It is so strange to realize this problem but as you stop with the habit, you will see your skin improve drastically. All those years I wasted feeling bad about myself when I had the power all along to change. It is powerful when you take charge and control of your own life. Just try for a morning and then a night and then a day and then another day. I hope this helps someone today because I am thankful that I have been helped, too.
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January 22, 199920319
I just reread the letter from the man who has the girlfriend with the obsessive face picking habit. The first time it nearly moved me to tears because I have the same problem. Now I...
I just reread the letter from the man who has the girlfriend with the obsessive face picking habit. The first time it nearly moved me to tears because I have the same problem. Now I am writing in hopes to help her and also myself because I think it may help just to acknowledge the problem. This is the first time I have really done so.
Here are a couple of things that have helped me in the past:
1. For a couple of weeks, stay out all day. After you get dressed in the morning, go out immediately. I know you won't do this (face pick) in the bathroom at McDonald's! I never have!
2. Try not to spend any idle time at home for the same reason. If you're busy, you won't have time to do it.
3. If you are going to be home for a while, take down the small mirrors and cover the big ones with blankets or towels.
4. Clip your nails extremely short.
5. After you clip your nails, I'm sure you know you'll find something else to pick with, so throw away all pins, needles, and tacks, etc.
6. Try really hard not to pick for three days, then look in the mirror and see how beautiful you are! (Just don't get too close to the mirror!)
Good Luck. I hope some of these things help you as they have helped me.