Tempting as it is, popping a pimple is almost always a bad idea. Unlike a can of tasty potato chips, once you pop, the fun does stop. It may feel satisfying for a second, but the aftermath isn’t worth it! A popped pimple often turns into a red spot, which can last months, or worse: it might leave an acne scar behind. This guide will teach you how to calm your pimples down without popping them — and, as a last resort: how to pop a big, juicy pimple like a professional.
A pimple is like an oil well: full of gunk that can spill and contaminate the area around it if it isn’t handled carefully. There’s a lot going on below the surface of that juicy whitehead that you can’t see. When you pop a zit, you run the risk of driving debris and bacteria even deeper into your skin — resulting in more swelling and inflammation, dark post-acne spots, or even permanent scarring.
There’s an easy and painless trick for healing pimples quickly using a product you can buy for a few dollars at the store: use an acne patch, or a hydrocolloid bandage. These small adhesive bandages can reduce a sore pimple overnight, pulling out all the white gunk from inside the pimple so it sticks to the bandage and lets your skin heal underneath. Sound like magic? It’s actually pretty simple: the acne patch, or hydrocolloid bandage, absorbs pus and oil from the inflamed spot and promotes faster healing by maintaining moisture. Skin cells can’t easily migrate across the Sahara Desert of a scab — they need a hydrated surface in order to live and work on closing the wound. Acne patches or hydrocolloid bandages also help reduce inflammation, protect the area from contamination by microorganisms, minimize scar formation, and — importantly — prevent you from picking or popping!
Tip: Hydrocolloid bandages aren’t always labeled that way. Look for blister bandages in your pharmacy, and make sure they have “hydrocolloid” mentioned on the box.
Easy DIY trick to shrink a swollen pimple: use a green tea bag as a compress! If you want to cool that pimple down, just put a used green tea bag in the freezer for a little while to transform it into a cold compress. With its anti-inflammatory properties and caffeine content, applying a chilled green tea bag to a pimple can calm it down and reduce swelling.
Step 1. Steep your tea bag in hot water.
Step 2. Take out the tea bag and let it cool down while you enjoy your cup of tea.
Step 3. Once the bag has cooled down, squeeze some of the excess water out.
Step 4. Let it chill in the freezer for 10 minutes or longer. You don’t want it to be completely frozen — cold enough but still comfortable against your skin.
Step 5. Gently hold the bag on the blemish for about 20 seconds.
Step 6. Rest, then repeat for about 5 minutes total.
So you’ve gotten this far, but you still can’t resist? If you must pop it, pop it like a pro.
How do you know if a pimple is ready to be popped? This isn’t exactly a medical term, but nothing describes it better than “juicy”! Generally, when a pimple has a “head” (white/yellow appearance), this is the pus right under the skin that will readily drain when popped. If it hurts to squeeze, or nothing comes out, it should be left alone. And if you start to see any bleeding from the popped spot, consider that a big red STOP sign!
The most important thing is to NOT use your fingers, and especially not your fingernails. If you’ve just got to squeeze that zit, use cotton swabs (aka Q-Tips) instead of your fingers to squeeze the pus out of a pimple — your fingernails harbor bacteria. You can also use a clean, small needle, or a sterile lancet (you can buy these at most drugstores) and prick the very tip of the pimple, with the needle parallel to the surface of the skin. Gently using these tools can prevent the pimple from accidentally exploding beneath the surface of the skin, which can lead to scarring and more unpleasant aftermath for your skin.
Are you morbidly curious about the scientific term for that thing on your face? (No judgment here.) There are several different kinds of pimples, and identifying what you’re up against can help you handle it the right way.
The basic gist: acne is an inflammatory process through and through, from tiny clogged pores to larger painful cysts. The process begins on a cellular level when excess oil, or sebum, mixes with dead skin cells and bacteria and clogs your pores. Even if you have just a few little blackheads, that counts as “acne”.
Whitehead: A small clogged pore, aka closed comedone. Sebum (oil) and dead skin cells trapped in the pore underneath the skin’s surface form a small bump.
Blackhead: A small clogged pore, aka open comedone. These look black because the trapped oil and skin cells are exposed to the air.
Papule: A tender bump with redness and swelling caused by inflammation; less than 5mm across.
Pustule: A “squeezable” inflamed lesion with a visible central core of pus; a raised bump 1–5 mm in size.
Nodule: A large, firm, reddish lump. Deeper than a papule, and often painful (ouch).
Cyst: A highly inflamed and/or draining acne nodule; resembles an inflamed epidermal cyst.
There are certain kinds of pimples you never ever want to pop: deep, painful lesions (nodules). Attempting to pop these will hurt a LOT and won’t get you anywhere. They’re too deep under the skin’s surface to be popped. If you’ve got a cystic pimple or an “invisible pimple” — aka “blind pimple,” one that feels big but doesn’t have a whitehead on the surface — an effective option is to see an in-person dermatologist for a cortisone injection. It may sound extreme, but it helps reduce scarring, and scarring is more common with those big, bad, deep-down pimples.
Ever heard of so-called home remedies for pimples such as toothpaste or baking soda? Don’t try this at home! These can cause a lot of irritation. Also, some toothpastes contain pore-clogging ingredients, which will only make things worse.
Honey and lemon juice are often touted as natural remedies, but we can’t vouch for either. Although pure manuka honey does have antimicrobial properties, it’s not likely to help acne much, if at all. Non-medical grade honey can actually contain bacterial spores , which is not good for your skin. Lemon juice can cause significant dryness, redness and irritation, so take those lemons and make lemonade (or, preferably, the good-for-you option: lemon water).
We know pimples are a touchy topic (pun intended): it’s tough to be patient while they heal, which can lead people to take desperate measures — even though those almost always backfire. Just remember that you’re not alone! If you’re a Curology member, you can reach out to your derm provider for help if big zits are bringing you down. Sign up for a free trial of Curology and you’ll have a quick online questionnaire, get matched with a dermatology provider one-on-one, and receive your very own custom acne treatment to prevent those big pimples from popping up in the first place.