Updated on February 6, 2024
6 min read

Skin Popping

Key Takeaways

What is Skin Popping?

Skin popping is a method of injecting illicit drugs into your skin. There are two ways to do skin popping:

  • Intradermal injection: Involves delivering the illegal drug into the dermis, which is the upper layer of the skin above the fat and muscle tissue layers
  • Subcutaneous injection: Involves delivering the drug into the subcutaneous layer, which is the fat tissue layer below the skin but above the muscles

This method can reduce the risk of drug overdose and achieve slower absorption than intravenous drug use.6 However, both methods are still dangerous, resulting in:

  • Drug addiction
  • Medical complications
  • Infections

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Why Do Some Drug Users Skin Pop? 

Intravenous injection is one typical method of injecting drugs. However, some people may opt to use skin popping for several reasons.

Some of the reasons injection drug users receive intradermal or subcutaneous injections are:

  • It eliminates the difficult task of finding a vein 
  • It makes self-administration easier as the syringe does not penetrate deep
  • It results in slower drug absorption
  • It may make the drug last longer compared to intravenous drug use
  • It reduces the risk of drug overdose4

Injection drug users tend to switch to skin popping if intravenous injections have caused severe tissue scarring at the injection site. That’s because they can no longer access the veins quickly. 

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Symptoms of Skin Popping

Skin popping scars give important clues when trying to identify a case of substance use.5 Usually, the injections cause lesions which can help health professionals detect subcutaneous drug use.

Some common symptoms of skin popping include:

  • Scars, sores, or track marks on their arms, legs, or hands
  • Always wearing long sleeve clothes to conceal tissue scars
  • Skin infections and other skin manifestations, such as irritation and formation of abscesses
  • Formation of lumps in the injection site, which occurs as a result of the accumulation of scar tissue
  • Discoloration of the injection area
  • Always keeping around a small box or bag containing tools for injecting the substances (e.g., cotton wool and syringe)

Some behavioral signs are typical of drug addicts who inject drugs subcutaneously, intradermally, or intravenously. 

These signs include:

  • Appetite changes
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in sleeping patterns or sleep problems
  • Mood swings 
  • Malnutrition
  • Mental health problems

Commonly Used Drugs for Skin Popping 

Heroin is the most commonly injected drug for skin popping. However, some people inject other drugs into their skin.

This includes:1

  • Cocaine
  • Buprenorphine
  • Barbituates
  • Opiates

What are the Most Commonly Injected Drugs?

Some of the most commonly injected drugs are:

  • Heroin, black tar heroin, and other opiates
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Cocaine
  • Barbiturates

Some of these substances are more addictive and dangerous than others. These drugs can also cause severe illness and life-threatening problems when injected into the body. 

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Dangers & Complications of Skin Popping Drugs

Injecting illicit drugs is substance misuse. It is dangerous and can cause severe physical and psychological risks to health. 

Using drugs in this manner makes it easier for germs to penetrate the skin and stay underneath or inside the subcutaneous fatty layer. 

This risk can cause: 

  • Skin popping scars
  • Abscesses
  • Infections

It can also cause other life-threatening conditions and health complications. These include:

Wound Botulism

Wound botulism is a severe infection when the bacteria “Clostridium botulinum” infiltrates a wound. The bacteria usually found in contaminated drugs can develop into toxins that attack nerves.

Wound botulism is one of the worst dangers that can develop among skin-popping drug users. Symptoms can appear within days of injecting a contaminated drug. 

These include: 

  • Muscle weakness
  • Double vision
  • Difficulty breathing 

Tissue Scarring

Subcutaneous drug injection may cause long-term tissue scarring, cutaneous lesions, and cellulitis (hyperpigmentation). 

Scarring may be noticeable on the injection sites, such as:

  • Fingers
  • Hands
  • Forearms
  • Wrists
  • Lower extremities.

A study showed that chronic complications of skin popping might include: 

  • Cutaneous granulomas: A group of diseases characterized by an inflammatory reaction of the skin
  • Hyperpigmentation: Skin patches that become darker than the surrounding skin
  • Necrosis of the fingers: Body tissue death that occurs when too little blood flows to the tissue

Drug Overdose and Addiction

Injecting too much heroin at a time can lead to heroin overdose. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999.3 

Overdose symptoms include: 

  • Clammy skin
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma
  • Slow breathing

Over time, injecting drugs into the skin can lead to addiction. Drug addictions can be both physical and psychological, which is one of the reasons why you need to speak to a psychologist immediately if you have an addiction.

Other Infections

You can risk contracting particular skin and blood-borne infections when you inject illicit drugs. This kind of risk is especially true if you share syringes with others.

A publication by Public Health England reported a shoot-up of infections among people who inject drugs in the UK as of 2018 and 2019.

Conditions that may develop as a result of skin popping include:

  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Tetanus
  • Endocarditis
  • Necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease)
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Other sexually transmitted diseases

Treatment Options for Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is treatable and typically requires multiple levels of care. Treatment can also help you avoid dealing with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

Some effective treatment options/programs for substance use disorder include:


Skin popping is a method of injecting illicit substances into your system. You can inject drugs into your skin by subcutaneous injection or intradermal injection.

Intradermal injection involves delivering the drug into the dermis, the upper layer of the skin above the subcutaneous layer. On the other hand, subcutaneous injection brings drugs into the subcutaneous layer, which is the fat tissue layer below the skin but above the muscles.

Although skin popping reduces the risk of an overdose, it’s still dangerous. Skin popping can lead to long-term skin scarring, health complications, and infections.

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Updated on February 6, 2024

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