Classification and external resources

Image of a person with dermatillomania with sores as a result of skin picking on arms, shoulders and chest
ICD-10 F63
ICD-9 312.3
MeSH D007174

Dermatillomania (also known as neurotic excoriation, pathologic skin picking (PSP), compulsive skin picking (CSP) or psychogenic excoriation[1][2]) is an impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to pick at one's own skin, often to the extent that damage is caused. Research has suggested that the urge to pick is similar to an obsessive compulsive disorder but others have argued that for some the condition is more akin to substance abuse disorder. The two main strategies for treating this condition are pharmacological and behavioral intervention.



Dermatillomania is characterized as "scratching, scraping, picking at or squeezing the skin in response to itching or another dermal sensation or in order to dig at a dermal lesion."[3] It is defined as "repetitive and compulsive picking of skin which results in tissue damage."[2]

The inability to control the urge to pick is similar to the urge to compulsively pull one's own hair, i.e., trichotillomania, and other impulse control disorders.

Research has suggested that dermatillomania may be thought of as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).[4] Dermatillomania and OCD are similar in that they both involve "repetitive engagement in behaviors with diminished control" and also both generally decrease anxiety.[2]

Nevertheless, Odlaug and Grant have suggested that dermatillomania is more akin to substance abuse disorder than OCD.[2] They argue that dermatillomania differs from OCD in the following fundamental ways: (1) there is a much greater share of females with dermatillomania; (2) dermatillomania may be inherently pleasurable whereas OCD is not; (3) the treatments that are generally effective for patients with OCD, (i. e., SSRIs and exposure therapy) are not as successful in patients with dermatillomania; and (4) unlike OCD, picking the skin is rarely driven by obsessive thoughts. Odlaug and Grant have recognized the following similarities between individuals with dermatillomania and patients with addictions: (1) a compulsion to engage in the negative behavior despite knowledge of the harm; (2) a lack of control over the problematic behavior; (3) a strong urge to engage in the behavior prior to engagement; and (4) a feeling of pleasure while engaging in the behavior or a feeling of relief or reduced anxiety after engaging in the behavior.[2] One study that supported the addiction theory of picking found that 79% of patients with dermatillomania reported a pleasurable feeling when picking.[2]

Odlaug and Grant also argue that dermatillomania could have several different psychological causes, which would explain why some patients seem more likely to have symptoms of OCD, and others, of an addiction. They suggest that treating certain cases of dermatillomania as an addiction may yield more success than treating them as a form of OCD.[2]

Signs and symptoms

The fingers have been compulsively picked and chewed on due to the person suffering from dermatillomania.

Episodes of skin picking are often preceded or accompanied by tension, anxiety, or stress.[4] During these moments, there is commonly a compulsive urge to pick, bite, or scratch at a surface or region of the body, often at the location of a perceived skin defect.

The region most commonly picked is the face,[4][2] but other frequent locations include the arms, legs, back, gums, lips, shoulders, scalp, stomach, chest, and extremities such as the fingernails, cuticles, and toenails.[2] Most patients with dermatillomania report having a primary area of the body that they focus their picking on, but they will often move to other areas of the body to allow their primary picking area to heal.[2] Individuals with dermatillomania vary in their picking behaviour; some do it briefly multiple times a day while others can do one picking session that can last for hours.[5]

Complications arising from dermatillomania include: infection at the site of picking, tissue damage, and septicemia. Damage from picking can be so severe as to require skin grafting. Severe picking can cause epidural abscesses. Severe cases of dermatillomania can cause life threatening injuries. For example, in one reported case a female picked a hole through the bridge of her nose, which required surgery to fix, and a 48-year old female picked through the skin on her neck exposing the carotid artery. Besides physical injuries, dermatillomania can cause severe physical scarring and disfigurement.[2]

Dermatillomania can cause feeling of intense guilt, shame, and embarrassment in individuals, and this greatly increases the risk of self harm.[2] Studies have shown that dermatillomania presented suicidal ideation in 12% of individuals with this condition, suicide attempts in 11.5% of individuals with this condition, and psychiatric hospitalizations in 15% of individuals with this condition.[2]


Compulsive picking of the knuckles (via mouth) illustrating disfiguration of the distal and proximal joints of the middle and little fingers.

There have been many different theories regarding the causes of dermatillomania.

A common hypothesis is that dermatillomania is often a coping mechanism to deal with elevated levels of arousal or stress within the individual, and that the individual has an impaired stress response.[5][2] A review of behavioral studies found support in this hypothesis in that skin-picking appears to be maintained by automatic reinforcement within the individual.[5]

In contrast to neurological theories, there are some psychologist that believe that picking behavior is a result of repressed rage felt toward authoritarian parents.[2] A similar theory holds that overbearing parents can cause the behavior to develop in their children.[2]


There is only a limited knowledge regarding the neurobiology that drives dermatillomania, and there have been no neuroimaging studies of patients with dermatillomania.[2]

Those individuals that have dermatillomania along with other diagnosed conditions report differing motivations for their picking. Those with both OCD and dermatillomania report that they will pick their skin due to a perceived contamination of the skin, while those with both body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and dermatillomania reportedly pick to fix perceived imperfections in the skin.[2]

Studies have shown a linkage between dopamine and the urge to pick. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine that are dopamine agonists, which increase the pharmacological effects of dopamine, have been shown to cause uncontrollable picking in users. These drugs can create the sensation of formication, which feels likes something is crawling on or under the skin.[2] Additionally, drugs such as naltrexone that are dopamine antagonists, which impede the pharmacological effects of dopamine, have shown some benefit in reducing picking behavior. Thus, dermatillomania could result from a dysfunction in the dopamine reward functions.[2]

There may be another neurological explanation for dermatillomania: individuals who have dermatillomania have less motor-inhibitory control, but show no sign of difference in cognitive flexibility, when compared to individuals without the condition. Motor-inhibitory control is a function of the right lateralized frontostriatal circuit, which includes the right inferior frontal and bilateral anterior cingulate cortices. The impairment of motor-inhibitory control is similar to the neurological conditions of those who have problems suppressing inappropriate behaviors, such as abusing methamphetamines.[2]


In many patients dermatillomania begins with the onset of acne in adolescence, but the compulsion continues even after the acne has gone away. In those dermatillomania patients with acne, the grooming of the skin is disproportionate to the severity of the acne.[2]

Certain stressful events including marital conflicts, deaths of friends or family, and unwanted pregnancies have been linked to the onset of the condition.[2]


Dermatillomania is not specifically defined in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV).[2] The addition has been proposed for the fifth edition of the DSM as a condition where there is an intrusive compulsion to pick at one's skin that cannot be accounted for by another medical condition or mental disorder; where feelings of tension or anxiety precedes picking; where picking causes damage; and where the picking results in immediate pleasure or relief but later causes distress or impairment to the subject. Most of the published literature uses a simplified two-factor definition; i.e., dermatillomania is 1) repetitive picking at the skin that 2) results in significant distress or social or occupational impairment.[2]

Because dermatillomania is different from other conditions and disorders that cause picking of the skin, it is important that any diagnosis of dermatillomania take into account various other medical conditions as possible causes before diagnosing the patient with dermatillomania.[2] There are a variety of conditions that cause itching and skin picking including: eczema, psoriasis, diabetes, liver disease, Hodgkin's disease, polycythemia vera, systemic lupus, and Prader-Willi syndrome.[2]

In order to better understand dermotillomania, researchers have developed a variety of scales to categorize skin-picking behavior. These include the Skin-Picking Impact Scale (SPIS), and The Milwaukee Inventory for the Dimensions of Adult Skin-picking. [5] The SPIS was created to measure how skin picking affects the individual socially, behaviorally, and emotionally.[6]


Knowledge about effective treatments for dermatillomania is sparse despite the prevalence of the condition.[5] There are two major classes of therapy for dermatillomania: pharmacological and behavioral.[2]

Individuals with dermatillomania often do not seek treatment for their condition largely due to feelings of embarrassment or belief that the condition cannot be treated. One study found that only 45% of individuals with dermatillomania ever sought treatment and only 19% ever received dermalogical treatment. Another study found that only 30% of individuals with this disorder sought treatment.[2]


There are several different classes of pharmacological treatment agents that have some support for treating dermatillomania: (1) SSRIs; (2) opioid antagonists; and (3) glutamatergic agents.[2] In addition to these classes of drugs, some other pharmacological products have been tested in small trials as well.

SSRIs have shown to be effective in the treatment of OCD and this has provided an argument in favor of treating dermatillomania with the same therapy. Unfortunately, the clinical studies have not provided clear support for this, because there have not been large double-blind placebo-controlled trials of SSRI therapy for dermatillomania.[2][5] Review of treatment with SSRIs of dermatillomania have shown that the following may be effective in reducing picking behavior: doxepin, clomipramine, naltrexone, pimozide, and olanzapine.[5] Small studies of fluoxetine, an SSRI, in treating dermatillomania showed that the drug reduced certain aspects of skin picking, as compared to placebo, but full remission was not observed.[2] One small study of patients with dermatillomania treated with citalopram, another SSRI, showed that those that took the drug significantly reduced their scores on the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale compared to placebo, but that there was no significant decrease on the visual-analog scale of picking behavior.[2]

While there have been no human studies of opioid antagonists for the treatment of dermatillomania, there have been studies showing that these products can reduce self-chewing in dogs with acral lick, which some have proposed is a good animal model for dermatillomania.[2] Furthermore, there have been case reports that support the use of these opioid antagonists to treat dermatillomania.[2] Opioid antagonists work by affecting dopamine circuitry, thereby decreasing the pleasurable effects of picking.[2]

Another class of possible pharmacological treatments are glutamatergic agents such as n-acetyl cysteine (NAC). These products have shown some ability to reduce other problematic behaviors such as cocaine addiction and trichotillomania.[2] Some case studies and some small studies of NAC have shown a decrease in dermatillomania by treatment with NAC, as compared to placebo.[2]

Topiramate, an anti-epileptic drug, has been used to treat dermatillomania; in a small study of individuals with Prader–Willi syndrome, it was found to reduce skin-picking behavior. [5]


Behavioral treatments include habit reversal training, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acceptance-enhanced behavior therapy.[2][4]

Several studies have showed that habit reversal training associated with awareness training reduces skin-picking behavior in those individuals with dermatillomania that do not have psychological disabilities.[5] Habit reversal training can included awareness enhancement and competing response training.[5] For example, in one study the competing response training required participants to make a closed fist for one minute instead of picking or in response to condition that usually provokes picking behavior.[5]

Behavorial treatments in developmentally disabled

There are several different behavioral interventions that have been tested to treat dermatillomania in the developmentally disabled.

One treatment method is to have individuals wear a form of protective clothing that limits the ability of the patient to pick at his body, e.g., gloves or face mask.[5]

Other behavioral treatments attempt to change behavior through providing different incentives. Under Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), a patient is rewarded if manages to abstain from the picking behavior for a certain amount of time.[5]. In contrast to DRO, Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior (DRI) rewards an individual for engaging in a alternative behavior that cannot physically occur at the same time as the problem behavior (e.g. sitting on your hands instead of picking at your skin).[5] Lastly, differential reinforcement of alternative behavior rewards behavior that is not necessarily incompatible with the target behavior but serves the same function as the target behavior (e.g., providing people with a competing behavior to occupy their time instead of skin picking).[5]

Another form of behavioral approach is to use punishment. This can either be verbal punishment, by telling the person no when they did the activity, or physical punishment, by making them do arm exercises, or spraying water at them when they engage in picking behavior.[5].

All of these techniques have been reported to have some success in small studies, but none has been tested in large enough population to provide definitive evidence of their effectiveness.[5]


Individuals with dermatillomania find that the disorder interferes with daily life. Plagued by shame, embarrassment, and humiliation, they may take measures to hide their disorder by not leaving home, wearing long sleeves and pants in summer, or covering visible damage to skin with cosmetics and/or bandages. Activities such as typing may be painful for those who pick at their fingers or hands.[citation needed]


The prevalence of dermatillomania is not well understood.[2]

Estimates of prevalence of the condition range from 1.4 to 5.4% in the general population. One U.S. telephone survey found that 16.6% of respondents "picked their skin to the point of noticeable tissue damage" and that 1.4% would qualify as meeting the requirements of dermatillomania. Another community survey found a rate of 5.4% had dermatillomania. A survey of college students found a rate of 4%.[2] One study found that among non-disabled adults, 63% of individuals engaged in some form of skin picking and 5.4% engaged in serious skin picking.[5] Lastly, a survey of dermatology patients found that 2% suffered from dermatillomania.[2]

Dermatillomania generally begins in individuals at one of either two periods: early adolescence or sometime between the ages of 30 to 45. Additionally, many cases of dermatillomania have been documented to begin in children under the age of 10. One small survey of patients with dermatillomania found that 47.5% of them had an early onset of dermatillomania that began before age 10.[2]

Dermatillomania is more common in females than in males.[2][4]

Dermatillomania has a high rate of comorbidity with other psychiatric conditions. One survey of patients with dermatillomania found that 56.7% also had a DSM-IV Axis-I disorder and 38% had alcohol- or drug-abuse problems.[2] Studies have shown the following rates of psychiatric conditions found in patients with dermatillomania: trichotillomania (38.3%), substance abuse (38%), major depressive disorder (approximately 31.7% to 58.1%), anxiety disorders (approximately 23% to 56%), obsessive-compulsive disorder (approximately 16.7% to 68%), and body dysmorphic disorder (approximately 26.8% to 44.9%).[2] There are also higher rates of dermatillomania in patients in psychiatric facilities; a study of adolescent psychiatric inpatients found that dermatillomania was present in 11.8% of patients.[2] It is also present at high rates with some other conditions: 44.9% of patients with body dysmorphic disorder also have dermatillomania; 8.9% of patients with OCD have dermatillomania; and 8.3% of patients with trichotillomania have dermatillomania.[2]

Skin picking is also common in those with certain developmental disabilities; for example, Prader–Willi syndrome and Smith–Magenis syndrome.[5] Studies have shown that 85% of people with Prader–Willi syndrome also engage in skin-picking.[5] Children with developmental disabilities are also at an increased risk for dermatillomania.[5]

Dermatillomania also correlates with "social, occupational, and academic impairments, increased medical and mental health concerns (including anxiety, depression, obsessive–compulsive disorder) ... and financial burden ... "[5]

Substance abuse is often present, and individuals with dermatillomania are twice as likely to have first-degree relatives who have substance-abuse disorders (alcohol or drugs) than those without the condition.[2]


The first known mention of dermatillomania in the print can be found in 1898 by the French dermatologist Brocq, describing an adolescent female patient who had uncontrolled picking of acne.[2][7]

Dermatillomania in the media

Dermatillomania has been the subject of several episodes of Obsessed, a television documentary series that focuses on treatment of anxiety disorders.

See also

  • Body-focused repetitive behavior
  • Morgellons
  • Onychophagia


  1. ^ Feusner JD, Hembacher E, Phillips KA (September 2009). "The mouse who couldn't stop washing: pathologic grooming in animals and humans". CNS Spectr 14 (9): 503–13. PMC 2853748. PMID 19890232. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax Odlaug BL, Grant JE (September 2010). "Pathologic skin picking". Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse 36 (5): 296–303. doi:10.3109/00952991003747543. PMID 20575652. 
  3. ^ Roncero C, Rodríguez-Urrutia A, Grau-López L, Casas M (2009). "Antiepileptic drugs in the control of the impulses disorders". Actas Esp Psiquiatr 37 (4): 205–12. PMID 19927233. 
  4. ^ a b c d e * Dell'Osso B, Altamura AC, Allen A, Marazziti D, Hollander E (December 2006). "Epidemiologic and clinical updates on impulse control disorders: a critical review". Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 256 (8): 464–75. doi:10.1007/s00406-006-0668-0. PMC 1705499. PMID 16960655. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Lang R, Didden R, Machalicek W, et al. (2010). "Behavioral treatment of chronic skin-picking in individuals with developmental disabilities: a systematic review". Res Dev Disabil 31 (2): 304–15. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2009.10.017. PMID 19963341. 
  6. ^ Keuthen NJ, Deckersbach T, Wilhelm S, et al. (2001). "The Skin Picking Impact Scale (SPIS): scale development and psychometric analyses". Psychosomatics 42 (5): 397–403. PMID 11739906. 
  7. ^ Brocq ML (1898). "L’acne excoriee des jeunes filles et son traitement. (Acne excoriee of young women and their treatment)". Journal des Practiciens, Revue Generale de Clinique et de Therapeutique 12: 193–197. 

Further reading

  • Grant JE, Odlaug BL (August 2009). "Update on pathological skin picking". Curr Psychiatry Rep 11 (4): 283–8. PMID 19635236. 
  • Singer HS (2011). "Stereotypic movement disorders". Handb Clin Neurol 100: 631–9. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-52014-2.00045-8. PMID 21496612. 
  • Stein DJ, Grant JE, Franklin ME, et al. (June 2010). "Trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder), skin picking disorder, and stereotypic movement disorder: toward DSM-V". Depress Anxiety 27 (6): 611–26. doi:10.1002/da.20700. PMID 20533371. 

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