Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 7/30/2021
Pimple popping is a common practice among people with pimples, and while it’s not the best recommended treatment for acne, it’s probably not going away.
The problem to address, then, is what happens when you’ve already popped a pimple.
With the damage done, you’re essentially looking at an open wound, and treating it properly is more important than you might think.
There are things you can do to keep the problem from getting worse. Before we look at how to handle pimples, we should first cover some basics about what they are.
Acne is a bacterial infection that results from an imbalance in your skin’s normal processes of cell growth and cell discarding. Acne breakouts happen when one of four things in your pores get out of whack: inflammation, oil production, dead cell disposal or bacteria growth.
A “blemish,” as they’re commonly referred, can be any of these things, but occurs when dead cells and natural oils or sebum get stuck in the hair follicles of your skin, creating ideal conditions for the bacteria Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes to flourish.
No one specific thing causes this — it could be a problem with your diet and water intake, or stress, or your genetics — even the weather.
That said, the central cause for many breakouts is typically male sexual hormones (androgens), which cause imbalance, particularly in your adolescence.
One of the first things androgens can do is turn your sebum production into overdrive, making your skin oily.
Oil isn’t all bad — it’s an important part of your skin’s everyday health. Your pores produce oil through the sebaceous gland to lubricate themselves, so that your body can discard dead skin cells that aren’t falling off as easily as they should be.
But when things go awry, your pores can fill with enough oil and skin cells that it forms a perfect habitat and food source combination for bacteria.
There are different kinds of blemishes that you might be seeing. Blackheads are open bumps on your skin that are filled with excess oil and dead skin. Whiteheads are closed blackheads. Papules are just inflamed whiteheads, and pustules are just papules that contain, well, pus.
Nodules are a little different; they’re pimples filled with solid materials instead of liquid, and cysts are pus-filled pimples with the added danger of the potential for permanent scarring.
There’s also fungal acne to worry about, which is the result of yeast developing (like a yeast infection inside the follicle).
Your acne can be graded from mild to severe based on what you have — mild acne is normally mostly whiteheads and blackheads, but as papules and pustules appear, you move to moderate acne.
Getting rid of the contents of a pimple is important, definitely, but popping it yourself causes some big problems, too.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), popping your own pimples can cause some serious problems, which could leave you with more prominent acne, with acne scars or some pain and/or an infection.
Popping a zit because you want to get out the infected contents is a well intentioned desire, but the problem with doing it yourself is that by squeezing, you can actually force the gunk deeper into your skin, which will increase inflammation, lead to infection and could cause acne scarring.
It’s also a great way for the bacteria to spread to other parts of the skin. Suddenly, that one nasty pimple you had is now a full-on breakout.
The right way to get rid of pimples by popping is to let someone else — a certified dermatology practitioner — do it. But popping doesn’t work for all pimple types.
Dealing with a serious form of acne often requires other means of extraction, as well as an injection of corticosteroids to speed up the healing process. This injection should only be administered by a healthcare professional.
Dermatologists, generally, have been trained in the appropriate techniques and know the correct tools for dealing with various acne types without causing more serious issues.
So you’ve ignored the dangers of pimple popping and already popped that pesky pimple. We get it — sometimes those painful pimples need to go, even if it’s not recommended.
The good news is that this isn’t necessarily a big deal.
In fact, with proper medical care, it shouldn’t cause you any problems. Start by washing your hands with soap and water. Your next priority is stopping any bleeding with clean bandages.
Basically, you’re triaging this little blemish.
Immediately, you’ll want to treat the popped pimple like an open wound. That means reacting to the injury — keep your hands away from it as much as possible, use a cold compress as a spot treatment of the area to reduce any pain and prevent swelling, stop any bleeding with a sterile bandage and, most importantly, treat them properly moving forward.
An antibiotic ointment and cleaning the area with warm water or a gentle cleanser might also help with this process.
Doing these things will reduce your risk of infection or scarring or worse.
It’s important to remember that a popped pimple is essentially an open wound, because between the material that was filling the zit and the damage/rupture to the skin from popping it, you’ve got the vulnerability and the infectious material already built into the situation as hazards.
Different types of pimples may carry different risks of infection, so it’s important to keep an eye on your popped pimple until the area heals.
Whether it’s a nervous habit or a desperate attempt to salvage photos later that night, we get the motivation behind popping pimples.
But not popping is actually part of the best recommended treatments for breakouts. So, if you’re doing it, stop.
The AAD explains that there are three things that you can do to immediately get clearer skin.
Treat acne pain with an ice cube.
Treat acne with over-the-counter or prescription medications.
Keep your hands away from your face.
Can’t stop yourself from popping? Nervous habits and compulsive issues can be difficult to correct without support. Here are some tips on how to stop popping:
Know your triggers. You might be touching your face to react to pain, or as a self-conscious instinct to manipulate or hide your acne blemishes. But knowing the triggers that start your hands moving is the first step to reducing the habit.
Make it harder to pick and put up roadblocks to picking. Keep your nails short and distract your hands with fidget spinners to stop picking. If the problem is really serious, consider wearing gloves.
Seek professional help. Sometimes these habits are more severe than we think, and sometimes the mechanism to get rid of them might take two people to diagnose and overcome. Therapy might be great for dealing with trauma, but it’s also great for things like this. Cognitive behavioral therapy may be your best option.
Acne treatment is really about addressing the problems without making anything worse, and the best way to do that is to address the imbalances you’re struggling with before they lead to pimples.
Acne products like blotting papers, astringents like witch hazel and masks can all remove the excess oil from your skin, which can help get things back in balance. A healthcare professional might also recommend benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid as options, for more serious issues.
Consider compounds like the common OTC option aloe vera, or use a more potent topical like hyaluronic acid, which has been shown to help with moisture retention.
Getting rid of grime and dead cells is important, but exfoliation isn’t just about hard scrubbing — in fact, it’s the opposite.
Scrubbing will help with the right pressure, but consider a chemical exfoliant like a retinoid.
Retinoids are synthetic vitamin A compounds that get rid of dead cells while simultaneously boosting new cell growth.
Over-the-counter options are plenty, but prescription medications like tretinoin can help with more serious problems.
Lifestyle and habits screwing with your skin? A high glycemic diet, poor hydration and general stress can cause skin issues — as well as other, more serious health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and other problems you don’t want to have to deal with later.
Eat well and take care of yourself.
Dietary health is good for your whole body, anyway — not just the parts people can see.
Pimple popping is bad. No two ways about that. If there’s one takeaway here, that should be it.
But if there’s a second, it’s that a healthcare professional should be involved in some of these decisions when it comes to taking on your acne.
Whether you’re a teenager or an adult in your 30s or beyond, fighting acne is a more complicated business than squeezing every last pimple or using an over-the-counter spot treatment — and it doesn’t have to be a battle fought one whitehead at a time.