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Can Skin Picking Cause Cancer?

  • Post category:Skin Care
  • Post last modified:May 22, 2024
  • Reading time:12 mins read

Skin picking, also known as dermatillomania or excoriation disorder, is a condition characterized by the repetitive picking of one’s own skin, often leading to tissue damage, infections, and scarring. This behavior can be driven by various psychological factors, including stress, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. A common concern among individuals with this disorder is whether skin picking can lead to more serious conditions, such as skin cancer. This article explores the relationship between skin picking and skin cancer, examining the potential risks and providing insights into the condition.

Skin Picking Disorder

Skin picking disorder is a body-focused repetitive behavior (BFRB) that involves the compulsive picking, pulling, or tearing of healthy skin, pimples, blisters, or scabs. It is often associated with other mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) . The disorder can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, leading to physical, emotional, and social impairments.

Symptoms and Effects

The primary symptom of skin picking disorder is the recurrent picking of skin, resulting in skin lesions. Individuals with this condition may experience significant distress and impairment in their daily lives due to visible injuries and the psychological burden of the behavior. Common effects include:

  • Skin Damage: Repeated picking can cause open sores, bleeding, bruising, and scarring. In severe cases, the damage may require medical intervention, such as skin grafting or antibiotic treatment for infections .
  • Psychological Impact: The visible injuries often lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, and social isolation. This can exacerbate underlying mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
  • Medical Complications: Infections from skin picking can spread and lead to serious conditions like sepsis, a life-threatening immune system overreaction.

The Link Between Skin Picking and Skin Cancer

A common question among those with skin picking disorder is whether this behavior can lead to skin cancer. The short answer is that there is no direct link between skin picking and the development of skin cancer. However, understanding the nature of skin cancer and the potential risks associated with skin picking can provide a clearer picture.

What is Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer arises from the abnormal growth of skin cells, often due to DNA damage that leads to mutations. The three main types of skin cancer are:

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC): This type grows slowly and is unlikely to spread to distant areas. It often appears as a painless raised area of skin that may be shiny with small blood vessels running over it or as a raised area with an ulcer.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC): More likely to spread than BCC, SCC usually presents as a hard lump with a scaly top or as an ulcer. It can develop in areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, hands, and arms.
  • Melanoma: The most aggressive form of skin cancer, melanoma can develop from moles that change in size, shape, or color. It is characterized by irregular edges, multiple colors, itching, or bleeding .

Can Skin Picking Lead to Skin Cancer?

Research indicates that there is no causative link between skin picking and skin cancer. Skin picking does not cause cancer, nor does it increase the risk of developing cancer. The primary risks associated with skin picking are related to infections, scarring, and psychological distress, rather than cancer.

Potential Risks and Complications

While skin picking itself does not cause cancer, the behavior can lead to other serious health issues that require attention.


Frequent picking can cause open wounds that are susceptible to bacterial infections. In severe cases, these infections can spread and lead to conditions such as sepsis, which is a medical emergency. Infections can also cause significant tissue damage, requiring medical treatment and potentially leading to permanent scarring.

Scarring and Disfigurement

Chronic skin picking can result in extensive scarring and disfigurement, which can have a profound impact on an individual’s self-esteem and mental health. The visible scars may lead to social withdrawal and increased anxiety or depression.

Psychological Impact

The psychological burden of skin picking disorder is significant. Individuals often experience feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment due to their visible injuries. This can lead to social isolation and exacerbate existing mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Treatment and Management

Effective treatment for skin picking disorder typically involves a combination of therapy and medication. The goal is to address the underlying psychological factors and reduce the compulsion to pick.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a common and effective treatment for skin picking disorder. It helps individuals understand the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to their picking and teaches them healthier coping mechanisms. Specific techniques within CBT, such as Habit Reversal Training (HRT) and the Comprehensive Behavioral Model (ComB), have shown success in reducing skin picking behaviors.


Medications, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are often used to treat skin picking disorder. These medications can help reduce obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. In some cases, other medications, such as N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and anti-seizure drugs like lamotrigine, may also be effective.

Self-Care and Support

Individuals with skin picking disorder can benefit from self-care strategies and support from healthcare professionals and loved ones. Keeping the skin clean, using moisturizers, and avoiding triggers can help manage the condition. Support groups and organizations, such as the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, provide resources and community support for those affected by the disorder.


While skin picking disorder can lead to significant physical and psychological complications, there is no evidence to suggest that it causes skin cancer. The primary risks associated with skin picking are related to infections, scarring, and the psychological impact of the behavior. Effective treatment, including therapy and medication, can help individuals manage their condition and improve their quality of life. If you or someone you know is struggling with skin picking disorder, seeking professional help is crucial to address the underlying issues and prevent further complications.


What happens if you pick your skin too much?

Excessive skin picking can lead to significant physical and emotional consequences. Physically, it can cause sores, scars, infections, and even severe tissue damage that may require medical intervention. Emotionally, it can result in feelings of shame, guilt, and social isolation, as individuals may try to hide the visible damage with clothing or makeup and avoid social interactions due to embarrassment.

How to stop obsessive skin-picking?

To stop obsessive skin picking, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), particularly habit reversal training (HRT), is effective. This therapy helps individuals become aware of their triggers and develop alternative behaviors. Other strategies include keeping hands busy with stress balls, wearing gloves, and using moisturizers. Medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may also be prescribed to help manage the condition.

Is skin picking a disorder?

Yes, skin picking is a recognized mental health disorder known as excoriation disorder or dermatillomania. It is classified under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The disorder is characterized by repetitive skin picking that leads to tissue damage and significant distress or impairment in daily functioning.

What is skin picking disorder and how is it treated?

Skin picking disorder, or excoriation disorder, involves compulsive picking at one’s skin, causing damage and distress. Treatment typically includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), especially habit reversal training (HRT), and sometimes medications like SSRIs. These treatments help individuals manage their urges and develop healthier coping mechanisms. In severe cases, a combination of therapy and medication is often most effective.

What are the symptoms of skin-picking disorder?

Symptoms of skin picking disorder include recurrent skin picking that results in lesions, repeated attempts to stop the behavior, and significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning. Individuals may pick at healthy skin, minor skin irregularities, or scabs, often using fingers, nails, or tools like tweezers. The behavior can lead to physical damage and emotional distress.