What Happens If You Don’t Pop a Pimple?

    What Happens If You Don’t Pop a Pimple?
    Updated 26 November 2021 |
    Published 11 November 2019
    Fact Checked
    Tanya Tantry, MD
    Reviewed by Tanya Tantry, MD, Obstetrician & Gynecologist, Medical Consultant at Flo
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    Date night, a job interview, the night of a big party — pimples often show up at the most inopportune times. Wanting to pop it is a completely natural urge. But as you’ve probably heard, popping a pimple will only make it worse. So what can you do? And what will happen if you just leave it be?  

    Should you pop pimples?

    Although it can be incredibly tempting to pop pimples, doing so can backfire. Most of the time, it’s better to let the pimple pop on its own. 

    Whether caused by puberty or stress, having acne is never fun. It may help to think of pimples this way: They are holding in bacteria, oil, and grime. They’re actually a form of protection. Your skin has a very effective method of healing pimples. By popping them yourself, you are interfering with your skin’s natural process. In fact, when you pop a pimple, you release the bacteria onto your face, increasing the chances of getting even more pimples. 

    There are also several types of pimples you should never pop. Boils, which can look like pimples, are actually bacterial infections and can be a sign of a staph, or Staphylococcus aureus, infection. Popping them can cause the infection to worsen or spread to other people. Cystic acne, which is a hormonal type of acne, is the most serious kind of acne and should never be popped. 

    Medical professionals, like licensed dermatologists, agree that popping a pimple should only be done as a final resort. If you feel you absolutely must pop them yourself, there is even a benefit to waiting just a few days, to give the pimple a chance to form a firm, white head. This is an indication that all the pus beneath is close to the surface and the pimple is ready to be popped.

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    Risks of popping your own pimples

    It can be frustrating when you have a pimple that won’t pop. But popping them yourself can lead to more pimples and even cause permanent scarring or pigmentation.

    If you do decide to pop a pimple yourself, you should know the risks involved. Your hands, including your fingers, are a major source of germs. This means that by touching, prodding, poking, or otherwise irritating pimples, you run the risk of introducing new bacteria to the skin. This can cause the pimple to become even more red, inflamed, or infected. In other words, you’ll still have the pimple, rendering any attempts useless. Also, by popping the pimple yourself, you’ll spread the pus and debris to the surrounding skin, creating more pimples.

    Your hands, including your fingers, are a major source of germs. This means that by touching, prodding, poking, or otherwise irritating pimples, you run the risk of introducing new bacteria to the skin.

    Taking pimple-popping into your own hands can also increase the chances of permanent scarring or pigmentation. If a pimple is popped improperly or too early, the chances of developing a scar that never goes away are much greater, and treating post-acne scars is expensive and not always completely effective.

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    What happens if you don’t pop a pimple?

    So what happens if you don’t pop a pimple? While waiting is never fun, it’s worth it when it comes to pimple-popping. 

    Basically, what happens if you don’t pop a whitehead is that it goes away on its own, usually in 3 to 7 days. It may happen that you wake up one morning and notice the pimple is gone. Or you may notice the pimple draining. If this happens, put some hydrogen peroxide or alcohol on a cotton swab or cotton ball and dab the area. Follow up with a small amount of antibiotic ointment, if desired. Just remember to apply both by using a cotton swab or clean washcloth to avoid spreading germs from your hands to your face.

    What happens if you don’t pop a whitehead is that it goes away on its own, usually in 3 to 7 days.

    While you’re waiting, you can also use makeup to lessen its appearance. Look for a product that is “buildable” (can be applied in layers on your skin). Also, make sure any makeup you use is noncomedogenic (won’t block pores). Using a small concealer brush, apply the product around the edges of the pimple (not on top), blending outwards. The idea is to make the pimple look flatter and less red. If you apply concealer on top of the pimple, you’ll only end up making the pimple more noticeable.

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    Safe ways to take care of a pimple

    Calling in the professionals is always a smart choice, but you can also safely handle pimples on your own.

    Dermatologists treat pimples by using special sterilized instruments that don’t pose the risks of at-home pimple treatments. But if you are determined to do it yourself, consider the options available before directly popping the pimple.

    • Turn to over-the-counter treatments: Products containing salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or glycolic acid are all recommended to speed up a pimple’s healing process. Try using one for several days to see if the pimple improves. You could also try wearing a pimple patch overnight.
    • Try a DIY method: Tea tree oil, either alone or mixed in a paste of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, might do the trick. You can also mix activated charcoal or bentonite clay with a little water. Apply to pimples and leave for 15 minutes or so, until hardened.

    Let’s say you’ve tried one of those methods, or you just can’t wait any longer. Follow these steps for the safest pimple-popping experience:

    1. Wait until the pimple has formed a white head, which means it’s ready.
    2. Wash your hands thoroughly, focusing on fingertips and nails.
    3. Put on a pair of sterile gloves.
    4. Take a pin (the straight kind used for sewing is best) and sterilize it using a lighter or match. Clean it with rubbing alcohol.
    5. Holding the pin parallel to the tip of the pimple, pierce the very tip of the pimple.
    6. Using fingers or a cotton swab, press gently on the sides (not the top) of the pimple. If nothing comes out, the pimple isn’t ready and you’ll want to wait longer before trying again.
    7. If pus does come out, once it is completely out, use a clean cotton ball or cotton swab to apply more alcohol or witch hazel.

    Blackheads, which are pimples containing dirt or bacteria that has been exposed to air, may be easier to remove than whiteheads. Wash your hands. Then, instead of wearing gloves and using a sterilized needle, begin by applying a product that contains benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid. Doing so can help break up any of the trapped debris, making removal easier. Next, gently apply pressure to the sides of the pimple. Like treating a whitehead, if the clog won’t come out, you’ll want to back off and give it more time to heal. If the clog does come out, apply an astringent afterward.

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    How to stop popping pimples

    If you’re constantly thinking about popping pimples, it may be time to find ways to change the habit, which can be impulsive. Some methods to help stop include:

    • Keep your hands busy in your spare time. Playing a handheld game, reading, knitting, or completing a crossword puzzle are all ways to distract your mind and reduce the impulse to pick at and pop pimples.
    • Try behavior modification techniques. Place sticky notes where you will see them (on the fridge or bathroom mirror) reminding yourself to keep your hands off your face. You can also limit the time you look at your face in the mirror, to prevent becoming fixated on the pimple.
    • Break the habit. Keep a rubber band around your wrist and snap it gently any time you think about touching the pimple.

    The takeaway

    Popping a pimple once in a while is not a big deal, as long as you take steps to keep the process sterile. But if you find yourself popping pimples all the time, or feel unable to stop popping them, look for ways to quit the impulsive behavior.

    Seeing a dermatologist is also a good idea if you are having regular breakouts, as they can help you create an actionable plan to minimize the frequency and duration of acne. Dietary changes like removing dairy and refined carbs, reducing stress, or using an over-the-counter acne product can help prevent breakouts or lessen their appearance. When it comes to acne, understanding the cause (such as hormonal changes, puberty, or food intolerances) can be key to both treatment and prevention.   

    History of updates

    Current version (26 November 2021)
    Reviewed by Tanya Tantry, MD, Obstetrician & Gynecologist, Medical Consultant at Flo
    Published (11 November 2019)

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