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Why Is It So Satisfying to Pop Your Own Zits?

The short answer: Dopamine.

Is it OK if I talk about my first time? I was 13, and on a particularly humid summer day, I had a walloping, already-to-a-head zit appear out of nowhere. I pressed on it gently, falteringly, with virgin hands, and it spiraled out like a Magic 3D Pen. Literally stood up and folded in on itself. The experience was wholly disgusting, and damn near erotic. I was hooked.

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Popping zits is a bad idea that almost always does more harm than good. Reputable sources (by reputable, I mean the kind you wouldn't trust for anything except beauty advice) present a laissez-faire policy when it comes to pimples. Be Zen about your zits, they say. But I can't.

What I think of as skin care is actually, objectively, skin abuse.

I love to pick at my zits. Whiteheads, blackheads, big ones, small ones; I revel in pressing the side of my nose or the fleshy part of my cheek so that whitish pus spews from a singular pore. I keep on picking until my skin is puckered with telltale splotches on my forehead and hot pink demilunes that follow the curves of my nose.

Once, I burst a capillary that now sits permanently on my face—it required expensive laser treatments that were, sadly, ineffective. I've got other scars, too. After popping, I always feel an impertinent sense of accomplishment for having removed debris from the depths of my pores, followed by uneasy depression reflecting on the damage I have caused. What I think of as skin care is actually, objectively, skin abuse.

There are a lot of reasons why I might pick at my face. Genetics, possibly? I remember my mom perched on the countertop, red and splotchy from picking. Perhaps it's instant gratification. Popping a zit means purging exactly what's bothering me and washing it down the drain. (If only insurance premiums, taxes, and my biological clock were so easy to resolve.) Or, maybe I'm just DGAF gross?

"Everybody, everybody, picks to a certain extent."

After decades of picking I decided to explore, with the help of experts, why zit-popping is so endlessly tempting.

First up is Maren Wagner, an esthetician and Aveda esthetics instructor in Seattle, Washington, who assures me I am not alone.

"Everybody, everybody, picks to a certain extent," she says. With an established background in the beauty industry, Wagner notes she treats a wide variety of people who all admit to DIY extractions. The comfort I feel at Wagner's words is sweet, but fleeting. Yes, everybody picks, but four words stick with me: "To a certain extent." To what extent, exactly? Am I still normal over here?

As it turns out, skin picking can develop from bad habit to actual affliction. Just recently, in 2013, the DSM-5 recognized skin picking as a distinctive entity called excoriation disorder, marked by repeated picking habits that can even get in the way of one's personal and professional life.

I ask Nicole Karcinski, a board-certified psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, to tell me more about the disorder and its manifestations.

"My sense is that it is more common in women," says Karcinski. (What few studies there are on the subject indicate that women are far more likely to engage in skin picking than men.) "Clinically," she says, "women have been the only gender to report picking behavior in my practice."

Picking is a woman's devotion, perhaps, because of beauty and skincare messages hurled mercilessly and almost exclusively at her.

Picking is a woman's devotion, perhaps, because of beauty and skincare messages hurled mercilessly and almost exclusively at her. Like Pavlov's dogs, today's women are conditioned through porcelain-smooth visages of models (hello, Chanel Vitalumiere Aqua ad). See a smooth complexion, pick until you get it (or until you can afford foundation priced like liquid gold). We've learned to pick not to feel good, but to feel adequate.

Regarding my own habits, I rarely pick at scabs and never touch a cold sore or canker sore. I also don't meet the frequency and time-spent criteria, Karcinski says. This means I am probably not a sufferer of clinical excoriation disorder. I'm relieved, of course, but also somewhat disgruntled. I can see the real damage my zit-popping tendencies are causing. Why is it so perpetually appealing, then, to pick at my face?

The answer is twofold. First, skin picking is generally anxiety-based, Karcinski says, noting that it's possible I have anxiety that I may not consciously recognize. A quick mental calculation ensues: I picked when I got a promotion, one that was exciting but fraught with new responsibilities. I picked when I got into a fight with my boyfriend. That time I spent hours looking for a misplaced document. I picked after that, too. Karcinski was right. Anxiety is a trigger for me; I'm sure of it now.

Eventually, I broach the obvious hypocrisy: A professional zit popper is telling me every method possible to avoid popping zits.

What's more, my brain is rewarding me and making it damn near impossible to stop thanks to a hormone called dopamine.

"Releasing dopamine is what is truly the neurobiological basis of habit," Karcinski says, dubbing it the "feel-good hormone." "We do it, we feel good," she says.

Routine behaviors, like the zit-popping I've nurtured for 15+ years, release dopamine. Some are good, like brushing one's teeth; others are not so good. No matter. Any established routine is hard to break because of the neurological component.

Pleasant sensations don't last long with a bad habit like zit popping (or something more destructive like drug use, for example)—but dopamine strengthens a habit so that we crave it even when we know it's harmful. The last time I picked, I didn't want to do it, but I didn't have the self-control to stop myself.

"Changing behavior requires you to do something else with that energy," Karcinski says. "Sometimes it's hard to find a suitable alternative."

While Karcinski notes the possibility of treating skin picking through medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, Wagner suggests a more cost-effective method: Silly Putty.

I laugh, but she insists. Basically, it mimics everything I do to my poor, poor face.

"You can move it, you can make popping noises, you can rip it," she says. "It's pretty satisfying."

Other ways to avoid picking include throwing away my megawatt magnifying mirrors and taking it easy on exfoliation. "People need to put the St. Ives down!" Wagner implores. Personally, I find that exfoliation gives me at least a perception of cleanliness that helps mitigate my picking tendencies. A regimen of Clarisonic and Laura Mercier face polish (sometimes together) won't fall within Wagner's prescription but, in defiance, I'd recommend it.

Eventually, I broach the obvious hypocrisy: A professional zit popper is telling me every method possible to avoid popping zits.

"I'm not going to lie, I really enjoy doing extractions," says Wagner, "but a big part of that is because I know how to do it correctly." She can extract blackheads around the nose, for example, without causing telangiectasia (distended capillaries). My own nose—a confusing network of tiny, crimson lines—is proof I do not possess the same skillset.

"So, what if, hypothetically, I picked at my skin again? What could I do to mitigate damage?" I ask, the subtext being, "How do I do it the right way? Oh, God, I need to know!"

Wagner graciously lists exactly what I need to do, probably not knowing I intended to immediately prep my skin for action. After our chat, I recall her tips. Following a steamy shower, my skin is warm and moist with pores wide open: prime for the picking. I think about all I had learned, all I could do to avoid it, and...

I descend into a skin-picking frenzy.

Blame the dopamine, folks. But I do plan to purchase Silly Putty on my next Target run—a step toward a gentler, more hands-off skincare routine.


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