Why Are We So Obsessed With Scraping Our Scalps & Picking Our Skin?

Photo by Leandro Crespi

If you've ever gone into your bathroom with no intention of picking, popping, scraping, or scratching and come out with one or more open, bleeding wounds, you're not alone. In fact, the internet would probably like to watch you do it.

Before you balk at the suggestion, consider the evidence. We live in a world where Dr. Pimple Popper, also known as Sandra Lee, M.D., famous for sharing her gnarliest squeeze fests on Instagram to the tune of nearly 3 million followers (editor's note: That link is not for the faint of heart!), has just landed a television show on TLC. Beyond that, other types of picking and popping trends are percolating. The latest to go viral on YouTube is scalp scraping—or picking at the flakes of skin and dandruff on your scalp with a fine-toothed comb—a practice with which many people who have psoriasis or seborrheic dermatitis are all too familiar.

The psychology of picking yourself.

All of this raises the obvious question: Why have we become obsessed with skin picking, both as a personal tic and as a spectator sport?

"There is a rush of adrenaline that comes with seeing something disgusting," Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, told mbg. "For some, that rush can motivate watching these videos." People tend to watch until the end, she said, because they want a sense of completion and accomplishment. Watching something "tough" and getting through it can be satisfactory for some.

As a spectator sport, it's probably not all that bad for you. "[W]e know that this will not actually cause us harm (or significant harm), as opposed to other behaviors," Dr. Lombardo said. She was referring to dermatillomania and trichotillomania, which are classified as clinical neuroses of obsessive skin picking and hair pulling, respectively.

Holistic esthetician, health coach, and mbg Collective member Britta Plug, whose new holistic facial and wellness space just opened in New York City's SoHo neighborhood, has helped some of her clients in their struggle and journey with dermatillomania. "It’s anxiety-based," Plug said. "What happens is people, especially when they're anxious, stressed, or feeling bad about themselves, end up in front of the mirror, and they just start. It’s not a conscious decision for many, and before they know it, they've broken skin and caused bleeding."

For some, picking videos are triggering—in a bad way.

One such client of Plug's is Ross Erin Martineau, a wardrobe stylist and yoga teacher living in Brooklyn. While she's never been clinically diagnosed with dermatillomania, she's been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, which often go along with it. Ross met with a skin coach whose entire practice is dedicated to helping her clients cease picking, participated in support groups specifically for the condition, and turns to her yoga practice all in the name of keeping her skin-picking in check.

"I just need to not engage that part of my brain and find another solution that has nothing to do with picking," she said. "It’s probably best not to watch those videos."

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If you feel like you're picking too much, here's how to stop.

1. Ride out the crave wave.

According to Dr. Lombardo, it's all about trusting that the anxious urge to pick will pass. "Like overcoming any compulsion, the key to stopping is to realize that any anxiety that comes with not picking will eventually subside," she said. "Initially, it may feel stressful, increasing the urge to pick, but if you wait long enough, that anxiety will plateau and eventually decrease." If you "give in" and pick during the height of your craving, however, she said it will "only make it harder to stop the habit."

2. Distract idle, wandering hands.

Ross says that fidget toys are big in the dermatillomania and trichotillomania communities because they keep idle hands busy. She's used fidget spinners and other fidget toys when she notices she's touching her face and "scanning" for spots to pop.

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3. Create a barrier.

Plug's colleague and esthetician Susana Salazar once had a client who struggled with overpicking, so she'd put jalapeño juice on her client's fingers so that making contact with open skin stung—and it worked! Her client stopped picking. Ross has used gloves, which can be a helpful physical (and less painful) reminder that your face can feel. Others tape their fingers for a similar effect.

4. Breath work.

Ross is in the middle of training to become a yoga teacher, which has been helpful for tackling the root cause of picking: anxiety. "I really need meditation and yoga to feel OK," she said. "And on a deeper level, the skin-picking is a manifestation of depression, anxiety, self-loathing. I have to retrain my brain out of that stuff."

Interested in having good skin? Here are six good skin habits to form at any age.

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