I know that one golden rule of skin care is to not — under any circumstances — touch or pick at your face. But that’s like saying not drinking is the solution to hangovers: I’m going to do it anyway. After years of practice (and some advice from dermatologists), I’ve finally figured out how to heal after skin picking to ensure my wound repairs itself as quickly and as seamlessly as possible.
My skin picking habit has been exacerbated during the pandemic (I have four mirrors in my apartment) — but I’m not the only one who’s been dealing with this condition. “With the pandemic, there has been an uptick in stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions,” says Dr. Rachel Nazarian MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. “I have noticed more patients reflecting their anxiety through picking at their skin.” A recent study even found that people with skin picking disorder have experienced a significant increase in their bad habit during COVID (due to stress and anxiety).
Though having skin picking disorder (also called excoriation disorder) is a subset of a larger class of obsessive compulsive-adjacent body-focused repetitive behaviors, or BFRBs, you don’t have to have the condition in order to be tempted to mess with your zits or pop your pimples. Nazarian says the rise of maskne has led to more skin picking. It’s a vicious cycle: You wear a mask, your skin revolts with more lesions on your face, and you pick them. And then it restarts.
Doing this, of course, isn’t healthy to your complexion and even prolongs the time it takes for the spot to go away. “When you pick at your skin, you disrupt the normal healing process and introduce bacteria from your hands or fingernails to the skin,” says Dr. Morgan Rabach, MD, a dermatologist at LM Medical in NYC. “This can lead to infection, scarring, open wounds, discoloration, and tissue damage.”
Basically, messing with my skin is at odds with achieving the luminous complexion of my dreams. So to balance my habit (until I can kick it, at least), I do a lot of damage control — as such, I have wisdom to impart. This is my regimen for healing from skin picking wounds, which dermatologists have backed me up on.
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Step 1: Apply A Pimple Patch
Take a second and assess the damage. Once you identify the zits that are still slightly red, tender, and inflamed, put some Hero Pimple Patches on those. These are helpful because they act as a protective barrier that prevent you from further touching or picking at the affected area, says Ju Rhyu, co-founder of Hero Cosmetics. Plus, the hydrocolloid — aka the wound dressing that’s often found in pimple patches — also works to heal your pimple. “The patches absorb the gunk from the breakout, which helps speed up the recovery process,” she tells Bustle. Any hydrocolloid acne patch should do the trick.
Step 2: Layer On A Gentle Cream
Now it’s time to layer on a very plain moisturizer — nothing with fragrance or strong active ingredients like retinol or hydroquinone. On a good day those ingredients can be intense, so it’s best to avoid them so you don’t further irritate or inflame your skin. Personally, I like the First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream. It’s packed with skin-soothing ingredients like oatmeal (think of your childhood chicken pock baths) and allantoin, which is great for calming and repairing your skin barrier. Just avoid applying it on your pimple patches as the moisture can cause them to slide off.
At this point I will also use a glycolic acid-based serum on any older spots (I love the Hero Cosmetics Lightning Wand) to help even out my skin. Don’t apply it on your new wounds, though: “[Glycolic acid] will help fade dark spots once the picked spot is healed, but shouldn’t be used on open skin,” says Rabach. That’s because it can cause further irritation to sensitive, raw skin, she explains.
Step 3: Use Anti-Inflammatory Products The Next Day
The morning after the picking, I go about my usual routine with a few added steps. I start with toner — I prefer the First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads, which have lactic and glycolic acids while managing to still be gentle on sensitive skin thanks to ingredients like aloe and cucumber. Look for any toner that has gentle exfoliants (like the chemical-based duo above) along with nourishing, anti-inflammatory essentials — besides aloe and cucumber, oat extract, chamomile, and turmeric are also great.
Next up is a dark spot-targeted skin treatment: the Topicals Faded Gel. I apply a thin layer of this and really work into my skin to avoid any pilling. The serum is formulated with three star ingredients: Rabach says the kojic acid and azelaic acid both “help reduce pigmentation in damaged skin,” while the niacinamide helps “reduce redness and irritation.”
An important thing I learned too late in life is that you can really mitigate the damage of a healing picked pimple by keeping it moist at all times. Rabach says this is important, as keeping your wound moisturized ensures it doesn’t crack and lead to further scarring. Her tip? Look for a product that contains vitamin E in the formula, an antioxidant that also delivers hydration. I apply the Hero Cosmetics Rescue Balm very generously all over my face, but avoid any zits that are still inflamed — on those, I’ll apply fresh pimple patches to keep them protected.
The spots will be red and discolored for one to two weeks, according to Rabach. In the meantime, I hide the discoloration with Dr. Jart's Cicapair Color Correcting Treatment. Its star ingredient, cica, neutralizes redness and soothes inflammation. This particular product also provides SPF protection, which, of course, is always important.
For me, this regimen effectively gives my skin TLC as it heals... and that’ll have to do until I kick the habit once and for all.
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Dr. Rachel Nazarian MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City
Dr. Morgan Rabach, MD, a dermatologist at LM Medical in NYC
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