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Why do pimples have a smell? Dermatology experts explain

What causes this unpleasant potential side effect of breakouts.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 31, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
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Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 31, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-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.

Acne is frustrating enough on its own, but it can be even more annoying when it comes with extra-unpleasant side effects—like a certain smell. Popped pimples can emit a specific odor, and while that may not be the case for every zit you ever get, the experience can be a perplexing and annoying one. So why does it happen? 

Allow Curology’s dermatology experts to explain everything you need to know about why pimples might smell. 

Factors that can cause your pimples to smell 

The smell associated with acne isn’t just a byproduct of the blemishes themselves—it’s caused by an interplay of factors. The presence of bacteria, the intensity of your acne breakout, and your personal hygiene practices all collectively contribute to this distinctive scent. 

Bacteria

Bacteria naturally inhabit our skin, playing a crucial role in various processes. However, when these microorganisms encounter the right conditions, such as blocked pores filled with sebum and dead skin cells, they can contribute to the formation of odor and acne.¹

As these bacteria metabolize the matter within your skin, they generate certain byproducts that sometimes include sulfur compounds.² They can often emit a somewhat unpleasant, rotten-egg-like aroma.³ So, when bacteria in your acne breakouts produce these sulfur compounds, it can result in your pimples having a distinct and often less-than-pleasant odor.

The severity of your acne

The severity of your acne can also significantly influence its odor. As acne progresses from mild to more severe stages, it creates a thriving environment for bacteria such as C. acnesC. acnes is known for causing acne and other infections in your skin.⁴ When your skin is infected, other types of bacteria are introduced to the area, which may produce their own set of smelly substances.⁵

Hygiene 

It's important to clarify that acne, including the odor it may produce, is not a direct result of poor hygiene.⁶ However, improper body hygiene practices can influence the overall smell of your skin. Inadequate hygiene can lead to the proliferation of various bacteria on your skin. These bacteria metabolize skin proteins and fats, producing smelly by products.⁷

If your body odor becomes stronger due to poor hygiene, it may give the impression that your acne smells worse, even though the smell does not directly originate from the acne itself. Maintaining good hygiene practices is beneficial not just for general health and cleanliness, but also for managing the overall scent of your skin.

The different types of pimple smells and what they imply 

Whether your acne smells like cheese, garlic, or rotten eggs, there’s a reason for the odor. Proper treatment can help you get rid of your acne and its smell.

Acne that smells like cheese

If you notice an odor from your acne that’s reminiscent of cheese, it may be due to the presence of an epidermoid cyst. These cysts can contain a foul-smelling, yellowish, cheese-like material.⁸

Epidermoid cysts often form as a result of blockages at the opening of your hair follicles. This is a common occurrence in acne vulgaris, in which multiple epidermoid cysts can originate from blocked pores or comedones. Traumatic injuries can also lead to the development of these cysts, as skin damage can cause the protective barrier to break down, allowing bacteria and other substances to enter and form a cyst.⁹

The most effective treatment usually involves complete surgical excision of the cyst while keeping the cyst wall intact. However, if there's an active infection present, the excision should be delayed as the infection can make the dissection process challenging. In such cases, an initial incision and drainage may be necessary, although this can potentially lead to cyst recurrence in the future.¹⁰

Acne that smells like onion or rotten eggs

More commonly, if your acne emits an odor that resembles onions or rotten eggs, it's likely due to the sulfur compounds produced by bacteria.¹¹ Sulfur, in particular, is known for its distinctive odor. It can produce a scent that's likened to rotten eggs,¹² or onions.¹³

Acne conglobata

If your acne is particularly severe and has a strong odor, it could be a condition known as acne conglobata. Acne conglobata is a highly inflammatory disease that results in large, grouped comedones (blocked pores) that often produce a strong foul-smelling substance that discharges onto your skin.¹⁴

This type of acne is chronic and invariably leads to scarring and disfigurement. It can occur as a sudden escalation of pustular acne, or it can develop gradually, reigniting acne that has been dormant for a significant amount of time. Due to its severity and potential long-term impacts on your skin, it's critical to seek professional treatment immediately if you suspect you have acne conglobata.¹⁵

Stop your acne from smelling with the right treatments 

It’s important to note that if you notice a smell to your acne, you should let your medical provider know to ensure there is not something else occurring. To achieve clear and fresh-smelling skin, getting appropriate treatment under the guidance of a dermatology professional is key. They might suggest a variety of treatments, such as:

Topicals for acne

To achieve clear, blemish-free skin, various topical treatments are often recommended. Retinoids, derivatives of vitamin A, are commonly used due to their ability to regulate skin cell turnover and reduce inflammation. Antimicrobials, another effective treatment, are specifically designed to eradicate the bacteria contributing to acne. In many cases, a combination of therapeutic approaches can amplify the benefits, targeting acne from different angles.¹⁶

Additionally, there's a wide range of specialized products, such as the personalized acne treatments from Curology, that provide targeted solutions based on your individual skin needs.

Oral antibiotics for acne

In more moderate to severe cases of acne, oral antibiotics may be prescribed. These could include medications such as doxycycline, minocycline, sarecycline, or azithromycin. You can discuss your options and what may be right for you with your medical provider.¹⁷

Alternative treatments for acne

If you’re seeking alternative routes for treating acne, several options exist. Herbal therapies, like tea tree oil, and topical and oral Ayurvedic compounds have shown promise, though they still require more research to be confirmed effective. On the physical treatment front, options include comedones extraction, chemical peels, and microdermabrasion. For acne cysts, injections may be administered.¹⁸

Curology's Acne Cleanser

Speak to a dermatology provider 

It's always important to consult with a professional dermatology provider when dealing with skin concerns such as acne. By doing so, you can ensure that your skin receives the proper treatment it needs and that you're guided by experts in your journey to healthier skin.

Start your journey to clear skin with Curology custom acne products

Taking care of your skin starts with the right skincare regimen tailored just for your concerns. That's why Curology offers customized acne products, uniquely formulated to address your specific skin concerns and needs. 

Whether you’re dealing with mild breakouts or more severe acne, Curology's personalized formulas can help you reach your skin goals. Crafted by a team of expert dermatology providers, the products harness the power of science-backed ingredients designed to treat, help prevent, and manage your acne.

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Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Getting started with Curology is simple. After providing some information about your skin and its needs, you'll receive a personalized treatment crafted for your skin concerns. No guesswork, no confusion—just effective skincare delivered straight to your doorstep. Try Curology's customized acne products* today and embrace the journey to clearer, healthier skin.

FAQs

Can pimples have a smell?

Yes, pimples can emit a distinct odor. The presence of this smell is influenced by various factors, including the type of bacteria present on your skin, your personal hygiene practices, and the severity of your acne condition.

How do you get rid of smelly pimples?

To effectively get rid of smelly pimples, it's essential to receive a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment. This could involve oral medications, topical treatments, or even alternative therapies. Consulting with a dermatology provider is the best course of action, as they can offer expert advice tailored to your specific skin condition.

What is an under skin pimple that smells?

An under-the-skin pimple that emits a smell could potentially be an epidermoid cyst, also known as a sebaceous cyst. These cysts are typically characterized by the release of a foul-smelling, cheese-like material.¹⁹

Why do some pimples smell cheesy?

Some pimples might emit a cheesy smell due to the presence of an epidermoid cyst, which often discharges a foul-smelling, cheese-like material.²⁰

• • •

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

  1. Mogilnicka, I., et al. Microbiota and Malodor–Etiology and Management. Int J Mol Sci. (2020, April 20).

  2. Elmassry, M.M. and Piechulla, B. Volatilomes of Bacterial Infections in Humans. Front Neurosci. (2020, March 25).

  3. Mogilnicka, I., et al. Microbiota and Malodor–Etiology and Management. Int J Mol Sci. (2020, April 20).

  4. McLaughlin, J. et al. Propionibacterium acnes and Acne Vulgaris: New Insights from the Integration of Population Genetic, Multi-Omic, Biochemical and Host-Microbe Studies. Microorganisms. (2019, May 13)

  5. Hayashida, K. et al. Topical odour management in burn patients. Burns Trauma. (2021, August 26).

  6. Ayer, J. and Burrows, N. Acne: more than skin deep. Postgrad Med J. (August 2006).

  7. Lam,T.H., et al. Understanding the microbial basis of body odor in pre-pubescent children and teenagers. Microbiome. (2018, November 29).

  8. Zito, P.M. and Scharf, R. Epidermoid Cyst. StatPearls. (2023, March 7).

  9. Zito, P.M. and Scharf, R. Epidermoid Cyst. StatPearls. Ibid.

  10. Zito, P.M. and Scharf, R. Epidermoid Cyst. StatPearls. Ibid.

  11. Elmassry, M.M. and Piechulla, B. Volatilomes of Bacterial Infections in Humans. Front Neurosci. Ibid.

  12. PubChem. Element Summary for Atomic Number 16, Sulfur. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2023, June 19).

  13. NIH News in Health. Smelling Sickness. National Institutes of Health. (n.d).

  14. Hafsi, W. et al. Acne Conglobata. StatPearls. (2023, January 13).

  15. Hafsi, W. et al. Acne Conglobata. StatPearls. Ibid.

  16. Kraft, J. and Freiman, A. Management of acne. CMAJ. (2011, April 19).

  17. Baldwin, H. Oral Antibiotic Treatment Options for Acne Vulgaris. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (2020, September 1).

  18. Kraft, J. and Freiman A. Management of acne. CMAJ. Ibid.

  19. Zito, P.M. and Scharf, R. Epidermoid Cyst. StatPearls. Ibid.

  20. Zito, P.M. and Scharf, R. Epidermoid Cyst. StatPearls. Ibid.

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

*Subject to consultation. Subscription required. Results may vary. 

• • •
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.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
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Curology Team

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Laura Phelan, NP-C

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