This is something I’ve never spoken about before. I’ve never even really faced up to it. Because it’s disgusting and I don’t know why I do it.
Please don’t judge me.
I’ve been so nervous about sharing this and am perhaps risking losing loads of readers and followers on my social channels.
It’s not something I think about doing, I don’t have conscious thoughts about eating skin.
I don’t think, Mmmmm, I’ll just dine on a nice meal of flakes and scabs’, anyone? Ironically a dish I could actually prepare in my current Topical Steroid Withdrawal (TSW) state.
I often don’t even know I’m doing it. I become aware when I sense the skin flake or scab in my mouth and often spit them out. But sometimes I only realise when I’ve been doing it for ages.
And for the record, in my head, I find eating flakes preferable to scabs. Eating scabs feels more wrong. Don’t ask me to explain that one.
Excoriation or dermatillomania
So what is it that I’m doing? Is this a recognised condition? I found myself late one night typing into google, “Why do I eat my own skin flakes and scabs?” and of course there it was. It has names, well the picking bit does. Excoriation and Dermatillomania refer to when a person repetitively picks their skin.
Pica – eating non food substances
Pica is when people feel a compulsion to eat stuff that’s not food! For instance, some will crave coal or eat things like chalk or brick dust. They often don’t know why they’re doing it but it can be a sign of some underlying condition, like a vitamin deficiency or other illness. The body knows it needs something but doesn’t generate the correct response to fix the problem.
But if my skin is in good condition I don’t even think about it. It doesn’t happen when my skin is clear and healed. So have I got these conditions?
And where did this shameful habit come from? and more importantly, how do I stop it?
Because most of the time it happens at night, and I don’t even know I’m doing it. It ends up as part of some frenzied dream place where the picking and eating of flakes or scabs is all wrapped up in something I have to do in the dream, like escape from somewhere, find someone or something or just that I need to harvest and clean the skin of any irregularity. I hate it, but I do it without thinking.
So I have been trying to understand whether perhaps there was a reason I started to do this and maybe I can help myself to stop.
Why do people eat skin and scabs?
Healthline explains: Picking and eating scabs can have multiple underlying causes. Sometimes, a person may pick at their skin and not even notice they’re doing it. Other times it’s a coping mechanism to deal with other issues such as:
- Anxiety (me)
- Anger (sometimes also me)
- Sadness (sadly sometimes me)
- Itchy (YES ME!)
- Self grooming (I feel like that’s what I’m trying to do)
- As a response to serious episodes of stress or tension (definitely me)
- From boredom or habit (boredom – no never. Habit? Yup!)
- A genetic family history of the condition
Although eating scabs is not harmful, obsessively picking at the skin can cause permanent discoloration and scarring. I don’t really do this, I don’t gnaw at my skin or pick and dig at it until it becomes infected and damaged. I do however, sometimes pick a scab that’s not ready to be picked but for me, that’s a sign to stop picking.
It’s as if I don’t like the scabs and skin building up under my nails somehow and have to remove them. And at night, if I’m in this kind of dream job of having to pick and eat, it’s a way of knowing whether my job is done… if there are no scabs of flakes detectable in the dark stuck under my fingernails, then my job is done and I can stop.
I know it’s gross – don’t judge me.
I don’t eat my boogers – I have standards!
But why would I see eating bogies as unacceptable and yet continue to eat flakes and scabs?
It’s like I feel relieved when I’ve done the picking and feasting but quite quickly feel shame and guilt. I know it’s not something that’s socially acceptable and I should stop. But I can’t!
Again from the brilliant Healthline website: Picking and eating skin can scabs are described as repetitive skin picking disorders or as body-focused repetitive behaviours (BFRBs). They occur when a person picks their skin repeatedly and often has urges and thoughts of picking at the skin, including picking scabs. Other examples include repetitive hair pulling and eating or picking one’s nails.
Now I’m not aware of urges to do this, but it’s definitely developed into a habit. I know these can be broken so I’m actively working on analysing this behaviour and trying to put into place more acceptable ways of dealing with what’s going on. If I can stop picking altogether that would be amazing, but for me I think it comes from being very itchy which is not something I can stop from happening. I only pick because I’m itchy and excessively flaky. I can leave scabs sometimes and am working on doing this as I know the skin heals better if the scab is left to do its job.
But when you are experiencing TSW the scabs and flakes are profusely appearing and shedding. It’s not like a normal scabbing situation.
Skin picking and scab eating is OCD
It would appear that my skin picking habit and compulsion to eat skin flakes and scabs is listed under “obsessive compulsive and related disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 (DSM-V). This is the manual that psychiatrists use to diagnose medical disorders.
I would never have previously classed myself as having OCD.
However, I do remember, as a child, I was told that I used to pull out my hair and eat it, which caused problems with compacted stools. I’m not sure how this was dealt with – probably just being told not to. Over time I guess being told not to do something harmful and shameful and warned of the serious consequences of something must have worked. I’ve no memory of doing it.
Is skin picking and eating skin bad for you?
The simple answer is yes! It is very bad for you!
- It can lead to scarring, infections and non-healing sores. I’m not sure this is the case for me, but if the compulsion is always there and impossible to stop it’s easy to see how this could develop into a very real problem.
- It can also spread viruses, disease and food poisoning, amongst other things. The less you touch your mouth and put your fingers near your mouth the better.
- We are in a pandemic after all… Another reason to stop!
- It’s also a very disgusting and anti-social habit. If you ever see me doing it please slap me! I’m kind of joking, I feel that berating someone with severe eczema when they scratch is unkind and unnecessary, but this eating business… urgh… it’s got to stop!
There isn’t much to say in favour of continuing this habit but I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I’m clearly doing it as some kind of self-soothing or in reaction to anxiety or irritation. For the moment I’m just letting it be, noticing whey I do it and being OK with it. Over time hopefully we can work on reducing the incidents!
How can you treat scab eating?
There are few ways of treating this condition:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT. I’ve done this before in therapy so I can see how this might help. I’ve started to look at this for myself, staring with observing and accepting that this is what I’m doing, the first step to reversing the habit.
- Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). I have no experience of this one myself so need to do some research. There are four key areas you would work through:
- mindfulness – understanding the triggers that make you pick, accepting them and observing when it happens
- emotion regulation – by identifying these triggers and emotions that make you pick and eat, you can try to change how you see this experience, how it makes you feel and what actions you could take.
- distress tolerance – learning to accept the urge and compulsion but no respond to it or give in to the urge to pick and eat.
- interpersonal effectiveness – this can be where family and group therapies can work as people help each other and learn how to support a successful outcome.
I’m not quite sure what the difference between CBT and ABT are but this is now my homework.
I’ve been doing well, not with the stopping picking, but certainly with the not eating. Every little step is one in the right direction. Instead of eating any scabs or flakes I pick I’ve been trying to drop them onto the floor or put them into the bin, sink or a tissue. In the daytime this is easy to do.
There is so much dead skin from the constant TSW shedding that this isn’t bothering me. I hoover the skin up regularly as it’s like a human snow globe in here right now!
However sometimes I’m still finding myself doing it, but I’ve started to recognise it now, to catch myself, and to accept it. And not to beat myself up, just to ask myself, do I need to do that right now?
It apparently takes 60 days to break a habit so let’s see how I get on with this one.
I plan to explore getting some therapy for this too as it could be really helpful and give me some tactics and techniques that I’d not thought of before.
The nutritional value of skin and scabs
And yes, I googled this too. The answer is nothing.
Not even fibre. There is absolutely no benefit or logical reason to do this.
Just thought I’d share that little bit of google trivia because I know you were all wondering… NOT!
Do you pick and eat your scabs?
If you think you have this condition too, there is a online resource where you can go to get help. Check out The TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviours.
I will also be journaling and following my own journey so watch out for updates… and apologies if this has completely grossed you out…
I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts on this fascinating addiction!
Deborah Massey says
Hi Ruth, I too am a picker and eater and have been for as long as I can remember ( I am now 70 years old )
My arms are full of scars so that I cannot remember the last time I wore short sleeves for the shame of it. It has taken me 6 decades to work out why I do this and fairly recently an old memory flashed into my brain. You see, I was sexually abused as a child, It went on for about 7 years One day at the height of the abuse I distinctly remember thinking that if I was ugly, scabby and horrible to look at/touch the culprit would leave me alone. I don’t remember consciously deciding to make myself ugly…. but I do remember lots of times as a teenager young adult picking away at a scab and getting a lot of satisfaction from knowing I was getting ugly. Perhaps a form of self harm ??? Trauma response ??? I don’t know, but at my age now I don’t think I will ever stop.
Ruth Holroyd says
Hi Deborah, thank you so much for sharing this story and I’m so sorry to hear that you went through abuse as a child. Trauma and anxiety seem to be two key reasons why this skin picking and eating response may begin. I do remember at school being ashamed of skin flaking off, landing on the table or under my nails if I scratched. I think perhaps I was trying to hide the flakes by eating them. I really don’t know. But it has been a secret activity for as long as I can remember, but now in TSW with so many flakes I’ve become acutely aware of it. I don’t think I do it at all or think about it when my skin is healed, so for me I think the itching, discomfort and feeling of tight flaking skin or worrying about the flakes triggers it for me. Since sharing this I haven’t picked or eating a scab! Interesting how a problem shared is a problem halved and it even now feels less shameful and less of a hold over me. I think I can conquer this one. But it seems to be quite normal. I’ve had so many comments over on Instagram about, many private messages too from other secret flake and scab eaters. Who knew it was such a common thing to do yet none of us have ever spoken of it to another human being before. Fascinating. I hope this hasn’t brought up difficult memories for you. xxx thanks so much for the comment.
Hi I’m Anjali, and iv been picking at eating scabs from grade 5 anow now i am in grade 7 going to 8 in 2022. ifeel disgusted and i doint know how i can stop myself i am only 12 omg. its so sad hearing that u have been sexually abused .
would u pls be able to help me without telling my parents??
Ruth Holroyd says
Hi Anjali, this other blog I wrote may help you https://whatallergy.com/2021/07/skin-picking-dermatillomania-excoriation-advice/
Heather Garrette says
Best thing to do Is tell your parents hun. Let them know you need to see a dermatologist and be honest with them if it makes you more comfortable with just you and the dr then express that to them. I know how hard it can be to talk to your parents. I never did either and I’ve suffered from this for a long time myself plus a buttload of other sicknesses. I’m just afraid that if you don’t get the help you need now you may go on doing this like all of us has….do what we all couldn’t do. Be brave. Know you have friends here as well! Keep your head up kiddo!
Ruth Holroyd says
Great advice Heather, it’s always best to share something like this if you want to get help. And if you can’t speak to your parents find another trusted person you can speak to about what to do if you want to stop and how to get help. I think you can reverse skin picking habits with the right therapy.
When i fell a rough on my skin,I look at it and eat it.Don’t know why but i just do it
Ruth Holroyd says
Me too, quite often. Not sure why either. maybe it’s some kind of ancient grooming ritual we get passed down from our ancestors. Or maybe we’re just weird 😉
Heather Garrette says
I do have OCD but I have other factors playing in as well like my health. I have Lupus and RA which have led to a lot of problems. I’ve also had acne issues and it’ll heal then come back. I will use tweezers if I have to but as soon as I get it I feel like I’ve done something great or at least that’s what my mind tells me then when I eat it I savor it…nibbling on it until it is no more. I have mental health issues too. Chronic depression and severe anxiety and bi polar. I’m gonna start seeing my dermatologist again. It’s just I see like 7 specialists and I’m on about 17 or 18 meds a day and I really don’t wanna add more but I know I need help. I won’t leave my house while my face looks this way. I’m ashamed. Then to have family n friends ask “what happened to your face?” …like you can’t tell I’ve been picking. I just want it to stop and clear up. I even bite off all my nails but still find a way.
Ruth Holroyd says
It’s so hard when people call you out and comment on your appearance. It’s something I feel really strongly about, that we should take a second before speaking, because of course we know we shouldn’t be doing it. Right? I’m sorry to hear you have struggling with a lot of things right now. Having read about the spin picking, it can be treated with CBT. I’ve just added a link about to skinpick.com which may help. don’t beat yourself up though. For me I’m trying to find a kinder way to treat my skin, it’s a bit of an obsession but one that damages me. So seeing if I can be kinder to my skin to let it heal with varying success. Good luck.
Thank you for this article. Myself, husband, & child all suffer from dermatrichomania/excoriation syndrome.
Is it weird that I am the worst? I feel I passed it on thru marriage & birth.
Ruth Holroyd says
I wonder if it’s catching! Maybe it’s part of our grooming and mating ritual. Nothing to be ashamed of, and as my skin improves and heals I’ve noticed I do it less. Don’t know why I do it but think it’s some kind of soothing, grooming thing. No one else in my family does it as far as I’m aware. Thanks so much for your comment.
Hi, I’m the same and have 2 son’s that do it too, maybe they saw me doing it, although I have covertly tried to hide it in company in the past and only really do it when I have been alone later in the day. Bedtime was the worst time and during the day I found that if my hands were busy I did not pick at all. I picked when I was daydreaming, planning or contemplating, my hand just goes up automatically like breathing. I understand that it is a behavioural pattern that is familiar and so to break it is to note down when, where, what you’re doing that facilitates it. Eg. I have a magnifying mirror that I use to pluck my eyebrows, but I see too much detail of my skin in it and I have a pair of tweezers, that is a disaster because I have weapon on my facial skin and take myself off to have what I refer to as a picking sesh. So I gave my mirror to my husband to hide and I could only have it if I really needed to pluck my eyebrows within a timed limited before he returned and took the mirror away to hide again, or my adult daughter just plucks my eyebrows for me instead. This actually worked, because I wasn’t allowed to take the time to pick and valued my eyebrows above my skin picking, so far it has worked with helpers. I have tried to be kind to my skin by using body creams to cultivate caring for my skin and because it leaves the skin clammy and slightly greasy it makes it too difficult to pick it. It also makes skin and scars taste horrible and flowery. So I know that changing the routine can quickly alter your familiar routine and start to put a more positive mind pattern in place, it’s just reinforcing it and keeping it up in the very first 14 days that’s extremely difficult, but is definitely possible. Anyway, a brilliant blog Ruth, you are not alone I too have eaten and do eat the odd here and there as I’m learning the hard way to bloody leave myself alone, and I have been like this since I was a child too and I have only just started to wear short sleeves in front of my family members this summer, but there’s still a long way to go. The best thing is to be accountable to someone else and help each other in a pair, possibly a skin picking buddy and lots of self help in heaps, you’ll be amazed what you can achieve! I’m not 100% there yet and don’t believe I will ever be, but if I am 80% of time then I’d be less self conscious and that’s got to be better!
Ruth Holroyd says
Gosh you know what, you’re onto something here. I am very attached to that blasted magnifying mirror… It’s not my friend… LOL. I live alone so it’s hard to really time or limit things. I have found that as my skin has healed somewhat there is less to pick and it has reduced. But the tweezers on my legs is another problem… i start digging around at the shadows of where hairs might grow and making a right mess. I love your positive attitude and changes though. Really helpful and given me some ideas to focus on. I will throw out the magnifying mirror. No one needs to see in that much detail, my brows can just have their way… heh heh.
hi, do you know if the dead skin comes out when you poop? since it is not digested? it doesn’t just stay in your stomach or intestines forever does it?
Ruth Holroyd says
I think it disintegrates pretty easily, after all it’s not long before it turns to dust. So yes, it would be passed out in your poop.
And i thought I was the only one doing this! Its very relieving to know that theres other people that struggle with this problem too
Ruth Holroyd says
You are definitely not alone, there are so many of us out here. I find I do this less as my skin heals, so for me I think it’s some kind of self soothing or grooming, which often backfires and makes my skin worse. Especially the night time grooming which gets out of hand. I wish you health and healing and hope you can find some acceptance around this, no shame. And help if you need it.