I Pick at My Skin When I’m Stressed—Here’s How to Undo The Damage, According to Derms
Confession: I’m a recovering skin picker. It’s bad, I know—any dermatologist will tell you that picking your skin is a major skin health no-no, but when I’m really stressed out, I just can’t help myself. My hands will almost always end up on my forehead, feeling around for even the smallest bump or blemish to squeeze into oblivion. And in the event that there’s an actual pimple to pick at, it’s never enough to just pop it and walk away. Instead, I’ll pick, squeeze, poke and prod until I’ve turned what would’ve been a minor blemish (gone in a few days tops) into a gnarly wound that’ll be on my face for a week plus. The original tiny spot is now a crater surrounded by swaths of angry, swollen skin. TLDR: stress picking at your face never ends well, but it happens.
Now, I’ve personally picked at my skin enough times to know that once you’ve reached the point of no return (the one where you look in the mirror and immediately regret what you’ve done to your face), the best thing to do is drop your hands (wash them immediately), and do damage control. But caring for skin after stress picking is not the same as caring for it pre-blemish—so we asked dermatologists for the best course of action.
Use gentle cleansers + toners
“The best thing to do is to wash the area with a gentle cleanser to prevent the area from getting infected,” explains Ramya Garlapati, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Miami—and this CeraVe cleanser is as gentle as it gets. The creamy, non-foaming formula leaves skin feeling clean, but not stripped, and doesn’t leave a film behind. It’s chock full of barrier-boosting ceramides to help replenish and heal sensitized skin and hyaluronic acid to help retain moisture. Plus, devoid of any potent actives or fragrances that can further irritate the skin after stress picking.
When my skin is in recovery mode post-stress picking, I press pause on all of my active, exfoliating toners and use Futurewise Slug Boost instead. Not only does it contain dermatologists’ holy grail humectant ingredient—glycerin—it’s also full of other hydration heroes like hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid, and squalane. Together, the ingredients make up a replenishing skin-care cocktail that keeps skin moisturized and balanced as it heals, and primes it for the following steps in your skincare routine. For the full slugging effect, go in with Futurewise’s Slug Cream next while your skin is still damp.
Use a soothing moisturizer
Shereene Idriss, MD, board-certified dermatologist, founder of Idriss Dermatology in NYC, and creator of the #PillowtalkDerm series on Instagram says a glycerin-based moisturizer is a must when caring for skin post-stress picking.
“Glycerin is a superstar and my personal favorite humectant that keeps the skin lipids between our skin cells in a healthy state which will help restore your skin’s barrier,” she explains. “Additionally, at relatively high concentrations, it has the ability to lower the density of bacteria in wounds, decreasing the risk of developing an infection.”
Dr. Idriss says Aveeno’s Calm and Restore Moisturizer is one of her favorites, because “it combines glycerin with oatmeal and panthenol, two key ingredients that help soothe and nourish the skin to help it heal better.”
This Krave Beauty water cream has a simple, no-frills formula that’s exactly what sensitized skin needs after a bout of picking. The star ingredient is oatmeal extract, which “is very soothing and helps improve the redness and inflammation,” says Audrey Kunin MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of DERMADoctor. Oatmeal works alongside trehalose (a water-binding plant sugar) and squalane to gently hydrate skin while soothing redness and irritation brought on by picking. What’s more, the featherlight texture absorbs like a dream, and won’t overwhelm oily or combination skin types.
Use an ointment to support healing
Beloved by beauty fans on TikTok, La Roche Posay’s best-selling Cicaplast Baume B5 isn’t only a must-have for ‘French girl slugging,’ it’s also key for soothing and nourishing skin after stress picking to support better healing. According to Dr. Idriss, the multipurpose, glycerin-powered ointment is the perfect combination of moisturizing and calming ingredients—making it exactly what sensitized skin needs after picking. “It’s formulated with Centella Asiatica, which is traditionally used to improve small wounds and is a known anti-inflammatory agent. It also has panthenol and shea butter which will help restore your skin’s barrier.”
When your skin is already raw and angry after picking, an acne-fighting spot treatment is not the answer. Instead, Dr. Kunin recommends using a Polysporin ointment on the affected area. The antibiotic ointment uses bacitracin zinc and polymyxin B sulfate to help prevent infection and speed up the healing process. Plus, it’s probably already in your home first aid kit.
Because skin is dehydrated during the healing process, it can trigger excess collagen production and lead to scarring. Because of this, “keeping the wound moist with an ointment allows for a better cosmetic outcome when healing and can reduce scarring,” says Dr. Garlapati. She recommends a petrolatum-based ointment because it forms a protective barrier over injured skin which “reduces the rate of water loss through the skin” and sets the stage for better healing.
Her petroleum-based ointment of choice is Cerave’s Healing Ointment. It’s fragrance-free, approved by the National Eczema Association, and is infused with skin-loving ceramides and hyaluronic acid for added benefits.
Use a patch
“If you are a picker and just can’t help yourself, cover it up with a patch to stop yourself from picking,” says Dr. Idriss. Hero Cosmetics’ Mighty Patch uses medical-grade hydrocolloid to effectively pull the gunk out of pimples and help them heal, making them your first line of defense against stress picking. The sticky patches shield sensitized, picked-at skin from germs to minimize scabbing and scarring brought on by popping, while saving you from the very real urge to pick at blemishes further.
One thing I constantly forget about every time I stress-pick is the shame that sticks around for days while I wait for my handy work to heal. Starface’s hydrocolloid pimple patches take that out of the equation entirely thanks to their playful star shape that you’ll be proud to wear while out and about. Beyond the joy-inducing aesthetic, these patches’ unique shape actually helps them cling onto skin more effectively so they can reduce inflammation, protect skin from bacteria, and speed up the healing process. And did we mention they come in a refillable compact?
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