Picking is the latest compulsive grooming habit on the rise in young women — and it’s a guaranteed way to put your worst face forward, dermatologists tell The Post.
Severe scarring, dark spots and inflamed acne can all result from the anxiety-induced fixation that causes people to pick, squeeze and prod at their face.
“People hate their pimples, and seem to derive a fierce dark joy from mutilating them,” says Dr. Kenneth Howe, a Kips Bay dermatologist. “Such picking often has a truly compulsive nature: Patients can’t stop themselves.”
Recently, beauty and fashion influencers Tavi Gevinson and Alyssa Coscarelli came forward about their own struggles to stop picking zits.
“I’ll contort my body to get my face as close to the mirror as possible, and use the pads of my fingertips to scan for every bit or bump of skin that needs attention, whether it’s a flake of skin, a juicy whitehead or a hard-to-reach blackhead,” Coscarelli, 25, writes in a Teen Vogue piece.
“I lose track of time and place, often running through a laundry-list of anxieties in my head, until my face becomes a minefield of swollen bumps, exposed bits of fresh skin, or worse — pores seeping fresh, red blood.”
Gevinson, 23, often couldn’t even tell she was doing it. “I sometimes do it mindlessly in the middle of another activity and almost always if I find myself in front of a mirror,” she writes in The Cut. “Once I realize what I have done, I examine my reflection and feel like a stupid feral animal.”
The growing habit is especially bad among young women in their late twenties and early thirties, and appears to be driven by an incessant need to be perfect in all aspects of their lives, says Upper East Side dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe.
It can escalate to a mental illness called excoriation disorder, or dermatillomania, that is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can go undetected for years, Bowe says.
“Some are unable to admit that they have been picking,” says Howe. “They’ll say they’ve been ‘cleaning’ their skin, ‘treating it’ or perhaps ‘rubbing it a little.’ Meanwhile their faces are disfigured by deep, discolored scars.”
“Ten years ago, about one in 50 was a real picker, and now it’s more like one in every 15,” says Bowe. “Women in that age group are climbing in their careers, starting families or still dating … and it all leads to more stress.”
Bowe adds that unrealistic beauty standards on social media are also to blame.
“Face-tuning, using filters and heavy editing all give people a false sense of perfection,” says Bowe. “I treat a lot of influencers and I can tell you that their skin is not as perfect as it appears on their channel.”
Coscarelli herself admits as much in her piece, writing that she felt she was “living a lie” to her 261,000 followers on Instagram.
“I was a constant picture of aspiration: an interesting job, fun outfits, exciting travel, cool friends, cute apartment and clear skin,” writes Coscarelli. “One of those was not quite as it appeared to be, and at a certain point I just felt dishonest. I couldn’t hold it in anymore — maybe because of the skin-positivity movements that were happening on Instagram, or maybe because I felt like I was living a lie, posting selfies and racking up compliments on my skin when underneath the makeup was a painful secret.”
Coscarelli finally faced her compulsion a few years ago at her boyfriend’s apartment.
“One night, he came [into the bathroom] and found me swollen-faced, dabbing at sections of my face with a wad of red-spotted toilet paper,” she wrote. “I broke down immediately, and in the following weeks I embarked on an internet spiral to find a therapist in New York who could help me tackle this once and for all.”
Once diagnosed, patients must stop picking for at least three months before they can receive treatment, “otherwise you’re just throwing that money out the window,” says Bowe.
The first step is to treat the acne itself with chemical peels, comprehensive skin care routines and a change in diet such as cutting out skim milk and carbs.
Next, Bowe will tackle the more long-term effects of picking with microneedling and laser treatments to even out the skin’s texture. In extreme cases, she’ll recommend fillers to pump up deep scars.
For Coscarelli, it was behavioral therapy that helped her stop for good.
“It gave me the tools to be more mindful about what I was doing and why,” she writes. “I realized my triggers are daily stress and anxiety, and that as I picked I was often thinking about whatever I was stressing about at that moment.”
To those who may be suffering from the condition, Coscarelli and Bowe have one message: “You’re not alone.”