Pimple Popping 101: How to (Safely) Zap Your Zits

Clean hands, gentle pressure are critical

Pimple Popping 101: How to Pop a Zit

Zits. Pimples. Acne. No matter what you call them, whether they are whiteheads, blackheads, or pustules, nearly everyone has struggled with them. Some people try to clear their blemishes by popping them — a practice doctors call extraction.

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Although popping pimples is often immediately gratifying, dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, highly discourages it.

“People tend to get in trouble because they start extractions, and it becomes a habit,” she says. “It can cause more problems than good, including inflammation and acne scars.”

But, if you’re determined to get rid of your pimples by popping them, there is a best way to do it, she says.

What causes pimples to pop up?

Before you start squeezing blemishes, you should know why they happen.

The cells around the hair follicles on your face get sticky, Dr. Piliang says. Once they stick together, they form a plug that blocks your pores. Oil builds up behind the plug and causes a bump — a blackhead, whitehead or pustule.

Over time, the hair follicle fills up and stretches. If it gets too full, it can burst, causing inflammation or developing pus.

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Do some prep before you pop

You can pop pimples far more easily if you loosen the plug first, Dr. Piliang says.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as retinoids, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid can effectively open up your pores if you use them consistently for several weeks.

Best approaches for a hands-on process 

Whether you’re dealing with a blackhead, whitehead or pustule, the first step is always the same. Wash your hands and face.

From there, the process is slightly different for each type of acne.

  • Blackheads – After using an OTC medicine, popping a blackhead is fairly easy. Gently apply pressure to the outer edges with either your fingers or cotton swabs. Blackheads are technically open pores, so the plug should pop out easily, Dr. Piliang says.
  • Whiteheads – These are closed pimples, so you will need to create an exit point for the plug. Sterilize a needle with alcohol and gently prick the top of the pimple. Then, apply pressure in the same way you would to extract a blackhead.
  • Pustules – A pustule sits deeper beneath your skin. Use a hot compress to draw the pus to the surface before applying pressure. As with a whitehead, you may need to open an exit. Stop if you aren’t immediately successful.

“If nothing comes out, wait a while,” Dr. Piliang says. “If you try to manipulate and squeeze it too much, you will only make the problem worse.”

What are the risks of pimple popping?

Popping a pimple certainly releases any oil trapped in your pores. But mashing blemishes comes with risks.

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“You could take something small and not noticeable to someone else and make it a big, red bloody mess,” Dr. Piliang says.

Being too aggressive could cause skin inflammation or long-term scarring. It could also stretch your pores, permanently making them bigger.

Your best best? Preventing the next pop session

Pimple popping is, by far, the most popular way to deal with these forms of acne, Dr. Piliang says. But working with your dermatologist is a much better method that is safer for your skin in the long run.

“It’s a good idea to see a dermatologist who can advise you on how best to treat your acne,” she says. “He or she can get you on a regimen to treat the existing blemishes and prevent new ones from coming up.”

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