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!