I know how it feels to wake up in the morning and suddenly see a gross-looking pimple in the middle of your face, just begging to be popped. While part of the reason we feel so compelled to pop pimples is just the desire for them to disappear as fast as possible, I think another part of it is compulsion. Popping zits and watching them drain is a little bit (okay, very) satisfying. That’s why it is no surprise that Dr. Pimple Popper has so many Instagram followers. However, popping a pimple can be very harmful to the skin, both in the short term and in the long term.
What Are Pimples, Anyway?
Pimples show up as a result of the following process: a pore becomes clogged with dead skin, sebum, and impurities. Due to the presence of acne bacteria on the skin, the clog becomes inflamed and irritated. The infection also causes pus to form and collect under the skin. Needless to say, pimples are unseemly and often painful.
Why You Shouldn’t Be Popping Pimples
When you pop a pimple, even carefully, you are risking that it won’t heal properly. This can lead to scarring that may take a very long time to disappear. However, scarring is actually the least of your concerns.
Another concern is that when you pop the pimple you might end up spreading the bacteria around and cause other pimples to form elsewhere on your face. Many people report that once they stopped popping pimples and further aggravating their skin, they had actually noticed pimples recurring much less frequently!
A dangerous risk of popping is that you may push the infection down lower into the skin, where it will become a cyst. Cysts are considerably more painful than pimples, and take much longer to heal.
Worst-case scenario is a staph infection. Once you’ve broken the skin by popping the pimple, it is much easier for staph bacteria to join the propionibacterium acnes party, and make your situation pretty dire. It often manifests in a larger cluster of pimples, or a painful rash that will only disappear after a course of antibiotics.
However, some strains of staph are actually resistant to antibiotics, and are therefore much more difficult to get rid of. If the staph bacterium manages to enter the bloodstream through a cyst, it can actually travel to other parts of the body, and cause everything from fever and nausea to life threatening septic shock.
Tips to Quit Picking and Popping Pimples
So we’ve established that popping pimples is a bad idea. But what if you do it compulsively? How can you resist the urge?
I hope that at least understanding the risks involved helps curb your enthusiasm for squeezing. But I have a few more suggestions!
First, avoid touching your face in the first place – it’ll both stop you from being reminded that the pimple is there, and will also prevent you from introducing new bacteria to the skin.
Second, keep it out of sight. One way to do this is by covering the pimple with a non-comedogenic concealer. Bonus points if it has anti-acne ingredients, like the salicylic acid in the Acne Solutions Clearing Concealer by Clinique.
If you’re staying in all day, or looking for an evening and overnight solution, then you can cover it up with a band-aid. Peter Thomas Roth Acne Clear Invisible Dots are the perfect size to cover a pimple and keep your hands away, and they also contain more of that acne-shrinking, bacteria-inhibiting salicylic acid.
Even though you may keep your pimple covered and your hands away, that compulsion to pick and prod might still be lurking in the back of your mind. That’s where videos may help – they provide all the satisfaction of popping a juicy pimple, without any of the damage.
Dr. Sandra Lee, a.k.a. Dr. Pimple Popper, is a dermatologist with over 1.6 million subscribers on Youtube. Many of her subscribers report that watching her videos alleviates their desire to pick and prod at their own skin.
Full confession? I’m a compulsive skin picker, and I find that running to Youtube or Instagram has definitely helped me quit my picking, and my skin has really improved as a result.
What You Should Be Doing, Instead of Picking at Your Skin
So that’s it! You’re done and through popping pimples. What should you do next time you look in the mirror and see a blemish?
First, don’t panic! Remember how earlier I mentioned that pimples are caused by a mixture of clogged skin, infection, and inflammation? What you want to do is treat all the three things.
Get rid of all the excess bacteria around that pimple by cleansing with a gentle anti-acne wash, like the creamy Time Release Acne Cleanser by Murad. Don’t use any exfoliating sponges or cloths, because they may break the pimple and spread bacteria around. Instead, use the pads of your fingers to massage very lightly, and remove the cleanser with either a splash of water or soft cotton pads.
Next, treat the inflammation. If it’s severe and painful, wrap ice in a clean cloth, and hold it against the pimple for a minute or two. You will feel relief very quickly.
Afterwards, apply a special treatment that will penetrate through to kill the acne bacteria as well as to exfoliate away the dead skin trapped within the pore. One option is to use a calming spot treatment with salicylic acid (an exofliant that also has anti-inflammatory properties), like Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.
Some people find that their blemishes heal faster with a stronger anti-bacterial ingredient, like benzoyl peroxide, so you might prefer Clearogen Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Lotion, which also has anti-inflammatory extracts like green tea and cowslip.
However, I’m a big believer in natural and DIY acne treatments. There are lots of excellent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients hiding in your cupboard. While there are lots of challenges involved when trying to craft DIY skin solutions that’ll last for more than a couple days, spot treatments are actually really easy to mix into one-use batches.
The following spot mask is made of ingredients that target all three concerns: turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory that is excellent at reducing the size of painful pimples, Greek yogurt is chock-full of lactic acid, which will dislodge the trapped dead skin, and lavender oil is a soothing and anti-bacterial essential oil that will finish off the p. acnes bacteria.
Simply mix a spoonful of Greek yogurt with a ⅛ teaspoon of turmeric, and a single drop of lavender oil (you can also substitute tea tree oil). Dip a Q-tip into the mixture and apply it to your pimple. Give it enough time to work: at least 15 minutes, although you can let it stay on your skin for even longer. You can do this spot mask three times a day until the pimple completely disappears – which will happen in no time!
Make sure to mix a fresh batch of the mask every day. Unlike the spot treatments you may buy at the store, what you’re making contains no preservatives, and it will spoil or grow bacteria after a short while.
How to Pick Safely, If You Must
Okay, I get it – I really do. There is a reason why dermatologists do sometimes pop pustules. The painful pressure of a pimple can be unbearable, to the point that the risks of a bad squeeze might be worth it.
If you absolutely must relieve that pressure, there are steps you can take to almost completely mitigate the risk of spreading the infection or pushing it deeper into the skin. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do to completely eliminate the risk of scarring.
Before deciding to pop that pimple, make sure what you have is truly a pustule: a bump that has a white “head” filled with pus. This means that the infected clog is close to the surface of the skin. If what you have is a papule or a cyst, then you will either just further irritate the skin and increase inflammation, or even worse, you might cause the infection to spread under the skin.
You will need some tools in order to pop a pimple safely. Make sure you have: alcohol (at least 70%), a few pieces of sterile gauze, a sterile single-use lancet (also known as a blood lancet, normally used by diabetics), and an acne-absorbing patch.
1) Start off by washing your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
2) Next, sanitize the area around the pimple with a piece of gauze dipped in alcohol.
3) Take your lancet, and hold it so that the needle is parallel with your skin.
4) Very gently press the tip of it into the middle of the “head” of your pimple.
5) With your fingers wrapped in the clean gauze, very lightly press on the skin, about half a millimeter away from the “head” of the pimple. Since you’ll have already pierced the thin layer of skin, most of the pus should come out easily. If it doesn’t, don’t press harder. It means that your pimple wasn’t ready to be popped.
6) Wipe the popped pimple with alcohol again to remove any of the bacteria that you just released.
7) You must remember that you now have an area of open skin that must be protected. Nexcare Acne Absorbing Patches were made exactly to protect your popped pimple from bacteria and re-infection. They will also further absorb any pus that you weren’t able to squeeze out, except they will do so gently without irritating or risking the spread of bacteria below the skin. Wear them overnight, and you will wake up to a much less painful, shallow bump that should heal quickly and hopefully without leaving a mark.
Photos courtesy of Self
Don’t miss: Inside-Out Tips for Great Skin