To pop or not to pop: A comprehensive guide to popping zits


popping zits

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Sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than laying into a pesky pimple and popping the sucker, because no one invited that nasty thing to your face and you’re meant to look flawless. But before you grab the tissues and get to squeezing, figure out exactly what kind of enemy you’re dealing with. 



Blackheads are those little black dots that occasionally creep up on your nose until one day you get too close to the mirror and realize in horror that they’ve formed an army. 

What’s happening here: Oil glands in your skin are attempting to release oil and toxins through your pores, but there’s a traffic jam caused by the buildup of dead skin and bacteria, so all of it gets stuck. The nasty black color? That’s actually not dirt you’re looking at — it’s what happens when oxygen in the air reacts with the dead skin cells and oil, resulting in a dark spot.

To pop or not to pop: No skin doctor is going to actively encourage you to put your grimy fingers on your face and squeeze. But technically, if you do this in a hygienic way — use tissues! — yes, you could push or pull the skin (gently!) to extract the unwanted guests on your chin. 

The experts encourage exfoliation, spot treatments, pore strips or extractors to deal with blackheads. According to AcneTaxonomy.com, using a daily face wash containing salicylic acid can dissolve the blackhead over the course of a few weeks.

Avoid trying to extract blackheads on your nose — the skin is too sensitive there, and pinching or squeezing could cause irritation and swelling. Pore strips, which you can find in just about any drug store, are the best solution for this part of your face.

If you want to go all “Operation” on your schnoz, try getting an extractor. Just make sure you know what you’re doing before you go to town on it.



These are the suckers that immediately spark that “MUST POP NOW” urge. 

What’s happening here: A whitehead is a blackhead — only closed up by cellular debris and oil in the hair follicle. It doesn’t turn black because the blockage prevents oxygen in the air from making contact with the buildup; instead, it shows up on your face as a small, white or flesh-colored bump.

To pop or not to pop: Again, the experts obviously recommend not popping — it could cause temporary or permanent scarring, and you may end up damaging the surrounding tissue. Try exfoliating. If you don’t have an exfoliation product at home, Livestrong suggests using table salt. Make a paste by mixing 3 tablespoons of the salt with 1 tablespoon of soap shavings and a splash of water. Rub onto the skin and rinse. Apply a toner like witch hazel afterward. Applying baking soda or toothpaste overnight to dry out the oil in the whitehead is also an option; just be careful not to overdo it or you could end up with dry, peely skin in that spot even after the whitehead’s gone.

Spot treatments made with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide are also effective, but will take time to get the job done. If you really want that sucker gone TODAY, try steaming your face and pressing with a cotton cloth to extract it — a comedone remover can also come in handy here. (Again, just make sure you know what you’re doing.)

You can also find face masks at your local drug store that dry until they’re hard and help suck out the gross stuff.



Papules are those raised, red bumps that don’t seem to have any white tip on them. They’re hard to the touch and typically come with some discomfort (other than the general discomfort of knowing you have a bump on your face and carrying out your day constantly wondering if people are staring at it).

What’s happening here: These babies are basically inflamed whiteheads.  According to the American Academy of Dermatology, papules and pustules (we’ll get to those) are what happen when your pores get so irritated that their walls break, causing bigger pimples. 

To pop or not to pop: Step away from the mirror, and take your fingers off your face. Scarring and typical dermatologist talk aside, squeezing, pushing, pulling or any of the like will not only fail to help the situation; it will make it worse. 

Papules don’t contain any pus, so there’s nothing to squeeze out of them. Makeup artist Michelle Phan recommends washing twice daily with an acne-target cleanser, followed up with toner and light moisturizer. Check out your local drug store for other OTC remedies containing benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid or lactic acid, or try steaming or using an all-natural face mask.



Like papules, these are inflamed pimples. The difference: They’re filled with gross, white or yellow pus and look like a whitehead with a red ring around the bump.

What’s happening here: According to Acne.com, postules are “the result of a chemical irritation from things like free fatty acids, which are substances that circulate in the bloodstream and are common in everyone’s skin, although it’s possible there are other causes.”

To pop or not to pop: Don’t mess with these guys. You’re likely to cause scars (sometimes permanent ones) or dark spots. See your dermatologist; it may require medication.



Not your typical zit, nodules are larger than the pimples we’ve previously discussed and are harder to treat. They appear as large, inflamed, often red bumps. They’re hard and often painful.

What’s happening here: According to AcneTaxonomy.com, “Nodules occur when the wall of a hair follicle is torn, allowing oil and cell debris to get into the lower layer of the skin known as the dermis. When the dermis is exposed to oil and dead cells, the resultant infection can cause a nodule.” Doesn’t sound comfortable, does it?

To pop or not to pop: You probably can’t fight this one alone. Get thee to a dermatologist. Over-the-counter remedies might not do the trick, in which case your doc might send you to the pharmacy counter for a stronger antidote. 



Also not a walk in the park, cysts are the large, painful, pus-filled bumps that almost resemble boils. They can change in size over time and are softer than nodules (thanks to said pus). WebMD says they feel like “large peas under the surface of the skin.” Who’s hungry?

What’s happening here: Your pore got blocked, then irritated, then expanded in size, as more of the gunk traveled deeper into your skin. These are more common in people who have a severe form of acne and are usually attributed to genetics.

To pop or not to pop: This is a job for your dermatologist. Cysts may need to be drained or treated with an injection of cortisone medication that makes them shrink.