The Right Way to Pop a Pimple

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Photo: Merce Bellera/Getty Images

Because there's no such thing as a dumb beauty question, we're reviving our beauty Q&A series. Here's our first installment. 

Question: Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to pop pimples, but let’s say I maybe kind of do it anyway. How do I minimize scarring?

Answer: Popping pimples is like eating food that fell on the floor. We all know we're not supposed to do it; we all do it anyway; and if you absolutely must, there's a way to do it correctly. Popping a pimple that's ready to go is like eating something that fell on the floor five seconds ago — basically fine. But relentlessly jabbing at an unripe blemish is as wrong, in the beauty world, as being that guy in college who drunkenly ate a slice of pizza from the sidewalk.

How to pop your pimple correctly? To keep the food metaphor going, it's important to pretend you're in a fancy supermarket and refrain from squeezing the goods. The dermatologists we consulted on this matter, Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi and Dr. Jennifer Chwalek of Union Square Laser Dermatology, do not even have the word squeeze in their vocabularies. Both doctors took great pains to use words other than squeeze when explaining how to pop a pimple, explaining that squeezing can push bacteria deeper back into the skin, making you more likely to get a stubborn scar.

Dr. Chwalek prefers the word express, suggesting that you use two cotton-tip applicators to skim off the top of the pimple. Don't use your bare hands, as your nails can introduce more bacteria. Dr. Tanzi recommends "exfoliating" the top of a pimple to let it drain, using a very hot (and clean) washcloth. Aestheticians prefer a “down and in and out” scooping motion for popping pimples (you can see a video of it in action here). Regardless of your technique, only target blemishes that are “ready.” If pimples, like the hills, have eyes, you’ll want to see the whites. And if you have a cyst, don't even think about it: “Cysts have a higher risk of scarring, so it's best to leave them alone,” Dr. Tanzi says.

Now let’s say you did pop — or even squeeze — your pimple, because you are human. Try a sulfur-based product, tea tree oil, or clay-based product to minimize bacteria. Sulfur is a mild antiseptic with disinfecting properties, so try something like Kate Somerville's Eradikate, which has a sulfur paste you can spread over the wound. My favorite is Fresh's Umbrian Clay Mask, which contains an Italian clay that soothes the skin, absorbs oil, and contains anti-inflammatory nettle. It's technically a mask, but I've dabbed it on everything from cysts to mosquito bites to remove redness and swelling. It's a multitalented Swiss Army knife of a beauty product. 

Sometimes scars do result despite your best efforts. There are two types. Hyperpigmentation or dark spots tend to occur in people with darker, more melanin-heavy skin. These can be treated with a dark-spot corrector (try Clinique's Even Better Dark Spot Corrector) or Retin-A, which helps the skin to turn over faster. Unfortunately, the red spots that occasionally persist after a breakout can only fade with time, according to Dr. Chwalek. She says the best way to treat those is with lasers, like a pulsed dye laser or an intense pulsed laser.