Why do you pick your face, poke your skin, and prod yourself? It’s complicated. How do you stop? Ditto.
“People who excessively pull their hair or pick at their skin often do it to relieve tension and negative feelings,” says Lori Davis, Psy.D., clinical instructor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, who specializes in anxiety disorders. “Sometimes it’s about anxiety and sometimes it can be about frustration, anger, or boredom.” Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re doing it.
Body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB), as the experts call it, can be triggered by many things. “People do it to avoid unpleasant experiences or to chase pleasant ones,” says therapist Lauren Rosen, LMFT, director of The Center for the Obsessive Mind in California. “I’ve seen people pick or pull as a form of procrastination, or as an excuse to get some space from family members. For others, it’s a sensory experience. They may not like the feel of a pimple on their skin.”
But as with Pringles, once you pop, it’s tough to stop. “After someone engages in this behavior, they experience a relief in negative feelings,” says Dr. Davis, “which only fuels this behavior going forward.”
All-or-nothing thinking perpetuates picking as well. “People think, I won’t be able to concentrate until I do this,” says Rosen. “And then they continue because they think, Well, I’ve already messed up.”
The consequences are both physical and emotional: open wounds, scars, hair loss, and negative feelings and disappointment in yourself. Breaking the cycle can be tricky. Two effective strategies:
- Delay your gratification. “You try to delay engaging in the behavior and, often with the help of a therapist, you eventually learn how to tolerate and cope with negative feelings in other ways,” says Dr. Davis.
- Control your triggers. Make your environment less conductive to picking by keeping your nails short, for example, or wearing clothes or a hair covering that blocks the areas you typically pick.
The Best of Mental Health 2022 award winners are curated to help you do both those things—and make the consequences of your actions a little less noticeable and anxiety-provoking.
All products featured on Mental have been selected independently and editorially. When you buy from our links, we may earn a commission.
Best Irritation Soother
Sarna External Analgesic Lotion, $10.12
Nails on a chalkboard may hurt your ears. Nails on a face? A blow to the skin. To remedy the ouch and soreness, a basic moisturizer may not be enough. This calming lotion relies on the topical pain- and itch-relievers menthol and camphor, which “feel cooling and hydrate the skin, but also decrease that neural sensation [that sets off skin-picking],” says Dendy Engelman, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
What the stuff doesn’t contain is also important: steroids (like cortisone), which, when used too often, can thin the skin; dyes, which can be irritating, particularly to already inflamed areas; and parabens, which, as one study review found, are typically well-tolerated except in damaged skin.
Best Broken-Skin Salve
Aquaphor Healing Ointment,$10.61
If your skin’s been picked to the bleeding point, “you want something with petrolatum-based emollients that moisturizes and helps skin close over the wound,” says Dr. Engelman. Beloved by dermatologists, beauty editors, and babies’ butts alike, let’s break down why Aquaphor fits the bill and more.
- Petrolatum-based emollients: Aquaphor’s got 41 percent petrolatum, meaning it provides a semi-occlusive film that both protects against irritants and allows in hydrators, which is key to keeping the area moist. Which brings us to…
- Moisturizers: Panthenol and glycerin are the Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor of the humectant world: popular, effective, great TikTok skills (glycerin: 34.5 million views). What’s a humectant? An ingredient that draws water into the skin.
- Bonus: Bisabolol, an oil derived from the chamomile plant, is a well-documented anti-inflammatory to help speed healing.
- Plus: No fragrances, dyes, or preservatives and per a study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, Aquaphor is as effective as prescription creams for mild to moderate atopic dermatitis (a.k.a. skin irritation)…at 47 times cheaper.
Best Hydrocolloid Patches
First patented in 1967 and widely used to heal wounds in hospital settings, hydrocolloids have become the beauty industry’s new It girl. And they are…?? Adhesive gel sheets that absorb fluid and gunk, keep the area hydrated, block out bacteria, and speed healing. While they’re generally marketed for acne, experts say they’re ideal for covering picked wounds or scabs. The key: Choose one that contains just hydrocolloid, nothing else (some have salicylic acid to dry up zits). Our top picks, here.
For Going Unnoticed
Hero Mighty Patch Invisible+, $16.19 for 39
Clear, incredibly thin, and in two sizes, “these have proven to work under makeup,” says makeup artist Tim Quinn, who works with celebrities including Jordan Brewster and Diane Lane. “I have had clients with this issue, and the matte finish blends seamlessly under a touch of matte foundation or concealer.”
For Making a Statement
Starface Party Pack Pimple Patches, $26.99 for 96
Self-expression through hydrocolloid patches? Why the hell not? Match these cute stars to your nails, your dress, your mood.
Best Concealer for Picked Areas
Dermablend Cover Care Full Coverage Concealer, $19.60
This stuff ain’t playin’! It’s incredibly pigment-rich and goes on matte, a boon because: random shiny patches are random. (Unless… glazed face spots?!? Alert Hailey Beiber.)
Also on Dermablend’s résumé: incredible sticktuitiveness (stuff won’t budge), smoothness (no crusting, thanks to a dose of hydrating glycerin), and kindness (as Quinn points out, it’s alcohol-free, so it won’t sting). As Dr. Engelman explains, “It’s mostly pure pigment. It doesn’t have a lot of filler in it, so it’s not going to exacerbate a wound.”
Best Finger Bandages
Welly Handy Bandies Finger & Toe Flex Fabric Bandages, $6.94
Wrapping bandages around your tips is a classic mindfulness trick for people with body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) like skin-picking and hair-pulling. “Much of the time, people pick or pull outside of their conscious awareness. This is why people are often encouraged to use habit-blockers, like bandages on their fingers. [It helps] develop awareness and interrupt the behavior by introducing the element of choice,” says Rosen. “Of course, you can just remove the bandage. But even if you do, it does turn the behavior into a choice, and that means that you can practice making a different choice.”
Sure, the type of bandage you find in a first-aid kit can do the job, but these little guys are better—they’re ultra-flexible, designed specifically to fit fingers, and come in adorable stripes, dots, and gingham prints. If you’re a scratcher or scraper, stick the strip over your pointer fingers so it covers the nail’s edge; if you’re a puller, wrap the bandage around your pointer fingers and thumbs, above the top joint, to encase the finger pad, says Sheila Chung, a New York City hairstylist who works with people with trichotillomania. This not only makes it harder to pick, says Chung, but seeing the bandage “reminds you to lower your hands when you’re zoned out reading or watching TV.”
Best Habit-Blocking Rings
MAM Originals Nail Rings in MakeUp 466 Midi Ring and Amulet 896, $89 each
You can’t pick your face or pull your hair if you can’t feel around with your fingertips. In fact, one reader with trichotillomania recalls her mom’s approach to curbing her childhood hair-pulling compulsion was “duct-taping oven mitts over my hands.”
These cool nail rings are a less dramatic, more stylish alternative. The MakeUp 466 midi ring and pearl-studded Amulet 896 nail ring are particularly suited to pullers and pickers, with a minimalist band running up or across the fingertip that works as a barrier between your fingers and whatever you want to stop touching. “If you are not capable of picking or pulling because you’re wearing a habit-blocker, you’re not going to pull outside of your awareness. So these tools can stop mindless pulling or picking,” says Rosen. “They can also serve as stimulus replacements. This is to say that people might play with them instead of performing the behavior.”
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