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If You Must Pop a Pimple, Here's How to Do It the Right Way

Photo by Richard Drury/Getty Images

It happens. Your skin is looking pretty great and all of a sudden, a big, red pimple is staring you right in the face. You know you’re not supposed to touch it but every time you pass a mirror, there it is. It’s uncomfortable and feels huge regardless of what size it actually is. Don’t stress. There are things you can do to reduce the size of the pimple and keep it away. And if you cannot stand it and you have to pop the pimple, there are ways to do it safely to minimize damage to the skin.

Whether you’re dealing with a nasty pustule, cystic acne, or blackheads, board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, can help. She provides her patients with a variety of cosmetic and medical procedures and services including treatments for acne, eczema, and signs of aging. We chatted with Dr. Garshick to find out what happens if we do pop our pimples and alternatives to popping in the first place. Plus, she walked us through the right way to pop a pimple, which starts with clean hands and ends with clear skin.

But first: Should you pop that pimple?

Your mom was right: you shouldn’t pop a zit. “It can worsen the inflammation, swelling and increase the risk of scarring,” says Dr. Garshick. “On occasion, in-office extractions can be helpful for certain types of stubborn breakouts but these are best done by professionals to minimize the chance of scarring.” Plus, you can actually make the pimple bigger and there’s nothing more frustrating than that.

About the Expert: 

Marisa Garshick is a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in New York City. She also serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“It’s not uncommon for patients to notice that the breakout gets worse and is more persistent after attempting to pop it given the increase in swelling,” adds Dr. Garshick. Ouch. That’s the last thing you want. Hyperpigmentation (acne marks and dark spots) is also a concern. Some are more prone to acne scars than others. The type of pimple matters, too. If you’re trying to pop cystic acne, you’ll be doing much more harm than good.

“Cystic zits, while sometimes filled with pus, often do not necessarily contain as much fluid, pus or cystic contents,” says Dr. Garshick. “I find patients often squeeze but notice that nothing comes out and all the squeezing leads to more swelling and inflammation.” You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. Whiteheads and blackheads, on the other hand, are smaller and need precision or you’ll get a larger mark when not done correctly. This is best done in the hands of a skincare professional.

What are alternatives to popping? 

If you’re going to be strong and avoid popping pimples, there are a few things you can do to reduce the size and soreness. If it goes down, or even pops on its own, you’ll have much less of a risk of scarring. 

  1. Use a spot treatment. “A spot treatment can reduce inflammation or dry out the spot, often being more targeted in the individual spot itself,” explains Dr. Garshick. Use a product containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid but be cautious that using too much of a spot treatment can lead to excess dryness and skin irritation.

  2. Apply a hot compress. If your blemish is especially red and inflamed, a warm compress (such as a wet washcloth with warm water) can help. “It can soften the breakout and sometimes allow the contents to come out on their own,” says Dr. Garshick. Just be sure not to pick or rub the mark. 

  3. Visit a dermatologist. If acne is really stressing you out, go see a dermatologist. “Visit your local board certified dermatologist for either a cortisone injection to help bring down a larger cystic breakout or for a chemical peel or extraction to help with a blackhead or whitehead, says Dr. Garshick. You can also discuss your current skincare routine and all over skincare tips, as well as get the specific acne treatment for your skin. 

How to pop a pimple if you really need to:

1. Begin by washing your hands. 

If you must pop the pimple, make sure you have ultra-clean hands. Make sure to also clean the area of your pimple with cleanser or alcohol. 

2. Skip the comedone extractor. 

Instead, use two Q-tips or cotton swabs on each side of the pimple and apply gentle pressure to see if anything comes out. “If nothing comes out while applying gentle pressure, you should not keep going given the risk of scarring,” says Dr. Garshick. Be sure not to use your fingers right on the breakout to minimize the risk of infection. 

3. Apply a spot treatment overnight. 

Unless you have an open wound, you can apply your spot treatment on top to kill any additional infection inside the pore. You’ll wake up with clearer skin.

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About the author
Elizabeth Denton
Elizabeth is a freelance beauty writer. Previously, she was a beauty & fashion editor at Time Out New York, Seventeen, & Allure. She has more than a decade of experience in the beauty and fashion world, writing for Nylon, StyleCaster, Cosmopolitan & more.
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Article Last Updated June 18, 2020 12:00 AM