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Popping Zits: To Pick or Not To Pick?

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 8/23/2020

When you have a giant (or even tiny) zit on your face, it’s hard to keep your hands away from it. That’s especially true if it’s come to a head and is seemingly begging to be popped. 

But keeping your hands off of it is precisely what you should do — unless you want more where that came from. 

Acne is common. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to live with. Acne can be painful, scarring, isolating and depressing. 

So keeping it under control and finding viable treatment options should be at the top of your to-do list. But trust us when we say: picking and popping your blemishes is not on this list. 

How Acne Works 

You know it when you see it, but do you really know what’s happening beneath your skin’s surface when you get a pimple? 

Understanding how pimples develop can help make the case for keeping your hands off of them. 

Essentially, acne vulgaris is caused by four factors: oil or sebum production, dead skin cells blocking your pores, inflammation and the presence of bacteria. 

Oilier skin — often caused by an overabundance of androgens — can make for acne-prone skin, but especially if the other factors are present. 

One of the first obstacles oil has to overcome (before you attack it with blotting paper) is making it to the surface of the skin. 

When your pores are clogged with dead skin cells, this doesn’t happen; the path is blocked. 

The oil is stopped in its tracks, and left hanging out with bacteria within your hair follicles. This bacteria (P. acnes) is naturally present, but when paired with the oil and an inflammatory reaction, lesions like nodules, cysts and pustules appear.

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What Popping May Do

The urge to pop a pimple can be great — especially when it’s filled with pus, just waiting for you to relieve the pressure. 

Popping a pimple can improve its appearance and relieve some discomfort caused by inflammation; it’s true. 

And some people actually like popping pimples (or even watching them get popped) — there’s actually a market for pimple popping videos. 

And if you watch Dr. Pimple Popper, we’re judging you. 

But popping your pimples in your bathroom mirror can do more harm than good. 

When you squeeze a pimple, you run the risk of squeezing the pus deeper into the skin, leading to more inflammation. 

Also, purposefully wounding yourself could increase the chances of scarring. 

Further, you can introduce more bacteria into the skin, both from your hands and from the surface of your face, worsening your acne altogether or causing infection.

Can a Doctor Pop Your Pimples 

If anyone is going to do the popping, it should be a doctor. They use hygienic practices in safe environments, lessening the risks of pimple popping altogether. 

Your doctor may use a process called “extraction” to remove blackheads or whiteheads. This may involve opening the pores with warm water or steam, and then using a small tool known as an extractor.

For deep, painful, inflammatory pimples, your doctor may drain it. Generally, they’ll cut the pimple open using a needle or blade, and then remove what’s inside.

Obviously not all pimples warrant a trip to the dermatologist’s office for removal, but the bottom line is: you shouldn’t be trying to “remove” them at home. Treating and preventing future breakouts is a better approach.

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Alternative Acne Treatment Options 

You’re popping a pimple because you want immediate impact. You could try applying ice to inflammatory pimples to soothe discomfort and take away swelling. Over-the-counter topical agents such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide may also help.

Part of your acne treatment should be focused on prevention. Otherwise, you’re constantly playing whack-a-mole with your face. 

There are many effective acne treatment options on the market. A doctor or dermatologist can help identify the right one given your acne severity and medical history. Topical retinoids such as tretinoin are some of the most common medications, and oral antibiotics may be prescribed if your acne is moderate to severe.

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.