Teen Vogue is celebrating its annual Acne Awards this week with a series of stories on all things acne. From knowing when to pop a pimple to understanding why some people get breakouts and others don’t, we’ve got you covered. Read all of the stories here.
Most people get pimples from time to time. Just as the seasons change each year (at least in New York City), pimples are a fact of life. However, there are so many different kinds, it can be hard to know how to properly take care of them, which can cause some of us (like me!) to resort to...popping them the second they appear on our pretty faces.
However, before resorting to popping, the best thing you can do to take care of your skin each day is to properly clean your face, use toner, exfoliate, use masks, moisturize and protect yourself from the sun. According to Danuta Mieloch, aesthetician and owner of Rescue Spa, in the evening, you should make sure to remove all the buildup of sunscreen, makeup, pollution, and so on. When someone has pimples, their skin typically has a layer of buildup that needs to come off. But once the skin is softened and the buildup is removed the congestion, blackheads, and acne should start to disappear.
Still, sometimes there are those moments where it seems like nothing you do is working in your favor (like last night when I spilled soup all over my bed) and you just want to pop that pimple on your chin because it’s seriously stressing you out. I know, I know, popping pimples is bad news and can cause serious scarring, but sometimes a person just can’t help it!!
While popping my pimples grosses me out, at the same time I feel accomplished whenever I successfully execute the deed. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way, especially since our fascination with popping pimples is no longer just happening behind closed doors. Pimple popping is now a full-blown cultural phenomenon. In fact, Dr. Sandra Lee, pimple popper extraordinaire — you know the dermatologist who pops people’s enormous pimples on Youtube — now even has a television show dedicated to it.
So, since it’s Teen Vogue’s annual Acne Awards, we decided to find out if and when it’s okay to pop your pimple, and what’s the best, safest way to go about doing it.
Recognize the associated risks.
First off, it’s important to recognize the associated risks and not going into a pimple popping fit without any regard of what might come of it. Danuta Mieloch says that popping your pimples can, “spread bacteria and cause inflammation, which can possibly cause post inflammatory hyperpigmentation and scarring.” Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, agrees, telling Teen Vogue, “Trauma to the skin can lead to scabbing, infection, or even a scar.”
So, unless you want to deal with the aftermath of possibly doing permanent damage to your skin, leave it to a dermatologist. But if you just have to pop your pimples, do so at your own risk.
“While popping a pimple is tempting, doing it the wrong way can lead to trauma to the skin, and possibly infections,” says Dr. Zeichner. “If you have any open or raw skin it can increase your risk of infection.”
“Often picking or popping worsens the situation and the skin doesn't heal, you may end up with a larger bump than you started with or new bumps and there is an increased risk of pigment change, either residual redness or hyperpigmentation, and scarring,” says dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D.
According to Dr. Shah, when you pop a pimple, all the debris from the pore can get forced deeper into the follicle, causing the follicle wall to rupture and release all the infected material into the lower layers of the skin. Plus, you can introduce new bacteria that may be on your fingers or trapped under your nails.
Before popping, try a warm compress.
Whenever I get a bad pimple, my mom always tells me to take a clean washcloth, run it under warm water, and then place it on the surface in question. While my mom is no doctor, Dr. Howard Murad, a dermatologist and clinical professor of medicine at UCLA, and founder of Murad Skincare, believes that it’s always worth trying this step before popping, even though in his entire career he has never known anyone who didn’t pop their pimples. Whoa. Anyways, he recommends: “Start by putting a warm towel on your skin, this will loosen and soothe the skin, sometimes causing the pimple to pop by itself.”
Dr. Murad told Teen Vogue to hold the warm compress on the pimple for three to five minutes to loosen the skin and open the pores so that popping will be gentler and in best case, the pimple might even pop itself. “If you’d like to reapply the compress you can do that too but if you’re not seeing any relief, the pimple likely is not ready to give so you shouldn’t force it to - i.e. picking which leads to scarring!” Fingers crossed this step works for you!
If that doesn’t work, go with a spot treatment.
“Before resorting to popping, apply an acne or spot treatment – anything with salicylic acid should generally help,” says Dr. Murad. He recommends Murad Acne Control Rapid Relief Acne Spot Treatment which claims to reduce redness and diminish blemish size in as little as four hours. Other spot treatments worth trying? Recently, I’ve been swearing by Blume’s blemish treatment, Meltdown, which contains ingredients like rosehip oil and chamomile flower in place of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and I’m also eyeing Beautycounter Countercontrol SOS Acne Spot Treatment, which won Teen Vogue’s 2019 best treatment award.
When it comes to using a spot treatment, Dr. Zeichner says, “It is okay to spot-treat your pimples once or even twice per day. I typically recommend combining an over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream with 2% salicylic acid and 2.5% benzoyl peroxide.” However, he cautions that products with benzoyl peroxide can bleach your fabrics.
Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, M.D., considers whiteheads and blackheads “mild” and therefore, “over-the-counter products that contain ingredients such as salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinol should do the trick.” According to Dr. Engelman, these products work by killing bacteria, drying excess oil, and forcing the skin to shed dead skin cells.
Depending on the product, spot treatments can typically be used one to two times per day. If you are using a spot treatment once a day, Dr. Shah recommends doing so at night. And yes it is possible to overdo it with spot treatments by either applying too often or too much.
If you’re going to pop a pimple, treat it like a surgical procedure.
While it’s still not recommended to pop your pimples, if you’re going to go through with it make sure that your face and fingers are both clean, and that you’ve cut your fingernails. That may sound like common sense, but have you ever had the urge to pop a pimple or pick your skin on the way home from work? I know, I have!
After cleaning your hands and face, Dr. Shah recommends taking a straight pin and sterilizing the needle with a match or lighter. Once it cools, wipe the pin, your pimple, and your fingers down with rubbing alcohol. Then, holding the pin parallel to the skin, gently prick the top of the whitehead. If you draw blood you have gone too deep as you just want to pierce the surface of the whitehead. If it hurts, you're poking too deeply or the blemish isn't ready to extract.
Next, place your fingers wrapped in clean tissue or gauze, or a cotton swab, on either side of the pimple and gently press around, but not on top of the white tip of the zit. Work around the pimple so you are not continually pressing from the same side. The pimple should drain readily, but if you feel pain or it doesn’t then that means it’s not ready yet.
Using your fingers can lead to additional bacteria exposure, and increase the chances of scarring, particularly shallow scars. Dr. Zeichner also recommends trying two cotton tipped applicators or a comedone extractor and apply gentle downward pressure over the pimple. He says that you should treat the process just “like a surgical procedure” and thus, not do it right before bed or when you are tired, because people tend to be less careful than they would be at other times of the day.
If the pimple comes to a head, you can gently apply downward pressure on either side of the pimple for one to two seconds. If you’re using more than a little bit of pressure and nothing comes out, then the pimple is probably not ready to be popped, says Dr. Engelman. And If you do not see a connection to the skin, or a “head” of the pimple then is is not poppable. Whenever you pop your pimples, expect there to be redness for several hours afterwards.
And as Dr. Shah says,”if you've already tried unsuccessfully [to pop your pimple], it's best to see a board-certified dermatologist.” It is possible, you might have tried to early before the blemish was close enough to the surface of the skin. So, she recommends waiting again until you see a whitehead. However, in these instances you may push everything deeper, so rather than make a second attempt, she highly recommends seeing professional help.
Unfortunately, more often than not, attempting to pick a pimple that is not poppable causes more inflammation. If this happens, Dr. Zeichner recommends visiting your dermatologist for a cortisone shot or a prescription treatment. Plus, it’s important to keep in mind that painful, underground nodules and cysts cannot be picked. Attempting to pick them inevitably leads to more harm than good.
So, which pimples can you pop?
The only pimples you should ever try popping are whiteheads and blackheads — but remember to do so with extreme caution. Whiteheads that are not red or inflamed are low risk, says Dr. Murad, while Dr. Zeichner says blackheads can also be easy to pop, “they have a wide opening to the surface of the skin, their contents are easily visible, and they are relatively easy to extract.”
However, never pick painful, red underground pimples. “These bumps, known as cysts, do not have a smooth connection to the surface of the skin. Attempting to pick them will ultimately cause more harm than good,” offers Dr. Zeichner. This kind of acne is best treated with a cortisone injection during a visit with a dermatologist.
What should you do after popping a pimple to treat your skin?
Dr. Zeichner recommends applying an antibiotic ointment like bacitracin to a popped pimple if it is open or raw to prevent development of an infection. After a pimple goes away, it can take several weeks for the skin to fully heal. Inflammation under the skin persists because there is still bacteria under the skin that takes time to fully go away.
According to Dr. Engelman, after popping a pimple you can gently apply pressure with cotton swabs but do not dig with your nails. “Afterwards dab with tea tree oil which has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. You can also apply a pimple patch to help with healing,” she recommends. “With regular care (gentle washing) a pimple can take 3-7 days to heal.” However, if you pick at your face (like me) a pimple can linger for weeks and potentially lead to scarring. Larger cystic pimples can last up to a month, or longer with additional irritation due to messing with face.
Stylist: Michelle Li
Make-up: Courtney Perkins
Hair: Lizzie Arneson
Manicurist: Dawn Sterling
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue