How I’m Coping With Coronavirus As An Anxious Skin Picker

Photographed by Sarah Harry-Isaacs.
When health guidelines for protecting yourself from coronavirus were first released, I studied them carefully. Increase hand-washing? No bother. Self-isolate if you have any symptoms? Will do. But there was one thing on the list that I knew would be near impossible: Stop touching your face.

As a side effect of my generalized anxiety disorder, I aggressively scratch and pick at my skin, a medical condition known as dermatillomania. It often bears the unpleasant feeling of not being able to stop; often, individuals with the condition do it subconsciously. Every day, usually without being aware, I claw at my forehead, jawline, or back until my skin bleeds; I rub and pick at the skin of my lips until it hurts to eat or drink anything hot. It is an obsessive habit.

I'm not alone. Studies suggest that between 1.4% and 5.4% of people are affected by dermatillomania to varying degrees, and with an unpredictable and stressful situation like the COVID-19 outbreak, it is likely that there will be many of us scratching, touching, or otherwise messing with our skin as we try to process our nerves. Because it's vital that we avoid touching our face during this time in particular, I asked Dr. Susan Mayou, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic, how best to avoid it.
In Dr. Mayou's opinion, it's important to form new habits. She recommends using sensory tools such as stress balls, or even jade rollers (which must be regularly disinfected) for their cooling and therapeutic properties. Popping something like bubble wrap is also proven to help some patients, while Dr. Mayou suggests distraction tactics. "The pressure point in the webbing between your thumb and index finger not only relieves anxiety but forces hands away from the face," she says. "Massage this pressure point every time you have an urge to pick or touch your face, lips, or eyes."
The skin on your cheeks, chin, and forehead is an easy target, and if your skin is dry, you may be more inclined to pick at any flakiness. Dr. Mayou says that a good skin-care regimen is essential in helping manage underlying skin concerns like this — and it all starts with cleanser. Dr. Mayou recommends Bioderma Sensibio H2O micellar water for a first cleanse. "This is great for dry or sensitive skin and gently removes makeup without irritation," she says.
If even cleansing your skin with your hands is likely to trigger your scratching or picking, Dr. Mayou recommends using a gentle facial brush. "A facial brush is good for helping to cleanse the skin," she says. "A small face stimulator will enable you to touch your face without picking at the skin and without causing trauma. It also may be a good distraction technique."
As patches of dry, flaky skin are ripe for picking, it might be time to invest in a targeted skin treatment, which acts like a barrier to hands. Dr. Mayou suggests using La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm AP+. "This is a great product for dry, itchy, or irritated skin," she says. If you're tempted to paw at your skin, apply a little wherever you need it, whether that's on your face or body. Dr. Mayou advises concentrating it to any areas that flare up or that you’re particularly prone to picking.
If you're prone to breakouts, you'll know just how tempting it is to pick at your skin, but this will only lead to scarring or dark spots, which are both difficult to minimize. For those with particularly oily skin, Dr. Mayou recommends Bioderma Sébium Purifying Cleansing Foaming Gel, to be used daily. If you've already formed open scars or spots, you may need to consider topical antibiotic creams that your dermatologist can prescribe. "It's important for any infection or inflammation to be cleared first," Dr. Mayou says.
You can also help yourself by keeping your nails in good condition — Dr. Mayou advises keeping nails short and trimming or filing them regularly. Ensure you clean under the nails with a nail brush using soap and warm water, and try not to bite your nails or remove the cuticles. If quitting scratching altogether seems impossible, you may want to consider a more drastic approach, like wearing gloves. "Gloved fingers are much more gentle than sharp fingernails and act as a reminder not to touch or pick," Dr. Mayou says.
If rubbing your eyes is your biggest problem, loading on the mascara is a simple fix. "Wearing statement eye makeup may make you less willing to touch around the eyes," Dr. Mayou says. If your issue is dry, itchy eyes, invest in some eye drops to relieve irritation and minimize the urge to touch them.
Dr. Mayou also endorses deploying similar tactics for lips. "Apply a thick, sticky, glassy coloured lip gloss or balm — it's unlikely you'll want this to transfer." Of course, keeping lips smooth is the first step to discouraging picking. "Remove dead skin with a sugar scrub or even with your toothbrush and apply a good-quality lip conditioner, such as Dr. PawPaw Original Multipurpose Balm," Dr. Mayou says. "If lips are not dry or chapped, you may feel less inclined to pick at them." And the next time you're tempted to pick, just think: These prevention tactics will also leave you with smoother lips and clearer skin in the long run.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.
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