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What Causes Skin Picking?

written by: Kelly Marquize • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 10/15/2010

Compulsive skin picking may be caused by environmental and/or organic factors. While causes may be a bit puzzling to the professional medical community, skin picking has been most closely related to obsessive compulsive disorder.

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    The Mystery Behind Skin Picking

    To date, skin picking, or dermatillomania, is not yet recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a psychiatric disorder by itself. Rather, skin picking is thought to accompany an existing mental disorder, such as major depression or anxiety disorders (PsychNet, 2010). While there is still much to be learned about the causes of skin picking, there are a few known triggers to this mysterious habit.

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    Skin Picking Factors

    Compulsive skin picking is commonly found in those who are diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Aside from OCD, there appear to be several environmental and organic factors.

    • Depression and/or anxiety: For the individual who has the disorder, skin picking can bring temporary relief of anxiety and calm the nerves. Some people may even find pleasure in picking their skin as it stimulates their senses. Often times, picking the skin is an unconscious act and the individual is unaware that they are doing so.
    • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Having OCD can cause a person to do things even when they do not want to. Picking the skin becomes a compulsive act that the person feels compelled to carry out. As a matter of fact, one study showed that 52% of patients who pick their skin are also diagnosed with OCD (Derm Net NZ, 2009).
    • Body dysmorphic disorder: A person suffering from this disorder has an unrealistic self-image. They may view themselves as ugly, deformed, or having features that are not like everyone else’s. They may begin picking their skin in an attempt to “fix" themselves. Unfortunately, the unsightly scars that can result from picking the skin will flaw their appearance.
    • Perfectionism: Like body dysmorphic disorder, a person may see that there is something wrong with their skin. It may be a blemish, freckle, or mole. They will ultimately try to rid their bodies of this “imperfection" by picking the skin.
    • Stimulation: A person diagnosed with ADD/ADHD is the perfect example of someone who may begin picking their skin for the purpose of stimulation. In this example, the individual may become bored, restless, or have trouble concentrating. Picking the skin may serve as a temporary stimulus to the person and may even help them to stay focused.
    • Disease: Organic factors can also cause skin picking. Diseases such as anemia, uraemia or liver disease can cause itching that lead to skin picking. In this scenario, skin picking can be eradicated by treating the disease.
    • Allergic reactions and skin conditions: We must not leave out the obvious. Allergic reactions often show themselves on the skin. Psoriasis or other skin conditions may also result in skin picking.

    It is important for a doctor to fully examine an individual who is picking their skin to rule out organic causes. If the patient is disease free, then the doctor will look at the patient’s history and try to determine whether the cause is linked to some type of mental disorder.

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    References

    Derm Net NZ (2009). Compulsive skin picking. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from http://dermnetnz.org/systemic/skin-picking.html

    PsychNet (2010). Disorder information sheet. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from http://www.psychnet-uk.com/dsm_iv/skin_picking.htm

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