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Pimples: To Pop or Not to Pop?

By Marygrace Taylor ; Updated July 18, 2017

You look at your face in the mirror or glance down at your shoulder or chest, and there it is: a brand new pimple. You might have no idea how it got there or when it first cropped up. You just know that the thing needs to be popped. Now.

Sound familiar?

For most of us, there’s something about a blemish that’s impossible to ignore. “Popping seems to pull emotions from people. You feel this horror or repulsion, but there’s also a rush and satisfaction,” says Sandra Lee, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and creator of

Still, answering the siren call of the squeeze isn’t always a good idea. Here’s what you need to know about popping pimples — and the right way to do it when you just can’t resist.

Which Type of Pimple Do You Have?

Before you start trying to pick at that pimple, it’s a good idea to learn what kind of bump you’re actually dealing with. Some are more poppable — and less painful — than others, says Whitney Bowe, M.D., FAAD, Assistant Medical Director of Laser & Cosmetic Services at Advanced Dermatology, P.C.

1. Blackheads and Whiteheads

These small bumps are caused when oil, dead skin cells and bacteria block pores. Blocked pores that stay open appear black, so they’re called blackheads. Ones that close up look white, so they’re called whiteheads. Both are temptingly easy to squeeze.

2. Pustules and Papules

These larger pimples form when your pores get so irritated that their walls actually break and become inflamed, causing a classic red bump. Pustules, which are soft and filled with yellowish pus, tend to be easier to pop than papules, which are smaller and harder.

3. Nodules and Cysts

When papules and pustules get even more irritated, they form bigger, more painful bumps. Cysts tend to be softer and filled with pus, so they’re easier to pop. Nodules, which tend to be hard, are tougher.

The Problems With Popping

Aside from the fact that it’s often bizarrely satisfying, most of us try to pop zits because we think that doing so will make them go away faster. But any time you attempt to mess with a blemish, you run the risk of making it worse.

“Whenever you disturb the oil glands on your face, you risk inflammation and irritation,” Bowe says. Remember, blemishes are teeming with dirt and bacteria. So when all that nasty stuff spills out, it can clog your surrounding pores and form new pimples.

Plus, squeezing the heck out of your skin, especially when a pimple isn’t ready to be popped, can set you up for scarring, says Lee.

The Best Way to Pop a Pimple

OK, you get that you shouldn’t pop a pimple, but you still can’t resist. So if you’re going to do it, what’s the way that causes the least amount of damage?

“You have to know when to pop, and when to stop,” Lee says. You should try to limit popping to pimples that have come to a head. They’re not usually that painful, and because they’re soft and pus-filled, they’re pretty easy to pop.

Avoid breaking bumps that haven’t come to a head. Trying to pop them puts you at higher risk for scarring, because when nothing comes out, you’re more likely to try to keep squeezing even harder.

When you’re ready to pop:

  1. Wash your hands and the skin around your pimple thoroughly, to help prevent the spread of bacteria.

  2. Then, using a sterile needle, nick the surface of the pimple to break it open. (Sterilize a needle by washing it with soap and water and then soaking it in rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.)

  3. Use your clean fingers to gently squeeze out the pus (a small amount of blood is normal), stopping as soon as the pus no longer comes out easily.  

The Better Way to Get Rid of Zits

Of course, it’s best to avoid popping if you can resist the urge. You’ll have less risk for infection or scars by treating your pimple with warm compresses, or by applying an acne cream that causes your blemish to shrink and dry out.

Should you need to zap a zit ASAP, it’s best to see a dermatologist. “I can inject the pimple with a low-dose steroid, which will make it go away. That’s probably the ideal situation,” Lee says.

And if your doc determines that your pimple needs to be popped, she has the tools and expertise to do it in a way that minimizes the risk for scarring or infection. “We can perform a punch excision, which uses a sharp cutter to cut out the walls of the cyst so that oil and bacteria can’t get trapped,” Bowe says.

Keeping Pimples From Coming Back

The fewer pimples you have, the less often you’ll be tempted to pop them — and potentially do damage to your skin. So take steps to stop bumps and blemishes from forming by practicing good skin hygiene.

In addition to regular cleansing, that means using an exfoliating wash to slough off dead skin cells once per week, Bowe recommends. That way, your pores will be less likely to get clogged in the first place.

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