Should You Pop Your Pimples? Skin Care Experts Explain What To Do
There are some skin care habits you learn to avoid after one innocent mistake (like layering retinoids and chemical exfoliants—shudder.) Popping pimples, however, seems to be the exact opposite: No matter how many times you regret poking and prodding at your face, another occurrence seems to follow at some point in the near future.
There are a host of reasons why popping pimples is a major no, other than the fact that an angry and irritated mound is way more difficult to disguise with concealer. In fact, there are far more serious and lasting effects to this habit than you may realize. Here, we tapped skin experts to get the inside scoop on the real reasons you shouldn't pop.
What causes a pimple in the first place?
According to board-certified dermatologist and YouTube creator Andrea Suarez, M.D., FAAD, pimples are caused by a few different factors. "First is excess sebum (aka, oil) production in the skin," she says. While some people may experience excess oil without pimples, it is common for those with oilier skin types to also have acne-prone skin.
"Second is the fact that the skin cells lining the pore can be prone to slow turnover, then getting sticky and plugging up the pore," Suarez continues. When this happens in combination with the excess oil, it creates a favorable environment for acne-causing bacteria, she says.
"As this bacteria breaks down the sebum, inflammatory signals come in, causing redness, swelling, and [for some] cyst formation." It's important to note while this mechanism does lead to acne, the underlying causes can vary; these include hormones, genetics, certain skin care products, and more.
If you want to learn more, check out our guide to the seven most common types of acne, which includes causes and treatment options.
Popping pimples: What it does to the skin.
While squeezing a pustule may seem tempting, the long-term effects aren't worth the momentary satisfaction. Here, a few reasons to avoid popping your pimples:
"The biggest concern with popping pimples is causing a permanent scar," board-certified dermatologist Christina Lee Chung, M.D., FAAD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in Philadelphia, tells mbg. Even if the pimple seems "ready," squeezing it will break the skin and, thus, leave a mark of some sort.
Chung emphasizes that you will certainly be left with red or brown discoloration, commonly referred to as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, should you pop your pimples. These marks can last months or even years depending on your skin type, skin tone, and which brightening products you use.
Popping blackheads or whiteheads will likely result in these discolored spots, while attempting to pop cystic pimples could lead to deeper, concave divots in the skin. This is why even slightly squeezing cystic pimples is highly discouraged—these can and should only be treated by a derm.
Worsening the pimple
A close second to the risk of scarring, according to Chung, is the risk of causing a secondary lesion. This could be in the form of a cyst or something called a pyogenic granuloma. Both of these may require surgery to remove, Chung says, making the situation much worse than when it began.
Especially if you go to town on a pimple with dirty hands or tools, residual makeup on, or fail to deeply clean the area afterward, you run the risk of infection. Although, Chung notes that while this is always a risk when popping pimples, infection isn't super common; you're way more likely to see scars or an angrier pimple instead.
Longer healing times
If you're trying to pop a pimple, it's likely because you want the blemish to go away faster. However, celebrity esthetician and skin expert Shani Darden says that doing so can actually have the opposite effect.
See, if you decide to pop your pimple, more inflammation will follow. This, in combination with the now broken and possibly bleeding skin, will take longer to heal than an untouched pimple. While it may be tempting, it truly will only make matters worse.
Who should pop pimples?
If you seek out professional help for a pimple, your expert may decide to perform an extraction. "Your dermatologist may utilize a comedone extractor tool to express some of the dead skin cell debris from within the pore," Suarez says.
It's important to note that these professionals have access to sanitary, professional-grade tools and have years of experience, meaning it's much safer to perform. (And while we're here, we should note: You should never perform your own at-home extractions.)
What's more, Suarez notes, "Not all acne spots are amenable to this treatment, which is why I recommend leaving it to the pros to decide which spots can be safely extracted."
If you decide to see a professional, they may even suggest an alternative treatment, like steroid injections. These targeted treatments can help reduce the size of the pimple and make it go away faster, thus reducing the chance of scarring. Usually, these injections are meant for under-the-skin pimples or tender cysts.
How to care for a breakout at home.
If you are struggling with an inflammatory pimple, whether it be a pustule, papule, or cyst, there are a number of ways to ease the inflammation—without popping:
Suarez notes that a cool compress can be helpful in reducing swelling and redness. If you don't have a specific cool-to-the-touch tool, like an ice globe, you can wrap an ice cube in a clean paper towel and hold it against the breakout. This will ensure you reap all of the benefits without shocking your skin with a freezing ice cube (which can actually make the pimple worse).
Darden recommends layering a sulfur mask on your breakout as a spot treatment. "Sulfur is incredible because not only does it help to draw out impurities, but it's also great for calming inflammation, which is much needed with acne," she says.
You can also spot-treat a pimple with a pimple patch. "These are great for really stubborn or cystic blemishes. It's best to leave cystic acne alone otherwise to avoid causing more irritation," Darden says. Shop our favorite patches here.
Consistent use of topical products
There are so many different kinds of topical acne treatments. If you want to minimize the number of breakouts you're seeing, incorporating a regular acne treatment into your skin care routine is the way to go. Here, a guide to the best acne products for each type of acne so you can find the right fit.
Get regular facials
If you're prone to breakouts, getting regular facials designed for acne-prone skin (commonly referred to as "acne facials") may help decongest the pores and kill acne-causing bacteria from growing in the first place. The combination of extraction and high-frequency devices will help manage acne, especially if you get them regularly and tend to the skin at home with acne-focused products between sessions.
See a dermatologist
As we mentioned before, acne comes with a long list of causes. While you may be doing everything you can at home, sometimes genetics and hormones dominate all of the DIY products and continue to cause pesky breakouts. That said, sometimes prescription-strength topicals and (when necessary) oral medications may help ease your acne once and for all—both of which require a trip to the derm.
Learning to leave pimples alone is not an easy task, as the idea of popping a whitehead seems so satisfying beforehand. Afterward, however, you may be left with a plethora of problems far beyond said whitehead. Instead, opt for at-home techniques and products to ease inflammation and redness. If you do want to get rid of a pimple, let a professional take control.
And if you're dealing with constant breakouts, it's best to see a dermatologist to figure out the root cause of your acne and go from there. In the meantime, you can shop the best expert-backed acne treatments here.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.