Skin Picking: Why You Do It and How to Stop for the Sake of Your Health

woman touching face


Our new normal has shifted. Beyond watching how-to's on hand-washing (who knew we needed a tutorial on this?) and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces (think doorknobs, keyboards, phones, keys, and faucets), the CDC makes note of avoiding something many are already guilty of: facial touching and picking. Now that many of us are on frequent video calls, we're seeing (and dissecting, picking, and touching) our faces more than perhaps ever before.

If you're a frequent face toucher and you've been itching (quite literally) to kick this bad habit to the curb, now's as good a time as any. To help guide us on our quest to making this bad habit a thing of the past, we spoke with Dr. Ava Shamban, a Los Angeles-based cosmetic dermatologist who specializes in serious skin conditions. Below, uncover the real reason you're constantly touching your face and how you can get rid of the urge for good.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Ava Shamban is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in various skin treatments including those related to acne, acne scarring, pigmentation, rosacea, photo aging, and intrinsic as well as epigenetic aging.

The Importance of Not Touching Your Face

What was once a simple bad habit has turned into a real method of COVID-19 transmission. "The CDC and World Health Organization have made statements about the respiratory infection entering the body via the mucous membranes on the face as of late March 2020," says Shamban, adding that the "avoidance of picking or even touching of the face has moved into the red alert category."

Facial picking used to be a cause of concern among skincare professionals for the cosmetic damage it could leave behind, but it has now become a matter of public health. "Before the virus, we were concerned about scarring on the skin," says Shamban. "Now, we are worried about life and death, as the virus can cause serious illness in both the young and old."

Common Reasons Why People Pick Their Face

Shamban notes how statistics reveal that we are all guilty of touching our face upwards of 20 times a day without even having a conscious awareness of doing it. While she says that picking the face is most often an automatic unconscious response, this still bodes the question: What's the real reason behind this strong urge? Below, a few common reasons.

  • Boredom and nervousness: Like nail biting, facial picking can be triggered by feelings of boredom or nervousness. A study done by the University of Montreal found that body-focused repetitive behaviors (like skin picking) can potentially be caused by anxiety.
  • Stress: Oftentimes stress makes conditions such as acne or eczema flare up, which contributes to the "pick." Also, Shamban assesses that during times of heightened stress (including stress stemming from a rapidly spreading virus), facial touching has become a nervous habit among those who may not have had it before.
  • Reflex reaction. "Most of the need-to-touch feelings subside in about 60 to 90 seconds but the immediate relief makes it irresistible to respond," says Shamban. "Face touching provides immediate relief that eventually makes it a habitual response that's resistant to change."

How to Stop Touching and Picking Your Face

  • Be aware: Shamban says to make a concerted effort to be aware of the exact moments you're picking at your face—this will determine if there are triggers (for example, when you're watching the news).
  • Find a competing response: When you catch yourself wanting to pick your face, distraction is key. "Clenching your fist for 60 seconds, for example, is a great way to replace touching your face until the urge subsides," says Shamban.
  • Practice purposeful relaxing: Sometimes a few deep meditative breaths can help ward off the urge to pick. Shamban also recommends touching the area below the base of your skull with your thumbs (right above your neck) and pressing gently—you'll feel more relaxed and the need to touch will subside.
  • Occupy your hands: "Right now especially, occupy your hands by washing them," says Shamban. "Object manipulation is also effective at breaking the habit." Try stress balls or this handy tool from Renée Rouleau.
  • Seek help: Shamban says that "modern medicine now allows many local dermatologists to be of service remotely during quarantine." Take advantage of the many offices that are available for "tech and treat" talks through telemedicine.

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