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How to Stop Picking Spots

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Whilst you’re reading this, what are you doing? Are you drinking coffee? Wine? Eating crisps? Are you watching the TV (or the kids) with one eye? Perhaps you’re thinking about what’s for dinner or your lengthy to do list for the morning. Or perhaps, like thousands of us, you’re mindlessly twiddling with your hair, scratching your scalp or picking at your skin?

If we’re the sort of person who’s constantly picking at our skin, we might have an actual condition and it’s called dermatillomania. Yep, that long, confusing, almost unpronounceable word is the word used to describe the action of constantly squeezing, scratching and picking at our skin.

It’s also called excoriation disorder or skin picking disorder, and whilst it’s not a problem per se, if you’re picking at your skin so much that it’s bleeding or it’s affecting your emotional wellbeing, then it’s worth speaking to your GP.

But what about picking at spots? If you’re picking at your skin all the time to help ‘flatten out’ or smooth your skin, freeing it from bumps and spots, then you may also have dermatillomania. Most of us do this from time to time, but could picking our spots and our skin all the time be damaging, and make our skin worse? What about occasionally squeezing spots? Is that ok?

We did some research to find out…

Why is it bad to pick spots?

Most skin specialists, dermatologists and beauty therapists will tell us that it’s bad news for our skin to squeeze our spots. But, like much advice, like not drinking too much or not spending too much time in the sun, many of us ignore it. After all, often it’s just far too tempting to ignore that pimple on our chin.

However, it is actually true - it’s pretty bad to pick at our spots. But why? Most spots are caused by a tiny bag that forms under the skin, that contains sebum (the oily, wax-like substance that keeps the skin hydrated and is naturally produced by the skin) and bacteria. It may also become inflamed, angry and red.

If we squeeze this spot, then it can send all that sebum and bacteria into the surrounding tissue and skin cells, and can also spread the inflammation that may be present. This can cause a larger area to appear inflamed and red, and it could lead to a further, nasty skin infection and a possibly even a temporary darkening of the skin in that area.

Even worse, the inflammation and infection could lead to scarring which may turn out to be permanent. So once the spot is long disappeared and forgotten, the resulting scarring and redness may last forever.

Will picking spots make them spread?

Whilst it’s still in discussion by skin specialists, it’s unlikely that squeezing spots will cause them to spread. That is, squeezing one spot is unlikely to cause another spot or multiple further spots in the same place.

That said, squeezing a single spot can lead to the problems mentioned above - that is, redness, infection, skin pigmentation changes and permanent scarring. This itself could then actually lead to the formation of other spots.

So as the experts advise, we suggest leaving well alone.

If you’re experiencing the odd spot or two, then it’ll probably only hang around for a week or so. So as much as it’s tempting to give it a squeeze, leave it alone. Perhaps pop some tea tree oil on it, and cover it with makeup if you wear makeup, and leave it to disappear by itself.

If you have acne prone skin, then definitely leave spots to their own devices. With inflamed skin affected by regular breakouts and acne spots, the last thing you want is to add more trauma and inflammation to your skin.

Use cleansers, moisturisers and other skin care products that have been developed to support non conformist, stressed out skin and follow our other tips on treating acne prone skin.

How to get rid of scars from picking spots?

All of this said, we get it. Sometimes the urge to squeeze a spot is simply too strong. You might get lucky, give a particularly tempting spot a squeeze and by the morning, it’s all but disappeared.

But the chances are, we’ll go in a bit too harshly or deep, and we’ll break the skin with our overzealous fingernails, spread the infection and cause a scar. So then what do we do?

Deep scarring, say from aggressive or severe acne, can be difficult to manage. Sometimes, treatments such as laser treatment from a skin professional can help.

But for light scarring caused by picking spots, it can be helpful to use a gentle chemical exfoliant such as salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a type of fruit acid that acts as an exfoliant, removing the top layers of skin to reveal fresh new skin underneath. It can also help to smooth out the skin, minimising the appearance of scarring.

Is picking spots self harm?

If you’re picking at your spots (or your skin when you don’t even have spots) all the time, and sometimes in your sleep or even when you don’t realise you’re doing it, as we mentioned above you may have the condition dermatillomania.

This can be a type of obsessive compulsive disorder where you become excessively preoccupied with your appearance called body focussed repetitive behaviour. It’s open to interpretation whether or not this is a form of self harm, and also depends how much it might be impacting your life (or how much other people might think it’s impacting your life).

If you think you might be self-harming, then it’s important to seek help. This isn’t always easy, but talking to a trusted adult (this can be a family member, friend, colleague, teacher or your GP) can help you on the road to treatment and we wish you all the best for your recovery.


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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