When you run your hands through your hair or over your head, you might stop to pick at random bumps you find on the surface of your scalp. Most people do this from time to time, usually without even thinking about it.

But for some people, scalp picking may be a symptom of dermatillomania. This is a condition that’s similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Picking at your scalp doesn’t always cause hair loss. But it does increase your risk of developing folliculitis. This is a common condition that happens when your hair follicles are inflamed. There are several types of folliculitis, but it’s usually caused by a bacterial infection.

When you pick at your scalp, it can create small open wounds that are vulnerable to infection and folliculitis. Over time, folliculitis can destroy hair follicles and cause permanent hair loss.

Dermatillomania is sometimes referred to as skin-picking disorder or excoriation disorder. Its main symptom is an uncontrollable urge to pick at a certain part of your body.

Common targets of picking include

  • nails
  • cuticles
  • acne or other bumps on the skin
  • scalp
  • scabs

People with dermatillomania tend to feel a strong sense of anxiety or stress that’s only alleviated by picking at something. For many, picking provides an intense sensation of relief or satisfaction. Keep in mind that picking isn’t always a conscious behavior. Some people with dermatillomania do it without even realizing it.

Over time, picking can lead to open sores and scabbing, which provides more things to pick. The resulting marks can leave you feeling self-conscious or upset, especially if you have little or no hair. These feelings can further increase anxiety and stress, creating a cycle of behavior that’s often hard to break.

There are some things you can try on your own to break the habit of picking at your scalp. Most of these focus on keeping your hands and mind busy.

The next time you feel the urge to pick or find yourself unconsciously picking, try:

  • popping bubble wrap
  • drawing or writing
  • reading
  • going for a quick walk around the block
  • meditating
  • using fidget cubes or spinners
  • squeezing a stress ball
  • talking to a close friend or family member about what you’re feeling in that moment

There are also things you can do to reduce the temptation to pick, such as:

  • making a conscious effort to protect your scalp from bumps and cuts that might be tempting to pick at your scalp
  • using a medicated shampoo, such as ketoconazole shampoo, to manage any scalp conditions, such as dandruff, that might encourage picking

The methods above don’t work for everyone. If you’re finding it hard to stop picking, consider seeking help from a therapist. Many people find relief through doing cognitive behavioral therapy. This type of behavioral therapy helps to rewire your thought patterns and behaviors.

You can also make an appointment with a doctor to talk about medication options. Antidepressants can help to manage underlying anxiety issues.

If you’re concerned about the cost of treatment, try reaching out to any local universities. Some psychology programs offer free or low-cost therapy with graduate students. You can also ask potential therapists if they have a sliding scale for their fees, which will allow you to pay what you can. This is a pretty common conversation, so don’t feel uncomfortable bringing it up.

You should also see a doctor if you regularly notice bumps on your scalp or have significant hair loss. These could be signs of a scalp condition that needs treatment.

Find out what might be causing sores or scabs on your scalp.

Occasionally picking at your scalp usually isn’t a huge deal, though it does increase your risk of folliculitis, which can cause permanent hair loss. But if you find that you’re having a hard time resisting the urge to pick at your scalp, there may be a psychological component to your picking. There are many ways to manage dermatillomania, but you might have to try a few things before you find what works for you.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider joining a support group to connect with others living with dermatillomania. The TLC Foundation lists both in-person and online support groups.