The Stylist beauty team told a lipstick virgin that wearing lip colour every single day could solve her painful lip-picking habit. Here, she puts it to the test…
I’m a naturally nervous person and, when I get nervous, I pick. For a long time, it was my hair: whenever I had a few seconds to myself, I snapped off the ends, stripped the split ends up to the root, plucked strands out of my head. Then, one morning, I looked down at my desk and realised that it was littered with handfuls and handfuls of hair. Cue a quick trip to the salon, a worried discussion with my favourite hairdresser, and the birth of my trademark pixie cut. Because hey, you can’t pick what you can’t get at.
Unfortunately, though, picking is, for me, a compulsion. And my hands have since found something new to work away at: my lips.
Whenever I find myself feeling stressed or anxious (even if I’m just watching a horror series on Netflix), my excoriation begins. Pick, pick, pick. I often don’t even realise I’m pulling away at the skin on my lips until they start to bleed, and by then it’s too late: they’ll look red, cracked and sore for at least a few days. Then, as they slowly begin to heal and the dead skin starts to flake away, the cycle begins all over again.
Unlike my hair, I can’t do much about getting my lips out of reach because… well, because they’re kind of attached to my face. And there’s no hiding this problem, either: I can’t scoop my lips into a bun, or style them in a clever way, which means I get comments from concerned friends and family (particularly my mum, who keeps ordering me to stop because it looks so horrible).
When I mention my habit to Stylist’s senior beauty writer Hanna Ibraheem, though, she presents me with a possible solution: 21 days of non-stop lipstick wearing. The 21 days because it’s scientifically proven to be the length of time required to form a habit, the lipstick because…?
“Because it’ll encourage you to stop picking,” she tells me. “You’ll be so much more aware when you have a product on your lips.”
And then, almost as an afterthought, she adds: “And you can try colours you wouldn’t usually try, too!”
Unbeknownst to Hanna, this applies to pretty much every single lipstick colour out there. I rarely wear make-up, if at all, and I’m far too lazy to carefully apply a bold lip. In fact, a PR I’ve never met before once reached out to offer me a “nude lipstick, because I know you don’t wear colour”. I stress again: this woman had never met or spoken to me, even over email. All she’d had to do was scroll though my Instagram to learn that… well, that I’m not a lipstick person. Period.
However, if it could cure my lip picking habit, I was willing to put the work in. And so Hanna presented me with a bag of 21 different coloured lipsticks, warning me that there were some “out there” hues in there, and reminded me I had to wear one every single day for three weeks.
Here’s what happened on my 21-day lipstick challenge:
I go bold on my first day with a deep raspberry jelly number (Morphe, Matte Lipstick in Jelly, £12) and… well, I quickly learn that free-styling is not the way forward, and that a steady hand, a mirror and lip liner are essentials when it comes to applying lipstick. Despite this, I find myself loving the matte colour, and the way it glides on so easily. It feels moisturising, too, and the full-on-coverage hides all the little cuts and tears in my lips, too.
When I go to remove it later that night, though, I find it has serious staying power. So much staying power, in fact, that I can’t actually get every last scrap of it off. I head to bed after 15 minutes of scrubbing, with a few stubborn stains clinging to my lips, and note that they’ve stuck to the deeper cracks I’ve made through endless picking. Sigh.
Days 2 - 5
I quickly get into the swing of things and, for the first few days, opt for some of the bolder colours (mainly to cover up the leftover raspberry on my lips from day one). A red number turns out to have a surprise metallic hue, which shimmers and shines and distracts the eye from cracks in the skin, while a deep purple-black hue sees me feel the need, for the first time ever, to coordinate my outfit to my make-up: a black tee, dungarees and stomper boots.
By this point, though, my lips are growing steadily drier, and picking away the coloured flakes becomes irresistible. Thankfully, smearing colour all over my face and hands soon teaches me to keep my fingers to myself, but I know it’s only going to get harder. With that thought in mind, I turn to beauty editor Lucy Partington for emergency lip care advice, hoping that, if I get them moisturised, they won’t have as many pickable strands of dead skin to play with.
Lucy comes up trumps, and sources me two must-have products. First, a deeply nourishing lip treatment (Too Faced, Hangover Pillow Balm Treatment, £18), which I apply every night before bed to ensure its conditioning butters, coconut water and hyaluronic acid has ample time to hydrate and replenish my lips. Second, a long-lasting balm (Medik8, Mutiny Lip Balm, £19) packed with squalene to replenish lost oils, sea buckthorn oil to restore the natural lipid barrier and hyaluronic acid to retain moisture.
I apply throughout the day when needed, and genuinely feel the effects pretty quickly. In fact, the flakes of dry skin visible under my day three lipstick are almost entirely gone by the time I apply the next day’s bright orange number (Fenty Beauty, Plush Matte Lipstick in Mattemoiselle, £16). And by day five? My lips actually look healthy. Surely this is witchcraft?
Days 6 - 11
I stick to gloss-style lipsticks for a few days, enjoying the high-shine effect no end. I mix it up with a matte number, and note the almost instantaneously drying effect it has on my lips: fighting every last instinct, I somehow prevent myself from picking, but I do get very liberal with my Medik8 application throughout the day (could this be my new addiction, perhaps?).
Then, I’m unexpectedly granted a day at home, and I decide it’s the best time to tackle my green lip paint (NYX, Electro Brights Matte Lip Cream in Mint, £3). Oh yes, I’m deadly serious. It proves a striking look, and one which won’t work with any of my clothes, so I team it with a hoodie and have done with it.
It’s worth noting, though, that a handful of my Instagram followers seem to think my Joey Tribbiani moment is a huge win.
Days 12 - 16
I soon find myself looking forward to the lipstick application part of my morning. I usually rush around, washing my face, hurling on clothes and sprinting out the door with a piece of toast in my mouth, but this routine gets me more organised. I have to wake up with enough time to have breakfast before I get ready, so I don’t smudge my look.
On the whole, it’s going well, until a rogue lipstick from Sleek causes my lips to crumble within an hour of application. I look down at my desk, shudder at the sight of all the bright pink flakes, and rush over to the beauty desk for sympathy. Which they give me, I’ll have you know, and in abundance. Hanna also sources an emergency replacement lipstick (Avon, Epic Lipstick in Feisty, £8), which makes me incredibly happy. My plain T-shirt would have looked very boring without a bold lip, after all…
Day 17 - 21
The final stint of the challenge sees me try a lip plumping gloss (Too Faced, Lip Injection Extreme Lip Plumper in Tangerine, £22), just for fun. It glides on with a hint of tangerine, a lot of light reflecting shine and supreme moisture. Then, the intense tingling begins as my lips plump up before my very eyes. I’m so shocked by the visible results that I send a selfie to my mum and sis, and they respond in very different ways (my sister: “LOL they’re huge” / my mum: “where is this from? I need it. Did it hurt?”).
As a lip picker going cold turkey, I actually find myself enjoying the tingling. So much so, in fact, that I keep reapplying throughout the day. I even layer it under my shimmering gold lipstick the next day, just to see what happens (obviously, the exact same thing, albeit with more glitter).
For the home stretch, I heed Hanna’s words and opt for colours I never usually would. Think a deep shimmering indigo, a translucent black number (my inner teen goth is thrilled, although editor-in-chief Lisa Smsoarski informs me that the look will haunt her dreams forever), and I even attempt an ombre lip using two different shades of purple. Essentially, I have a lot of fun with it, and I make sure to keep up my intense moisturising treatments overnight, too.
I admit that I did, occasionally, fall into bad habits: on one particularly awful day, I ended up with bright blue lipstick smeared all over my face and fingers. Most of the time, though, I’d feel my fingers creeping towards my face and immediately withdraw them before any picking whatsoever, because I didn’t want to disturb the bold lip I’d spent hours painting on that morning.
I’ve learned that matte lipsticks prove exacerbations when it comes to excoriation: they have an instant drying effect and make the skin feel… well, incredibly tempting to pull away at. You need very, very healthy lips to pull it off, and a lot more willpower than I. Lip glosses and moisturising lipsticks, though, are amazing. They add a pop to my outfits and they really do make me more aware of my lips, so I’m able to catch myself in the act (rather than three hours later, surrounded by flakes of bloody skin).
The biggest win of all, though? The Medik8 balm and Too Faced Pillow Balm. They help me feel in control of my habit, and keeping my lips as moisturised and healthy as possible really does make them less appealing to pull away at. If there aren’t any flakes to grab hold of, I tend to move away (and start picking at my nails, annoyingly. Next step, polish!). I’m definitely going to be making these part of my daily routine going forward: caring for my skin when I get the urge to pick at it seems like a good habit to form over time.
Will I still wear lipstick every single day? Hmm, quite possibly: it’s kind of become my thing now, although I’ll be sure to steer clear of greens and blues going forward…
What you need to know about compulsive lip picking
According to the NHS website, the cause for compulsive lip picking (aka dermatillomanis) is not known – though it has been classified as a form of addiction, relative to a mental health problem including OCD, as well as stress and anxiety. It can also be used as a form of self-harm.
They advise that, in order to stop picking, you…
- keep your hands busy – try squeezing a soft ball or putting on gloves
- identify when and where you most commonly pick your skin and try to avoid these triggers
- try to resist for longer and longer each time you feel the urge to pick
- care for your skin when you get the urge to pick it – for example, by applying moisturiser
- tell other people – they can help you recognise when you’re picking
- keep your skin clean to avoid infection
You can find out more on the NHS website now.
Images: Author’s own
Lead image design: Alessia Armenise