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Ask Curology: Does popping a pimple spread infection?

What really happens when a pimple gets popped.

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Apr 16, 2020 · 4 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.
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Welcome to Ask Curology, penned by one of our in-house medical providers in response to your questions about all things skincare. This week, we’re talking about popped zits and the true meaning of bacterial acne, plus a few tips on how to deal with pimple swelling.

• • •

Dear Curology,

I popped a zit — I know, I know — and it’s still there. Actually, it looks more red and swollen than it did before I squeezed it. Is my face infected now? Did breaking my breakout spread harmful bacteria?

I could also use advice on how to make it heal faster 😅


Pop Goes My Pimple

Dear Pop,

Ouch! I think we can all relate to how un-fun of an experience acne can be. And I know it may be frustrating to try to wait for a pimple to heal on its own. First, I’ll debunk an acne myth: it’s a misconception that acne spreads harmful bacteria, but a popped pimple can become infected from other things, unfortunately.

Acne gets its name from the bacteria C. acnes, which lives on everyone’s skin. The bacteria C. acnes is not considered infectious, nor is it contagious — everyone has this bacteria on their skin. When our pores become clogged with excess sebum (oil) and dead skin cells, the bacteria C. acnes thrives and multiplies, leading to breakouts. To be clear, though, acne can be caused by many things — such as diet, stress, and subpar ingredients — often occurring at the same time!

Popping your pimple breaks the skin barrier, which creates a small wound. This wound can become infected by a more aggressive bacteria, especially if you often touch your face, so remember to wash your hands regularly. Swelling, redness, and pain are signs to look for if you’re concerned about a possible skin infection. If you’re uncomfortable, you should see a doctor. They might prescribe you antibiotics to resolve the infection.

What happens when you pop a pimple?

When you squeeze a pimple, you actually injure the wall of the pore. Bacteria, oil, and dead skin cell debris then can spill into the skin tissue surrounding the pore. Finally, your body’s immune system responds and causes inflammation, resulting in a prolonged healing process (and possibly scarring).

If you don’t pop a pimple, it will typically heal on its own. Even large cystic lesions will usually resolve within a few weeks. I know resisting the urge to squeeze is usually easier said than done, and the temptation to pinch and prod your zit can be overwhelming. But I have good news! There are safe ways to shrink your zit, no matter how big.

How to shrink a pimple

1. Hydrocolloid bandages

These bandages (sometimes called patches, stickers, or dots) help speed healing by protecting your skin, while also drawing the contents out of an inflamed pimple. Wear a bandage while you sleep or while you’re out and about — for 6–24 hours. Quick tip: avoid applying acne treatments right under the bandage — there’s a chance it could cause irritation.

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2. Spot treatments

Spot treatments with drying ingredients like sulfur and resorcinol might help to shrink an acne lesion. Dab a little on your pimple with a Q-tip or clean hands.

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3. Tea tree oil

Diluted tea tree oil can help acne because it works as an antifungal, antibacterial, and astringent agent. It is helpful in treating multiple skin conditions (including acne!). To use as a spot treatment, dilute 1 part tea tree oil with 3 parts an oil of your choice, such as sunflower, castor, jojoba or hemp oil — just not coconut oil!

4. Steroid injection

If a pimple is large, inflamed, and threatening to ruin a big moment (like graduation or a wedding!) you might want to consult an in-person dermatologist. They can inject a dilute steroid medication (such as Kenalog) right into the bump, which can often help to shrink and calm the inflammation.

I hope this helps! Believe me, I know it’s not fun dealing with breakouts, but we’re in this together. Practicing a simple skincare routine can help send you on your way toward better skin. Sign up for a free month of Curology (just pay $4.95 plus tax for shipping & handling) if you’re unsure where to start. One of our in-house medical providers (like me!) will be happy to answer any questions you have about your skin, and we’ll prescribe you a custom treatment to help improve your acne.

Good luck!

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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