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Unpacking the Cultural Phenomenon of Pimple Popping

The internet has fostered many trends, good and bad. But our predecessors likely never envisioned us swiping through pimple-popping videos on our smartphones. Magazines like Parade and Teen Vogue regularly feature round-ups of the best pimple-popping videos, and dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee’s Dr. Pimple Popper YouTube channel has amassed more than 7.4 million subscribers since it was started in 2010. 

Why the fascination? For one, it’s simply satisfying. “People feel frustrated by pimples, and popping one can lead to a sense of mental or physical relief afterward,” says Dr. Michele Green, a Manhattan-based dermatologist. 

Weirdly enough, research also shows that people who enjoy pimple-popping videos have a high curiosity for negative content and are less easily disgusted than most. But how does pimple popping affect your skin and your health? 

Let’s grab our gloves and get into it. 

The Zitgeist

The average American woman pops 65 pimples annually. While pimple popping is OK in some instances, done incorrectly, it can damage your skin. 

Pimples are caused by overactive sebaceous glands, which create excess oil in the skin. This oil, combined with dead skin cells and bacteria, gets trapped in a pore and in some cases forms pus. When you pop a pimple, you release the pus or dead skin cells inside.  


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Choosing to squeeze a zit on your own can lead to any number of mishaps. “You’re essentially breaking your skin barrier and increasing your risk for acne scarring,” says Green. 

By applying pressure, you can even release the pimple’s contents into the lower layer of skin. “Many people pop pimples thinking they’re helping to get the pus and bacteria out,” says Green. “But doing so can push it deeper into the skin, leading to increased swelling, redness, risk of permanent scars and prolonged healing times.” 

Professional Poppers

If pimple popping is so damaging, how come it’s so popular online? 

While Green recommends using pimple patches or topical creams to treat acne, for some cases, if a pimple is particularly large or painful and other treatments have failed, dermatologists know safe techniques to pop pimples for patients. 

Many pimple-popping videos on social media come from amateurs, but some dermatologists do pop pimples, whether they share it on these platforms or not. “Board-certified dermatologists have had years of experience and know the proper technique to drain pimples, cysts and nodules while minimizing your risk of scarring,” says Green.

Dermatologists may use one of these two techniques to pop a pimple for you:

  • Acne extraction: Using sterilized instruments to extract the contents of blackheads and whiteheads from pores, sometimes accompanied by a corticosteroid injection to speed up healing and reduce risk of scarring 
  • Incision and drainage: Using a sterile needle or surgical blade to open up the pimple and empty its contents 

Popping Poise

While dermatologists generally recommend against pimple popping, many acknowledge instances in which it’s OK to DIY — namely, if your blemish is a whitehead or blackhead that has a “head.” 

“Make sure the pimple is ready by seeing if there’s a firm white head,” advises Green. “This indicates that the pus is close to the skin surface and ready to be drained.” 

(The head indicates the pimple itself is very close to the surface and ready to be expelled. You don’t need to apply as much force and the risk of scarring is lower.) 

To avoid major skin damage, consider the type of pimple you’re dealing with. Pimples can be:

Whiteheads: Small white bumps containing excess oil and dead skin cells. You can pop these in some circumstances. 

Blackheads: Open pores clogged with excess oil and dead skin cells, resembling dirt. You can also pop these in some circumstances.

Pustules: Pimples containing visible pus. They look similar to whiteheads but are larger and have red, inflamed skin around them. You can pop these in some circumstances. 

Papules: Large, raised red bumps with no visible ball of pus, also known as “blind pimples.” You shouldn’t pop papules under any circumstance. Since papules don’t have heads, popping just really means tearing open your skin. This comes with scabbing, as well as potential scarring or infection. 

Once you assess your zit, follow these best practices: 

Wash up. “Wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap, and gently clean the area with an acne wash such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid,” advises Dr. Anne Truitt, a San Diego-based dermatologist and former president of the San Diego Dermatological Society. 

Apply a warm compress. This can soothe the area and make your pimple rear a “head” quicker. 

Use your fingers. Truitt says to use the side of your fingers rather than the nail tip — or better yet, wrap your fingers in a tissue or gauze, then gently press around the pimple. Never apply excessive pressure. “If the pus doesn’t come out easily, the pimple isn’t ready to be popped,” says Green. 

Wash up (again). To minimize your risk of infection, wash your hands and face or take a shower after you’ve popped the pimple. 

Ready to book a doctor’s appointment? Visit Zocdoc.

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The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.