Stop, don’t pop that acne papule

Treat those small red blemishes with the right steps to help your skin heal and stay healthy.

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Curology Team
May 19, 2022 · 6 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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Notice small red bumps on your face? They could be a very common type of acne called papules. Papules are a type of blemish that fall into the category of inflammatory acne, along with pustules, nodules, and cysts. Typically, papules form when a buildup of excess sebum—your skin’s natural oil—and dead skin cells clog up your pore. So what makes a papule inflammatory? Bacteria join the mix, causing inflammation and resulting in small red bumps developing on your skin.¹

How to know if it’s a papule

A papule most often looks like a red or pink bump, and it may feel hard to the touch. These blemishes may feel tender, and unlike other types of inflammatory acne (like pustules), they’re not filled with pus.²

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Three contributing factors to papules

Wondering about the causes of acne papules? There isn’t one specific cause; instead, a variety of factors come together to form them: 

  1. Excess sebum production. Sebum is the natural oil your skin produces, and in the right proportions, it’s a natural part of the way your body works. However, excess oil production in the ​​sebaceous glands has been shown to contribute to acne.³

  2. A buildup of dead skin cells. Or, to put it technically, hyperkeratinization of the follicle. It may seem like a mouthful, but it just means the dead skin cells are not shedding from your skin as they should and instead are accumulating inside the pore.

  3. Bacteria. Enter bacteria, which, when mixed with oil and dead skin cells, can result in inflammatory acne (like papules). Your body responds to fight against the bacteria, resulting in inflammation.⁴ So, next time you see a swollen pimple, instead of getting upset, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your body is diligently fighting off bacteria.

  4. Hormones. Fluctuating hormones can also cause acne flares and breakouts, including papules.⁵

  5. Stress. Take another deep breath: Stress has also been linked to worsening acne.⁶

  6. Genetics. We know this one can be disappointing, but some people are more likely to experience acne simply because of their genetics.⁷

Papules vs. nodules

Papules are just one type of pimple you may experience when you have a breakout. Whiteheads and blackheads are comedones. Whiteheads are closed comedones, while blackheads are open to the air.

Just like papules, pustules, cysts, and nodules are all considered inflammatory acne. Cysts and pustules are both types of pus-filled blemishes. So, if you notice a head that appears white and you pop it—which we don’t recommend doing—pus can escape from it.⁸

Acne nodules are a type of inflammatory acne, similar to papules, that are not pus-filled. So what’s the difference between them? Nodular acne is often considered a severe form of acne that may not respond to over-the-counter treatments. Forming deep under the skin, nodular acne is often painful, persistent, and can leave scars.⁹

How to treat acne papules

The good news is papules are very treatable, and you have many options to help clear up those red blemishes. Depending on the severity of your acne, you can use a combination of treatments. Mild acne, often described as having just a few papules and pustules¹⁰ may have a different treatment routine than more severe acne.

  • Benzoyl peroxide. Targeting your papules with over-the-counter topical treatments is an excellent place to start. Benzoyl peroxide is an effective treatment for inflammatory acne, since it fights the bacteria that contribute to acne lesions, such as papules.¹¹

  • Salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is another ingredient that can help fight papules, and you can often find it in over-the-counter face cleansers.¹²

  • Retinoids. Retinoids treat and help prevent clogged pores, which are the first stage in developing papules.¹³ You can purchase retinoid products over the counter (e.g. adapalene) or with a prescription (e.g. tretinoin).

  • Topical antibiotics. If over-the-counter acne treatments are not effective in fighting papules, topical antibiotics may be the way to go. Clindamycin and erythromycin are both antibiotics that have been shown to reduce inflammatory lesions like papules. Topical antibiotics are available through a prescription from a medical provider.

If topical medications are not effective, other treatment options include oral medications that a medical provider can prescribe:

  • Oral contraceptives. Acne may be caused by fluctuating hormones, which is why some doctors prescribe hormonal birth control pills to women to help treat their acne.¹⁴

  • Oral antibiotics. Dermatologists may prescribe antibiotics like doxycycline to help clear acne that's persistent and unresponsive to topical applications.¹⁵

  • Isotretinoin. A form of vitamin A that’s often prescribed for severe or persistent acne, this treatment works by reducing the body’s sebum production and is anti-inflammatory.

Remember to talk with a medical professional to know if a prescription medication sounds right for you when treating your papules. Treatment methods will vary depending on a variety of factors, including the number of acne lesions you experience. Since everyone’s skin is different, there is no one singular way to get rid of papules.

How to help prevent papules

You can treat papules when they appear—but it’s even better to prevent them from forming in the first place. Here are a few habits that can help stop them in their tracks. 

  1. Regularly wash your face. Washing your face with acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide may help clear clogged pores and lessen breakouts.

  2. Use non-comedogenic products. Using hair and skin products made without comedogenic (or pore-clogging) ingredients can help prevent breakouts.¹⁶

  3. Remove your makeup at night. Just like washing your face, wiping off your makeup before going to bed helps keep your pores clean and unclogged, which, again, can reduce breakouts.

  4. Be consistent. How long do papules last, you ask? Patience is key: it may take six to eight weeks for you to see improvement in your symptoms when using the right treatments.¹⁷

Should I pop a papule?

The short answer? No, do not try to pop a papule. We know that popping or picking at any type of acne may be tempting, and you’ve probably heard the advice to resist the urge to squeeze your blemishes. That’s for a good reason. Popping a pimple may lead to an acne scar, an infection, or make the acne even more noticeable.

Popping a pimple also involves the risk of unintentionally pushing oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells deeper into your skin, causing even more inflammation.¹⁸

But because papules specifically don’t contain pus (and therefore don’t come to a head), our advice is to keep your hands off at all costs to avoid making any inflammation worse.

Curology can help

When it comes to treating papules, Curology is there for you. With Curology, you get custom dermatologist-designed skincare to target your specific skin concerns. So if you want to say goodbye to papules, Curology can help create a custom routine with effective ingredients that will specifically target acne papules.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Subject to consultation. 30-day trial. Just cover $4.95 in S&H.
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When it comes to choosing the right acne products, Curology does the work for you by creating your custom skincare. Sign up for a 30-day free trial for just $4.95 + tax (to cover shipping and handling) to join the 90% who see their acne improve in just 3 weeks*!

FAQs

Should I pop a papule?

The short answer? No, do not try to pop a papule. We know that popping or picking at any type of acne may be tempting, and you’ve probably heard the advice to resist the urge to squeeze your blemishes. That’s for a good reason. Popping a pimple may lead to an acne scar, an infection, or make the acne even more noticeable.

• • •

P.S We did the research so you don’t have to:

1. American Academy of Dermatology. How to treat different types of acne. (n.d.)

2. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Acne.(n.d.).

3. STEPHEN TITUS, and JOSHUA HODGE.  Diagnosis and Treatment of Acne. American Family Physician. ( 2012, October 15).

4. Tanghetti, Emil A. The role of inflammation in the pathology of acne. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (September 2013).

5. Elsaie M. L. Hormonal treatment of acne vulgaris: an update.Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology. (2016, September 2).

6. Bhate K., and Williams H.C. Epidemiology of Acne Vulgaris. (2012 December 4).

7. Haider A, Shaw JC. Treatment of Acne Vulgaris. JAMA. (2004, August 11).

8. Cleveland Clinic Staff. Acne: Treatment and Diagnosis. Ibid.

9. American Academy of Dermatology. What can clear severe acne? (n.d.).

10. STEPHEN TITUS, and JOSHUA HODGE.  Diagnosis and Treatment of Acne. American Family Physician. Ibid.

11. Kawashima, M., et al. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. The Journal of dermatology.(November 2017).

12. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris.Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, February 17).

13. Zaenglein, A. L., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Ibid.

14. Lotchester D., et al. Hormonal Contraceptives and Acne: A Retrospective Analysis of 2147 Patients. JDD. (June 2016).

15. Kraft, J., & Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association journal. (2011, April 19).

16. Maarouf M., et al. Myths, Truths, and Clinical Relevance of Comedogenicity Product Labeling. JAMA Dermatology. (October 2018).

17. Kraft, J., & Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association journal. Ibid.

18. American Academy of dermatology. Pimple Popping: Why only a dermatologist should do it. Ibid.

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

**In a clinical trial of 150 Curology patients. Self-reported. Results may vary. Subject to consultation. Subscription is required.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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