Tempting as it may be, popping a pimple is almost always a bad idea. It may feel satisfying for a second, but the aftermath is usually far from worth it.
A popped pimple often turns into a red bump that can linger for weeks or more or even leave a nasty scar.
This article will teach you why popping is best avoided, how to calm down your pimples without poking and squeezing them, and, as an absolute last resort, how to take on a big, juicy blemish like a pro.
A lot is going on below the surface of that plump whitehead. You just can’t see it. A pimple is like an oil well, full of bacteria, sebum, dead skin cells, and other debris that can spill out and contaminate the area around it. When you pop a zit, you run the risk of driving sebum, dead skin cell debris and bacteria even deeper into your skin, which will most likely result in more swelling and inflammation, dark post-acne spots, and possibly even permanent scarring.
One trick for helping to heal pimples quickly, easily, and painlessly is using an acne patch or a hydrocolloid bandage.
These small adhesive coverings can reduce a sore pimple overnight, pulling out the white gunk (pus) from inside so it sticks to the patch and lets your skin mend itself underneath.
Sound like magic? It’s actually pretty simple: the acne patch promotes faster healing by maintaining moisture. Moisture is key, as new skin cells do best in a hydrated environment while they work on closing the wound.
Acne patches also help protect the area from contamination, minimize scar formation, and—most importantly—prevent you from picking or popping.
Not all acne patches are created equal, though. Some contain active ingredients that can irritate the skin. That’s why we created our own. Curology’s emergency spot patch is designed to absorb pus and oil without stealing the spotlight or bothering your skin as it heals. Just peel the patch off 6-24 hours after applying, and repeat as needed. Our spot patch is great for emergencies, but for long-term treatment, we recommend a Curology Curology Formula to help achieve your skin goals.
Hydrocolloid bandages are fairly easy to use. Just follow these 4 simple steps.
Cleanse the area with a mild cleanser.
Gently pat the area dry with a clean towel.
Apply a hydrocolloid bandage over the pimple.
Leave it on overnight or for as long as possible, up to 24 hours. You can even shower while wearing it.
Here’s a simple DIY trick to help shrink a swollen pimple (and enjoy a moment of self-care while you’re at it): brew yourself a cup of green tea. Applying a chilled green tea bag to a pimple can calm it down and help reduce swelling with its anti-inflammatory properties.
Steep your tea bag in hot water.
Remove the bag and let it sit while you enjoy your tea.
Once the bag has cooled down, squeeze out a bit of the excess water.
Let it chill in the freezer for 10 minutes or so. You don’t want it to be completely frozen, just cold enough to be comfortable against your skin.
Gently hold the bag on the blemish for about 20 seconds.
Rest for a few seconds, then repeat for about five minutes altogether.
If you must pop, let’s teach you how to pop like a pro.
The first step is knowing if a pimple is ready to be popped. Generally, when it has a white or yellow surface (aka a “head”), that means there’s pus right under the skin that will readily drain when popped.
By popping a pimple, you’re creating an open wound, so you should never use your fingers or fingernails—they’re likely covered with debris and bacteria that can make matters worse.
Instead, use a clean, small needle or lancet (you can buy these at most drugstores) and prick the very tip of the pimple, keeping it parallel to the surface of the skin. By gently using these tools, you can prevent the pimple from accidentally exploding beneath the surface of the skin, which could lead to scarring, more inflammation, and other unpleasantries for your skin.
If it hurts to squeeze, or nothing comes out, leave it be. And if there’s any bleeding, consider that a big red stop sign. Bleeding can indicate skin damage and you may be more likely to develop a scar!
Wait until your pimple is firm and looks ready to burst.
Wash your hands well with antibacterial soap and warm water.
Use a sterile lancet. Alternatively, sterilize a fine sewing needle or a straight pin with a match or a lighter and allow it to cool.
Wipe the pimple and your fingers with rubbing alcohol.
Hold the pin or needle parallel to the surface of your skin and gently pierce the tip of the pimple’s head.
Using two cotton swabs (or your index fingers wrapped in clean tissues), softly press around the pimple. Be gentle—if the contents don’t come out easily, don’t force it.
Apply a hydrocolloid bandage. If you have none on hand, apply a dab of plain Vaseline (white petrolatum) or Aquaphor. This will help protect the skin while it heals and reduce post-acne scarring.
Reapply the ointment after swimming, showering, or washing your face. (If you're using hydrocolloid bandages, there's no need to reapply, as they usually last up to 24 hours.)
Morbidly curious about the scientific term for that pesky bump on your face? If so, welcome to the club! There are several different kinds of pimples,¹ and identifying what you’re up against can help you handle it the right way.
We’ll cut to the chase: acne is inflammation, through and through—from tiny clogged pores to large, painful cysts. The process begins on a cellular level when excess oil, or sebum, mixes with dead skin cells, clogging your pores. Cutibacterium acnes (or C. acnes) feeds off the excess oil in a clogged pore, leading to inflammatory breakouts and irritation. Even if you have just a few tiny blackheads, they technically count as “acne.”
Whitehead: A small clogged pore that's also known as a closed comedone. Sebum (your skin’s natural oil) and dead skin cells become trapped in a pore underneath the skin’s surface to form a small bump.
Blackhead: A small clogged pore that’s also known as an open comedone. Unlike their whitish closed comedone counterparts, these appear black because the trapped oil and dead skin cells are exposed to the air.
Papule: A tender, swollen red bump that’s caused by inflammation, usually smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter.
Pustule: A “squeezable” inflamed lesion with a visible central core of pus or "head" that’s 1–5 millimeters in size.
Nodule: A large, firm, reddish lump without pus that’s deeper than a papule and often painful.
Cyst: A large, soft, under-the-skin pimple that goes deep under the skin’s surface and may feel swollen and tender.
There are certain kinds of pimples you should never, ever attempt to pop: deep, painful lesions (nodules and cysts). Trying to squeeze these out will both hurt and disappoint—these bad boys are too deep in the skin to pop.
If you have a nodule or a cystic pimple (aka “blind pimple”), one that feels big but doesn’t have a head, seeing a dermatologist for a cortisone injection may be a better option. This can help reduce inflammation, and it can also help reduce scarring, which is more common with those big, bad, subsurface pimples.
Ever heard of so-called life hack remedies for pimples like spot-treating them with toothpaste or baking soda? Don’t be duped! Not only can these remedies potentially irritate your skin, but some toothpastes contain pore-clogging ingredients that may only make matters worse.
Honey and lemon juice face masks are often touted as natural remedies, but we can’t vouch for either. Pure manuka honey has antimicrobial properties and is likely fine to use on the skin for acne. That said, non-medical grade honey can actually contain bacterial spores, which are not good for your skin. And lemon juice can cause significant dryness, redness, and irritation, so save those royal yellows for lemonade (or the tarter option: lemon water).
One obvious way to avoid the urge to pop pimples is to prevent them altogether. Keeping in mind that different skin types call for different skincare routines, and different causes of acne often require different treatment plans, here are some universal tips to help prevent pesky blemishes from popping up in the first place.
Removing excess oil and dirt by regularly washing your face with a gentle cleanser can help prevent pimples. Make sure you're not overwashing or using excessively hot water that can irritate your skin.
Certain ingredients in over-the-counter skincare products can target your acne. Salicylic acid can be good for blackheads and whiteheads because it helps unclog your pores and reduce inflammation, while benzoyl peroxide works² to fight the bacteria that causes acne.
Sure, we all experience stress. But how you deal with it can affect your skin. Stress causes your body to release hormones that produce oil, which can lead to more clogged pores and, in turn, more breakouts. Stress has been shown³ to make breakouts worse, so keeping cool, calm, and collected can help keep your breakouts to a minimum.
While there’s no direct link between drinking water and clear skin, water is undeniably essential to keeping your body functioning efficiently. As the saying goes, “water is life.” Stay hydrated!
Exfoliating has several benefits, like removing excess oil and dead skin cells from your pores and helping to prevent clogging and breakouts. Gentle exfoliation can help your skin appear smoother, too.
A swollen pimple can be the worst, especially if the swelling causes painful sensitivity. Sadly, there's no magic trick to get rid of pimples fast, but there are some ways you can reduce swelling to make them less visible and painful.
One way to reduce swelling is as simple as opening the freezer. Simply wrap a paper towel or clean cloth around an ice cube and place it on the pimple for 10 minutes. You can repeat the process several times if you like. Be careful not to give yourself frostbite!
Apart from preventing acne, benzoyl peroxide targets existing, inflamed acne, so dab a bit of this spot treatment on the affected area to help reduce swelling overnight.
Remember, green tea is a natural anti-inflammatory, so before you toss out your next tea bag, try that tip we mentioned earlier and toss it in the freezer. Once it’s chilled, place it on the pimple to soothe your skin and help reduce inflammation.
Waiting patiently while a pimple heals isn't always easy, and sometimes taking desperate measures seems like the best option (even though they almost always backfire). Just remember, you're not alone!
As a Curology member, you can reach out to your dermatology provider for help when big zits are bringing you down. If you haven't already, sign up for a free trial of Curology* to get matched with a dermatology provider and receive your very own custom acne treatment to help prevent those big pimples from popping up in the first place.
One trick for helping to heal pimples quickly, easily, and painlessly is using an acne patch or a hydrocolloid bandage. These small adhesive coverings can reduce a sore pimple overnight, pulling out the white gunk (pus) from inside so it sticks to the patch and lets your skin mend itself underneath.
American Academy of Dermatology, How to Treat Different Types of Acne, (n.d.).
What is the Role of Benzoyl Peroxide Cleansers in Acne Management?: Do they Decrease Propionibacterium acnes Counts? Do they Reduce Acne Lesions?. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology,(2008).
Yosipovitch, G., et al., Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta dermato-venereologica, (2007).
This article was originally published on August 4, 2021, and updated on February 7, 2022.
Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C