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Skin Picking: A Habit That's Hard to Break

My urge to pick at my skin while living with skin cancer is so strong – and often irresistible – that I thought I might have a disorder. For example, this morning when I was half-awake, I played with a scab that was forming on my upper arm after my dermatologist “zapped” a spot on it. Before I knew it, it was partially dislodged, and then it was hanging off. And then it had to go.

Is skin picking a dermatological condition?

I looked up skin picking and found:

“Excoriation Disorder, also known as skin picking disorder or dermatillomania, is a mental illness related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is characterized by repeated picking at one’s own skin which results in skin lesions and causes significant disruption in one’s life...The symptoms of this form of obsessive-compulsive disorder are not caused by a dermatological condition."1

Not resisting the urge

Well then, because I have actual skin conditions and I do not create lesions and my life is not disrupted, it is not a disorder. But it does feel OCD-like. The urge, then the act, then the regret.

Sometimes it bleeds. It could get infected. Sometimes I stop midway and try to put the skin back in place. It leaves a pinkish mark. I start going after something and before I even realize it, it is partially off.

If I cross one ankle over a knee, I go at raised spots along the bottom of my leg. I don’t think people look at me and say, ugh, look at those thingies on that woman’s leg. But to me they are as big as a hockey puck. If I’m nervous, I might find myself running my hand over my neck, dislodging little loose pieces of skin.

Zapping away warts

My dermatologist calls the ones on my hands “little guys.” I ask why they’re not girls. She smiles while she zaps them (in other words performs cryosurgery) and says she doesn’t know. She says I’m brave. We discuss our life and love. Zap, zap, zap.

Some of the ones on my hands are warts. Warts have a bad name. They are on a witch’s nose. Actually, they are a virus, resulting partially because my immune system is suppressed from being on prednisone.

Skin picking and skin cancer

Others are different types of keratoses: seborrheic, which are harmless and sometimes called “the barnacles of aging,” and actinic, a potential pre-cancer.

When they flake, I’m pretty sure they’re squamous cell cancers. But as for the others, I never know for sure. Sometimes I take a photo and send it to my dermatologist at all hours.

When I’m with my daughter, she says, “Stop picking!”

She had bought Frozen Band-Aids to try to stop her own little problem of pulling at her cuticles. I put Anna and Elsa on my leg.

Frozen BandAid box

Protecting my hands

Hands make a first impression. When dating, I sometimes held my left hand under the table if we went out. It had more stuff on it. It’s because that hand is exposed more when we’re driving. I bought sun protection gloves for tennis and running. I try to remember to use them in the car. And also to put on sunscreen.

For a month or so, I applied Efudex on my hands every night. I slept in purple exam gloves. It cleared them up pretty well. Still, sometimes I hold my had up against my daughter’s blemish-free one and say, “I wish my hands could look like this again.”

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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