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What is skin picking or excoriation?

Skin picking (excoriation), is characterized by the repetitive picking of one’s own skin. Individuals who struggle with this disorder touch, rub, scratch, pick at, or dig into their skin in an attempt to improve perceived imperfections, remove rough patches/scabs, smooth areas, or accomplish some goal. Skin picking often results in tissue damage, discoloration, or scarring.

Occasional picking at cuticles, acne, scabs, calluses, or other skin irregularities is a very common human behavior; however, research indicates that approximately 2%- 5% of the population picks their skin to the extent that it causes noticeable tissue damage and marked distress or impairment in daily functioning. An estimated 75% of people experiencing skin picking disorder are female. The behavior typically begins in early adolescence, although skin picking disorder can begin at any age. Without treatment, skin picking disorder tends to be a chronic condition that may wax and wane over time. 

Signs and Symptoms

Skin picking disorder is currently classified as Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria include:

  • Recurrent skin picking that results in skin lesions
  • Repeated attempts to stop the behavior
  • The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment
  • The symptoms are not caused by a substance or medical or dermatological condition
  • The symptoms are not better explained by another psychiatric disorder

Those who engage in skin picking tend to pick from multiple body sites, for extended periods of time, targeting both healthy and previously damaged skin. Targeted areas of the body may change over time. Commonly reported experiences that lead to picking include: an urge or physical tension prior to picking, unpleasant emotions, cognitions (permission-giving thoughts, beliefs about how the skin should look or feel), sensations (a bump, sore spot), and/or a displeasing aspect of one’s own appearance (visible blemish). Commonly reported experiences following picking behavior include: urge reduction, sense of relief or pleasure, psychosocial difficulties or embarrassment, avoidance, reduced productivity, emotional sequelae such as anxiety or depression, skin infections, scars, lesions, and/or disfigurement.

Although the severity of skin picking disorder varies greatly, many people who struggle with skin picking exhibit noticeable skin damage, which they attempt to camouflage with makeup, clothing, or other means of concealing affected areas. Due to shame and embarrassment, individuals may also engage in avoidance behaviors, including the avoidance of certain situations that may lead them to feel vulnerable to being “discovered” (e.g., wearing shorts, being seen by others without makeup, or intimacy).

Due to the nature of skin picking, it is important to consider whether the behavior is characteristic of excoriation disorder or whether it is better accounted for by another psychiatric disorder which warrants treatment. For example, skin picking may be a symptom of a dermatological disorder, an autoimmune disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance abuse disorder (e.g., opiate withdrawal), developmental disorder (e.g., autism spectrum disorder), or psychosis. Comprehensive evaluation and accurate diagnosis is important in determining an appropriate treatment plan.