Is Popping Pimples Bad for Your Skin?

What Really Happens When You Pop a Pimple

Is popping pimples bad for your skin?
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We've been warned by our dermatologists, estheticians, and our mothers -- don't pop pimples! But is popping a pimple really all that bad for the skin?

Popping Pimples Damages the Skin

Yes, popping pimples really is as bad for our skin as the experts (and Mom) says it is.

An inflamed acne pimple happens when the pore becomes engorged with excess sebum, dead skin cells, bacteria and, often, pus. Next thing you know, you're standing in front of the mirror debating if the pimple is "ready" to pop.

Before you start squeezing, though, consider what's happening under the skin. The pore is already swollen and under a lot of pressure.

When you squeeze a pimple, you can inadvertently force all the debris from the pore deeper into the follicle. That can cause the follicle wall to rupture, spilling all the infected material into the dermis, the lower layer of skin.

Don't be fooled into thinking your skin is OK if you are able to coax pus and debris from the pore opening. You can still be pushing infected material deeper into the dermis below even while pus is being extracted from the pore.

Popping Pimples Makes Blemishes Worse and Can Cause Scarring

Have you ever popped a pimple, thinking you "got" it, only to have it come back a few hours later (bigger and angrier than before?) Or have a second pimple appear right next to it?

You're not imagining things. Squeezing blemishes can really make them worse. The damage isn't just happening below the surface, but also up above where you can see. 

Popping or picking at a pimple can obviously leave a scab. Squeezing, especially if you're doing it to a papule (a pimple without a white head,) can make your skin much redder and swollen than just leaving it be.

6 Steps to Heal a Popped Pimple Fast

Do enough squeezing and you may even turn that regular pimple into a more serious type of blemish, like a nodule (a hard, red, painful blemish deep within the skin) or an acne cyst.

The most serious form of a blemish, acne cysts are large and painfully inflamed lesions. They develop when a membrane forms around the infection in the dermis, creating a soft, fluid-filled lump. Cysts must be treated by a physician.

Help for Cystic Acne

And popping can have many longer-term effects than a swollen spot and a scab—it's a surefire way to increase your chances of developing acne scars.

Every time your skin is damaged there's a possibility that, as the skin heals, tissue will be lost. That's how you get depressed or pitted acne scars. The greater the damage done to the skin, the greater the chance of tissue loss.

Even if depressed scars don't develop, dark marks can. These dark spots on the skin, called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, are caused by inflammation. Popping a pimple causes inflammation, so you're more likely to see post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation once a pimple heals.

There Are Safer Ways to Take Care of That Pimple

Picking at your blemishes can spread infection, and ultimately worsen your acne. Clearly, a hands-off policy is the best choice when it comes to your skin.

But, honestly, zits are annoying enough that we just want to get rid of them fast. There are safer ways to get rid of individual pimples.

Try an Acne Spot Treatment on Individual Pimples

First, try over-the-counter acne spot treatments. These products are dabbed on existing pimples to help dry them out and heal them quickly.

These work best for relatively minor pimples, though. If you have a really big pimple that won't go away, you may need to see a dermatologist for help. Spot treatments are unlikely to be much help with these more severe blemishes.

If You Absolutely Must Extract a Blemish, Do It Safely

Your best bet, always, is to leave the zit alone to heal. But, if you just have to squeeze it, at least extract the blemish safely.

Don't use your fingernails or another hard object, don't force the zit to drain, and never squeeze a deep pimple or one that hasn't come to a white or yellow "head."

Are You a Compulsive Popper? Talk to a Physician

We all have, at one point or another, popped a pimple even knowing we shouldn't. Occasionally squeezing a blemish, while not great for your skin, is normal.

But when squeezing pimples, popping zits or picking at the skin becomes a compulsion, it's time to look a little deeper. You may have a form of acne called acne excoriee (also known as excoriated acne.)

People with excoriated acne pick at their pimples, real or imagined, to the point of seriously damaging their skin. You can learn to stop, but you will need a pro's help. Talk with your dermatologist or physician.

A Word from Verywell

Of course, we all want to keep pimples from forming in the first place. The absolute best way to do that is to use an acne treatment medication every day.

Over-the-counter acne products can help stop minor breakouts. But if those don't work after two or three months time, or if your acne is more severe, put in a call to a dermatologist. There are many prescription acne treatment options that will help clear your skin and make pimples a thing of the past.

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Article Sources
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)."Questions and Answers About Acne."
  • Zaenglein AL, Pathy AL, Schlosser BJ, et al. "Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris."Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2016 May;74(5):945-73.