Even the most skincare-savvy individuals would love to get insider intel from a dermatologist. But sometimes, it’s hard to ask a doctor your most burning questions — maybe you believe your concern is too trivial, or you’re embarrassed to get the answer in a face-to-face appointment. That’s why Spotlyte brings you Ask a Derm, a regular column where we have professionals provide the answers to your questions, no matter how big or how small. In this installment of Ask a Derm, Dr. Nava Greenfield of New York City’s Schweiger Dermatology Group explains how to safely pop a pimple at home.
You’ve heard it time and time again from doctors, estheticians, and your mother: do NOT pop your pimples. The advice is sage — dirty hands and fingernails can introduce new bacteria, making the area worse. Improper handling of a not-ready pimple can cause scarring. Dr. Nava Greenfield of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City is absolutely on Team Don’t Touch It, sharing that you’re “better off with a pimple for a few days than risk developing a scar.” But sometimes, the siren song of a blemish is too great to resist, so here, she kindly divulges when and how to safely pop it at home (if you must!).
Step 1: Survey your spot.
According to Dr. Greenfield, the only pimple that is OK to pop yourself is a whitehead — and it must look bloated and full of pus. “If it looks very white on top, it is probably about to open up and begin to heal,” she explains. Leave the rest of your blemishes alone unless you want to risk scarring (which you definitely don’t).
"A pimple will resolve on its own but scars require cosmetic treatments to improve their appearance,” Dr. Greenfield warns. “Anything that would require your fingernails, scratching or any other type of manipulation should not be used at home.”
Step 2: Clean Up Your Act
It’s essential that both the area around the blemish and your hands are squeaky clean — thoroughly wash with soap and water, but do so with great care. “Be gentle when washing the pimple as to not cause any irritation,” says Dr. Greenfield. “A pimple that is ready to drain may be very fragile and you do not want to cause it to bleed or scar.”
You may think that we’re trying to scare you with all this talk about scarring, but the risk is very, very real. The whole point of popping your zit yourself is so the area looks better, not worse!
Step 3: Heat Things Up
Create your own warm compress by saturating a clean washcloth with warm running water. (The water should feel comfortable, not scalding — if you can’t hold your hand under it, it’s too hot.) After wringing out the cloth, fold it and press it against the spot for about 20 minutes. “If the pimple was ready to drain, it will do so at this point,” notes Dr. Greenfield. You can try this technique anytime you’re hoping to hasten a breakout’s demise.
If the zit looks so close to popping but it’s just not there yet, place very gentle pressure at the side of the pimple using the top of a cotton swab or your clean fingertip. Do not use your fingernails — no matter how religious you are about filing and buffing, they are too sharp and are the wrong tools for the job. “If anything more than gentle pressure is needed, abort the procedure and go to a dermatologist,” Dr. Greenfield says.
Step 4: Treat Yourself
Hopefully you successfully popped your pimple at the end of Step 3 (or just gave up, which is completely honorable and in your skin’s best interest). If so, Dr. Greenfield advises applying a thin layer of Aquaphor Healing Ointment ($5) to the area, “because you want skin to heal in a moist environment.” Then leave the area alone so it can heal.
Perhaps you passed on popping but don’t want to give up on treating your zit — maybe you have a major special occasion coming up and the pimple is an especially unwelcome guest? Thankfully, you still have options. Dr. Greenfield suggests visiting a board-certified dermatologist, who could inject it with triamcinolone, a type of steroid treatment. The powerful anti-inflammatory properties of triamcinolone help reduce redness and swelling, so your blemish looks smaller and flatter. “That can make the pimple resolve within 24 hours,” she says.
If you prefer to go the topical treatment route, she also shares that formulas with salicylic acid can help stop a spot in its tracks. We like Kiehl’s Since 1851 Blue Herbal Spot Treatment Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment ($18), because it combines salicylic acid (to help declog pores) with ginger, which works to soothe skin while reducing oil. But remember, leaving your pimple alone is usually the best route. Eventually, it will fade away on its own, leaving your skin clearer than it might end up after you pick at it.
For more specific help tailored to your skin, visit a dermatologist — chat with one of our trained aesthetic specialists to find providers near you!