How to Stop Picking At Acne

Katelyn Hagerty

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 4/01/2021

So… You have a pimple, and you want it gone. Do you pop it? Do you pick it? 

Acne and its resulting lesions are a common occurrence, particularly for adolescents, but having acne and having a pimple are two different things — particularly if you have an occasion for pictures or a big date coming up. 

Popping that pimple today may seem like the quickest way to make a blemish go away. 

It makes sense: speed up the process, squeeze out the sebum, and get rid of it faster. But picking and popping pimples is actually bad for your skin for a number of reasons. 

Unless you’re a dermatologist, you’re probably not the person who should be pushing, picking, prodding or in any way touching your breakouts. 

To understand why you should keep your hands off, let’s look at what acne actually is. 

What Is Acne?

Acne is a condition resulting from the breakdown of your skin’s normal process of shedding dead skin cells in hair follicles. 

Pimples are the result of bacterial infections caused when your pores fill with excess cells, oils, bacteria, or when inflammation occurs. 

When the imbalance happens, a mixture of oil and dead cells is a perfect habit for bacteria to flourish.

Plenty of things can cause this imbalance: poor diet, dehydration, climate, or hormone imbalances. 

One hormone type in particular — androgens — can drastically increase the production of sebum (oil) through the sebaceous gland, which is normally produced to make the dead cells slide out of the pore more easily. 

But while acne sounds like a big problem, it’s a problem that can be made much, much worse by popping and picking.

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Why Picking Your Acne Is Bad

You don’t have to take our word for it. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, popping your own pimples can cause a multitude of problems, including acne scars, more pain, making the acne more noticeable, or even an infection. 

Popping the pimple may seem like it’s expressing the contents out of your skin, but doing it wrong can actually force the zit’s contents deeper into your skin, which can create inflammation and increase the chances of infection — not to mention permanent scarring.

Who should pop it, if anyone? A dermatologist. But extraction is rarely the ideal treatment anyway, save for blackheads and whiteheads. 

And other treatments for acne are no more safe for home poppers. To extract more serious types of acne, they may need an injection of corticosteroids to speed healing, which should only be injected by a doctor.

Dermatologists know the proper technique for popping a zit, essentially, and whether it’s a white head or a nodule, they have the appropriate tools, techniques, and safeguards to make sure the problem doesn’t get worse. 

How to Stop Picking

The AAD suggests three things you can do to get clearer skin immediately, which include treating any acne pain with ice, treating your acne with over-the-counter or prescription medications, and keeping your hands away from your face. That last one is a final warning that popping and picking will only make things worse. 

But stopping those picking tendencies can be difficult. In fact, if you find yourself picking your skin (acne or otherwise) as a nervous habit, it may be a sign of a compulsive issue, which can be difficult to correct on the spot.

Luckily, our friends at Harvard Medical School have some tips on how to stop skin picking. 

  • Know your triggers. Whether it’s a reaction to the pain, or a self-conscious instinct to touch and manipulate those self-confidence busting blemishes, knowing what triggers you to reach for them is the first step to stopping the habit.

  • Make it harder to pick. The experts at Havard suggest a few ways to do this, from the simple “keep your nails shorter” to the more extreme “wear gloves.” Distracting your hands is also effective (fidget spinners, anyone?).

  • Get therapy. Specifically cognitive behavioral therapy. If your impulses are obsessive or compulsive, working with a therapist may be your best bet to get at the source of the picking habit — there may be a deeper trigger than just discomfort or dryness to address.

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How to Treat Acne

Once you’ve stopped the ongoing damage to your skin, a variety of treatments and therapies may be available for your particular type of acne. They might include topical or oral medications, most of which will take several weeks or longer to effectively treat your skin. 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill to make your acne go away — and popping your pimples is certainly not a magic treatment either. 

The best thing you can do, whether or not you’re struggling with picking and popping habits, is to consult a healthcare professional, who can assess your skin and help you focus in on the underlying causes. 

Acne can be bad for your skin, self-confidence, and happiness, but it doesn’t have to be permanent, and it doesn’t have to get worse. Get help, treat it the right way, and retake control of yours, so you can be proud of the skin you’re in.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.