Popping a Pimple? (Read This First)

We all have gross guilty pleasures. For many people, pimple popping is high on the list — whether they’re ridding themselves of blackheads or watching someone else popping a pimple.

Videos of doctors popping zits have become increasingly popular over the last few years. Dr. Sandra Lee, aka “Dr. Pimple Popper,” has more than 4 million YouTube followers, 2.2 billion views, and a new reality television show on TLC.

However, most dermatologists — including Dr. Lee and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)— advise against DIY zit popping.

“Popping your own pimples can lead to permanent scarring or pitting,” explained Vlad Ratushny, MD, PhD, a Lahey Health dermatologist at Massachusetts Dermatology Associates in Beverly, Massachusetts. “It can also make the pimple more inflamed and painful, and even spread infection.”

So what are the best acne treatments? And what’s the safest method for popping a pimple, if you must?

Understanding Your Acne

Acne is the most common skin problem in the United States, affecting roughly 40 to 50 million Americans, according to the AAD. While acne is more prevalent in teens and young adults, many adults get pimples, too, especially women.

“Hormones contribute to acne, so it’s very common for women to have hormonal acne, particularly around the chin area,” said Dr. Ratushny. “Oily skin and clogged pores also lead to acne. P. acnes bacteria gets trapped in those pores and when your immune system tries to fight this bacteria, the inflammation resuts in the red inflammatory bumps and white pus-filled bumps that you can see in acne.”

Acne comes in multiple forms, including:

  • Whiteheads and blackheads: noninflammatory types of acne that occur on the surface of the skin and cause very little physical discomfort

  • Papules: tender, red bumps without a visible center that occur deeper under the skin

  • Pustules: tender, raised, red bumps with a defined circular center that are filled with white or yellow pus

  • Inflammatory acne cysts: very large, soft, painful, red or white lumps filled with pus that are situated deep within the skin

Treating Acne

Dermatologists treat various types of acne differently, but pimple popping is almost never the recommended course of action.

“A dermatologist generally wouldn’t pop any of your pimples,” said Dr. Ratushny. “If you have a large pimple or cyst, a dermatologist can inject a corticosteroid into it to help it shrink, or do a procedure called incision and drainage to remove the pus. But overall, the best acne treatments involve prevention. Almost every single treatment we have for acne is designed to prevent you from developing new bumps. For existing bumps, you just need to give them time to resolve on their own.”

Over-the-counter medications containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid usually improve mild to moderate acne. However, you should consider seeing a dermatologist if you have an inflammatory cyst, or if your acne is severe, painful or doesn’t respond to over-the-counter remedies after a few weeks.

“There are wonderful treatments for acne, anywhere from multiple types of topical treatments, to injections, to oral antibiotics, to a high-dose, oral vitamin-A medication called Accutane,” said Dr. Ratushny.

How to Pop a Pimple (If You Must)

If you just can’t fight the urge to pop, how can you minimize the potential damage to your skin?

“Out of the types of pimples, the pustules are the most OK to pop very gently,” said Dr. Ratushny. “If you were to do that, use an alcohol pad to clean the area, make sure your hands are clean and gently apply pressure to both sides. If on light pressure, no pus comes out, I would give that one up and wait for it to resolve on its own.”

As for watching other people popping zits, Dr. Ratushny says he personally doesn’t understand the fascination. He does, however, appreciate the attention that Dr. Pimple Popper is bringing to the field of dermatology.

“People are obviously very interested in this,” he said. “One of my patients came in with an epidermal inclusion cyst that needed to be treated with incision and drainage. The patient told me they knew exactly what I was about to do, because they watch Dr. Pimple Popper. While I was doing the procedure, they were almost doing a play-by-play, talking through what was happening.

“I think Dr. Pimple Popper is good for the field of dermatology, because she’s drawing a mass audience to see what dermatologists really do, which goes well beyond popping pimples. We treat very serious diseases like psoriasis, severe eczema, melanoma and other cancers, and all disorders of hair, nails and skin.”

Need help treating your acne? Find a Lahey dermatologist near you.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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