You are NOT alone in the primal urge to pick at your face- especially if you have a below the surface blemish or bothersome zit. BUT, here’s our real-world, skin-saving guide to allowing your skin to heal without making it worse!

Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to our skin. If you’ve ever been obsessed with a blemish, you understand the self-sabotage. And maybe this sounds familiar: “When I consciously pick at my skin, I know deep down that it won’t help, but somehow I convince myself that this one time picking will suddenly make the breakout less apparent,” says Emily, a self-described chronic picker who has consulted Dr. Whitney Bowe, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, for help.

“I can’t tell you how many of my patients avoid eye contact, feeling some shame that they’ve “attacked’ a pimple and tell me how embarrassed they are—it happens all the time,” Dr. Bowe says. “If you’ve picked, the first thing I want you to realize is that you’re not alone. I probably have this conversation once a day in my office!”  

This two-part installment will reveal what drives this all-too-common behavior and how to treat it—and how one woman has overcome her picking compulsion.

Part 1: Picking—a Fight

There’s actually a good reason why it’s so difficult for us to leave our skin alone: “Popping a pimple or picking at your skin offers relief and gratification that rushes the brain with calming neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin,” says Natalie Gluck, MD,  a physician and board-certified psychiatrist in New York City. “In some cases people experience tension that can only be relieved by picking.”

The problem is that any time you pick, squeeze, pop or otherwise handle your skin, you risk infection and scarring. You’ll prolong the amount of time it takes a pimple to heal and spread oil, dirt and bacteria on your skin that can cause more breakouts—creating a vicious cycle. So a hands-off policy is one your dermatologist will always advise.

That being said, dermatologists are also human and understand that ignoring a blackhead or letting a whitehead run its course is not exactly realistic for anyone within arm’s reach of a magnifying mirror. There are, however, a few dermatologist-approved strategies that can be effective for anyone who wants to reform her picking habit.

5 Ways to Beat the Urge to Pick Your Zits for Healthy Skin

Get the red out.

If you reduce the inflammation, the blemish will be less glaring and less inviting to pick. Treat the area with a cold compress and hydrocortisone to calm the swelling and redness.  Spot treating with tea tree oil can also dial down the red, as tea tree oil acts as an anti-inflammatory. One of Dr Bowe’s new favorite spot treatments is this roller ball that coats just the right amount of salicylic acid and essential oils to dial down the red.

Make a note.

Before you get in a trance and spend too much quality time obsessing over your pores, put a reminder on a sticky note and put it on your mirror. Seeing the phrase “HANDS OFF” or “NO PICKING” may remind you to stop before you start.

Hit the spot.

If it’s oozing or juicy, you might consider a a blemish treatment containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide to start the healing process and dry it up. If you can, apply something that coats the pimple with a visible layer so you’re less apt to touch it.  Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist at Skin Physicians & Surgeons in Upland, CA who is known as Dr. Pimple Popper, advises her patients to put a band-aid on the blemish if they can stay at home. The bandage acts as a literal barrier to picking and help them resist the urge to do more harm.

Know when to squeeze.

If you absolutely cannot keep your hands off, only touch a whitehead—the inflammation is at the surface and popping it is less likely to cause scarring or discoloration than handling a solid red cyst. Very gently apply pressure to release the pus, as soon as you see the white at the surface or if you see blood, stop immediately and apply a cold compress followed by a spot treatment.

Call your dermatologist.

“Often making an appointment to see me can help my patients stop from attacking a pimple because they know they’ll be seeing me soon,” Dr. Bowe says. “And a simple cortisone shot can make a deep cyst disappear in a few hours.”

Can’t stop?  Consult your dermatologist if this may be a true medical condition.

Determine if picking is causing you mental distress. “Sometimes picking is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder called excoriation disorder,” Dr. Gluck explains. “Picking becomes a clinical condition when it causes extreme distress or you spend significant time doing it.” A visit with a mental health specialist can determine if medication or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) will help with the underlying anxiety. But focusing on a single pimple isn’t a disorder—in most cases people stop once the blemish heals, Dr. Gluck explains.

Consider this unconventional but popular way to get your pimple fix:

As a testament to how alluring the satisfaction of picking can be, Dr. Pimple Popper  has a YouTube channel with more than 4 million subscribers!  Logging on and getting a vicarious thrill from watching a trained professional clear a blemish is much safer than doing self-harm and may reduce your urge to pick. “I think watching my videos is actually relaxing and decreases anxiety in those with skin picking disorder,” says Dr. Lee. “People tell me that watching these videos calms them.”

Dr. Bowe’s Bottom Line: If you can’t make it to a dermatologist, follow the advice above and take a proactive approach to your skin. Spot treatments aren’t a long-term solution. “You treat one spot and another erupts the next day in a different location,” Dr. Bowe says. Instead, she addresses the face as a “field” and uses ingredients like salicylic acid or retinol to the entire area. “This way you stay ahead of the game and you won’t find yourself struggling to resist the temptation to squeeze!”

Stay tuned for our next real woman’s story about finding solutions to picking. Plus, hear how Dr. Bowe’s expert support helped her cut down on aggravating her own beautiful skin.