When To Pop A Pimple

Admit it: There’s something strangely satisfying about zapping a zit. Yep, popping a pimple or a big blackhead is tempting, but any dermatologist will tell you that squeezing your skin is a bad idea.

Popping a Pimple: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

While it can be tempting to pop a pimple, dermatologists strongly discourage this approach. Why? Popping a pimple incorrectly can increase your risk of infection and scarring.

Everyone gets pimples, and probably just about everyone has gotten the urge to pop one.

There is a proper way to extract a pimple, which we’ll cover in this article. But keep in mind that this procedure is best performed by a skin care professional in a sterile environment.

Most pimples form because the skin cells that surround your hair follicles stick together. This can create a hard plug that blocks your pores. Several things can trigger this reaction in your skin, including:

  • hormones
  • allergic reactions
  • bacteria
  • naturally occurring oils

The result is a pore that gets clogged with oil, pus, or sebum, creating a bumpy, inflamed area of your skin. Here are three common types of blemishes:

  • Blackheads are open pores clogged by oil and dead cells. The oil and cells that are covering your pores look dark when exposed to the air, giving blackheads their typical dark appearance.
  • Whiteheads are similar to blackheads, but they’re covered by your skin. You can see a bump of skin covering the hard, white plug that’s clogging your pore.
  • Pustules are deeper acne blemishes that are harder to extract. They’re typically red and inflamed. Pustules can be caused by allergies, hormones, bacteria, or other skin conditions.

When a pore becomes clogged or a pimple forms under your skin, your hair follicles can fill up with pus or sebum (oil). Eventually, the hair follicle can burst, breaking the clog away from your pore and beginning the healing process.

This is your body’s natural mechanism for dealing with clogged pores and acne. When you pop a pimple yourself, you may be triggering this healing process and getting rid of the pimple while you’re at it. But there are also risks involved.

As a general rule, you should never attempt to pop your pimple yourself.

If you attempt to pop a pimple and end up breaking your skin barrier, you risk permanent acne scarring. If your pimple contains infected pus, popping a pimple can spread bacteria into other pores and hair follicles, creating a bigger acne outbreak.

Popping a pimple can also delay your body’s natural healing process, meaning what is meant to be a “quick fix” ends up giving you a blemish that lasts even longer.

If you try to pop a pimple and aren’t able to, you may push the contents of your pimple further underneath your skin layer. This can clog your pores even more, make acne more noticeable, or trigger inflammation under your skin.

With all that being said, some people are unable to resist the temptation of popping a pimple as soon as they see a whitehead appear. If you’re going to pop a pimple once in a while, follow these steps.

The technique for popping a pimple safely differs slightly depending on which type of blemish you have.

How to get rid of blackheads

Over-the-counter (OTC) topical medication such as salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can be applied to your blackhead to loosen the plug before you try to pop it.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, then apply pressure to both sides of the clogged pore using your fingers. With a little pressure, the blackhead should pop out.

How to get rid of whiteheads

Sterilize a needle with 70% isopropyl alcohol and gently prick the skin where your pore is clogged. Then extract the whitehead the same way you would a blackhead.

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After using an OTC astringent or acne medication and washing your hands thoroughly, apply pressure to both sides of the clogged pore to extract the plug.

How to get rid of pustules

Pustules are deep underneath the layers of your skin and are difficult to extract. Using a warm compress, you can try to open your pores and get the irritant/clog closer to your skin’s surface. OTC treatments might also work.

Overall, though, it’s best not to try to pop a pustule yourself.

Popping your pimples isn’t the only way to clear your skin. Here are some other options:

  • OTC remedies that contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can be used daily to clear up breakouts and clarify pores.
  • A cold compress or ice can be used to relieve pain and swelling from cysts, nodules, and pustules.
  • Warm compresses can also be applied to loosen dirt and bacteria and speed the healing of clogged pores.
  • Natural clarifiers, such as diluted alcohol and tea tree oil, can work as astringent agents to dry out and remove clogs caused by sebum.

Find the best acne treatments according to dermatologists.

There are lots of things you can do to prevent future breakouts. Here are a few:

  • Stick to your acne treatment regimen.
  • Let your skin heal naturally as often as you can.
  • Use a mild cleanser to wash your face twice per day.
  • Always cleanse your body and face with antibacterial soap after workouts.
  • Keep your hands away from your face, especially when using shared surfaces like those in school, at work, and on public transportation.
  • If you were assigned female at birth, talk with your doctor about using hormonal birth control. Some people use hormonal birth control to help control acne that is caused by fluctuating hormones.
  • Consider managing and preventing breakouts with topical retinoids and oral isotretinoin (Accutane).

If you have frequent outbreaks, painful cystic acne, or acne that never seems to go away, you should see your skin care professional.

Acne that leaves scars on your skin, doesn’t go away with OTC remedies, or makes you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious should be treated by a dermatologist.

They may prescribe a topical or oral treatment, an in-office therapy, dietary or lifestyle changes, or a combination of all, depending on the severity of your acne.

It’s never a great idea to pop your own pimples. The risk of infection, scarring, and delaying healing is much higher when you take matters into your own hands.

If you do occasionally feel like you have to treat a pimple by popping it, make sure you follow the proper technique.

Be sure to clean your hands and sterilize any instruments you plan to use to pop your pimple. If you keep getting outbreaks, speak with your doctor about prescription medication and other treatments for your acne.

Last medically reviewed on August 17, 2022

How Bad Is It Really to Pop a Pimple?

Illustration of a person popping a pimple on their face

When you pop a pimple, you open the door for more redness and swelling along with infection and scarring.

Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

How Bad Is It Really? sets the record straight on all the habits and behaviors you’ve heard might be unhealthy.

Admit it: There’s something strangely satisfying about zapping a zit. Yep, popping a pimple or a big blackhead is tempting, but any dermatologist will tell you that squeezing your skin is a bad idea.

The issue is, popping won’t necessarily get rid of your pimple problem. In fact, picking at your face may just make things worse.

Video of the Day

Here, Y. Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, shares what can go wrong when you take your skin into your own hands and offers tips on how to pop pimples safely.

1. You Might End Up With More Redness and Swelling

“Popping, picking and manipulating a pimple can irritate it and cause it to rupture under the skin,” Dr. Chang says. “This often triggers an inflammatory response and results in more redness and swelling.”

In other words, breaking open your blemish can make it bigger (read: more noticeable) and may lengthen the time it takes your lesion to clear up. Which is, we’re betting, the opposite of what you want.

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2. You Could Get an Infection

Popping a pimple can cause trauma to the skin, which can create an entryway for bad bacteria, Dr. Chang says. Once the bacteria pass through the portal of broken skin, they can worsen inflammation or initiate an infection, she says.

While less common, in severe cases, this can even lead to an abscess (a painful pocket of pus) or cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection that causes a swollen, red rash that’s warm to the touch), Dr. Chang says.

In fact, if left untreated, a cellulitis infection can travel to your lymph nodes and bloodstream, which may potentially become life-threatening and require immediate medical assistance, according to the Mayo Clinic.

3. It Can Cause Scarring

The whole premise behind popping a pimple is to make it go away quicker. But, ironically, picking at your pustule may leave a long-lasting mark.

“Popping a pimple worsens inflammation and increases the likelihood of acne scarring,” Dr. Chang says.

Here’s why: Inflammation can break down collagen and trigger more pigment production in the skin, she explains. This process produces atrophic acne scars and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (darkened patches or spots on the skin).

What to Do Instead of Popping

1. Try Topicals

To avoid these unwanted side effects, do away with the do-it-yourself pimple popping. “Rather, stick to acne medications and topicals that will help prevent and treat acne,” Dr. Chang says. “Topicals containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid can help calm down inflammation and reduce acne lesions.”

Products with benzoyl peroxide include Neutrogena Rapid Clear Stubborn Acne Spot Treatment ($6.87, Amazon.com) and La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treatment ($19.99, Amazon.com).

Topicals with salicylic acid include CeraVe Acne Control Gel ($15.99, Amazon.com) and Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Spot Treatment ($6.68, Walmart.com).

And if you find it hard to resist picking at a pustule, apply a pimple patch on the spot to stop yourself from touching it, she adds. Try Peace Out Acne Dots ($19 for 20, PeaceOutSkinCare.com)

2. See a Dermatologist

If pimples are a persistent problem, you should see a board-certified dermatologist who can assess your skin situation and discuss your options, Dr. Chang says.

In addition to prescribing acne-fighting medicines, dermatologists may also employ a few strategies to safely pop a pimple, such as the following techniques, per the American Academy of Dermatology Association:

  • Acne extraction:​ A doctor uses sterile instruments to remove blackheads and whiteheads.
  • Corticosteroids​: A doctor injects a pimple with a corticosteroid, which speeds the healing process of deep, painful acne cysts or nodules and reduces the risk of scarring.
  • Incision and drainage​: A doctor uses a sterile needle or surgical blade to cut open a pimple, cyst or nodule and drain its contents.

But if You Insist on Popping Pimples at Home…

While Dr. Chang — and every dermatologist who ever lived — strongly discourages squeezing your own pimples, there is a safer way to do it if you simply can’t resist the urge. Follow these steps, courtesy of Dr. Chang, to reduce your risk of causing trauma to the skin, infection and scarring.

How to Pop a Pimple

  1. Wash your hands.​ Always suds up with soap and water before touching your skin. This will lower the chances of dirt, debris or bacteria entering your skin and causing an infection. If you’re using a comedone extractor ($4.99, Amazon.com) — a handheld tool with a hollow circle at the end that’s specifically designed to remove blackheads and whiteheads — make sure to sterilize your instrument as well.
  2. Apply a warm compress (or take a warm shower) beforehand​. This helps soften and prep the skin for extraction.
  3. Using a clean tissue, gently press the skin around the pimple​. Never use your nails to squeeze. This can inadvertently scratch the skin’s surface, creating a convenient entrance for infection-causing bacteria.
  4. Don’t apply too much pressure.​ If you’re trying to pop a pimple, but it does not express with gentle pressure, it is likely too deep and should not be popped aggressively. Forceful pressure will contribute to increased inflammation and redness.
  5. Apply a dab of a topical antibiotic cream​, such as Neosporin ($3.89, Amazon.com). This will help you avoid infection in the area.

So, How Bad Is It Really to Pop Pimples?

Often, the key to clearer skin is patience. Over-the-counter acne products and prescription medications take time to work.

But if you want to banish a blemish faster, it’s always better to see your dermatologist, Dr. Chang says. Proper pimple popping is an art, and unless you have the right training, you run the risk of making your marks worse.

Moral of the story: Save the squeezing for the experts.

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Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for his studies of ageing, genetics and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics NAS of Ukraine. His scientific researches are printed by the most reputable international magazines. Some of his works are: Differences in the gut Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes ratio across age groups in healthy Ukrainian population [BiomedCentral.com]; Mating status affects Drosophila lifespan, metabolism and antioxidant system [Science Direct]; Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum Increases Lifespan, Stress Resistance, and Metabolism by Affecting Free Radical Processes in Drosophila [Frontiersin].
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