Pimples. Those small sacs underneath the skin that are filled with natural oils (sebum), dead skin cells and sometimes bacteria and white blood cells sure do pack an ugly punch (particularly the new mask-related acne or “maskne” we’ve all been sporting lately). They’re obvious and gross, and no wonder you want to pop them so badly (or watch Dr. Pimple Popper do it on TV). We’ve all been there. Whether it was before a big job interview or a first date or, heck, even just going to the gym, we’ve poked, prodded and squeezed that pimple in hopes of getting rid of it and moving on with our lives. While most of us think we’re popping pimples correctly, the truth is, we’re probably doing more harm than good.
It’s important to note that most dermatologists, including the ones interviewed for this piece, advise against popping pimples (no matter how tempting it might be). However, if you must pop that pimple, here’s how to do it in the safest and cleanest way possible.
Why you shouldn’t pop it
“It is tempting to squeeze a painful red cyst under the skin or a pus-filled bump that looks ‘ready,’ but if not done properly, it can make the situation worse,” dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse tells SheKnows.
There are many reasons for this. If the pimple is deep or if there is no obvious open pore, squeezing will cause pain and inflame the cyst, dilating the blood vessels, drawing fluid and white blood cells to the area and making it appear larger and more red and raised, Shainhouse explains. If it “pops” under the skin, it can cause a local infection (cellulitis), which will be red, swollen and tender for days at least.
Additionally, if your fingers aren’t clean, you may be able to squeeze out a bit of pus, but then you can introduce other bacteria (usually staphylococcus) into the torn pimple and into adjacent pores, causing a secondary skin infection. Ugh.
“So, when you think about all the bacteria that is packed into a pimple and then how the act of popping it, while satisfying, might splatter the pus and bacteria into other pores and actually cause more acne, you may want to think again,” Dr. Paul Dean, board-certified dermatologist and creator of SkinResource.MD Consmeceuticals, tells SheKnows.
But if you really can’t resist…
How to pop that pimple
The best pimples to pop are small whiteheads, blackheads and pustules (a red inflamed blemish with an obvious whitehead). Which ones to leave alone? The pimples that are red (without a whitehead), which may be deeper blemishes, says Dean. And don’t even think about touching that boil.
It’s essential to start with a clean face and clean hands to minimize the spread of bacteria. Shainhouse recommends swiping the pimple with rubbing alcohol to disinfect the skin. You could use your two fingers, but Shainhouse suggests using a needle or pin dipped in rubbing alcohol to disinfect it (“Burning it over a flame will not necessarily kill bacteria,” she says) and then popping the skin overlying the most “ready area,” which is “usually the stretched-out skin over a yellow pus-filled bump.”
Shainhouse says to then use two clean cotton swabs and roll them inward from the outer edges of the lesion to remove the pus or sebum/dead skin cell debris. “Try to do it in one shot, in order to minimize irritating and even tearing the surrounding and overlying skin,” she says.
Dean recommends you next apply a light, oil-free moisturizer that will moisturize without clogging pores. “It’s important to keep the skin moisturized; even blemished skin will benefit from added moisture. Try using a hyaluronic serum that will add moisture without the weight,” he says.
After moisture is applied, Dean says you can start spot treatment. “It’s best to find a spot treatment that is nonabrasive and hydrating to the area but can work fast and clear up redness and irritation.” He recommends looking for ingredients such as soothing green tea and dipotassium glycyrrhizate, “which is a calming molecule from licorice that can help with redness, reducing visible inflammation.”
Lastly, Dean says to remember to keep your hands off! “Keeping your hands off your pimples will help in lessening their appearance. Also, if you continue to touch your face and infected areas, this will only make them worse.”
Leave it to the professionals
Ultimately, Shainhouse and Dean recommend visiting a dermatologist when you’ve got a pimple you can’t shake. Dean says, “Your doctor will take certain precautions, such as using sterile tools when removing the contents of the pimple, making it a much cleaner and healthier option for taking care of your pimples and your overall skin health.”
Can’t wait for an appointment? The good news is, according to Dean, most pimples will subside and heal themselves within three to seven days. So, if you can, resist the urge to pop. Your skin will thank you.
A version of this story was published February 2019.
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