This Is What Happens to Your Skin When You Pop a Pimple—and When You Don’t

Plot twist: Some zits are okay to squeeze.

As Prince Hamlet once famously pondered, “to squeeze, or not to squeeze—that is the question.” Okay, fine, maybe Shakespeare wasn’t actually talking about the patch of blackheads on your nose, or that big zit on your cheek, but he might as well have been, because when you’re dealing with a breakout and pressing your face a millimeter from the mirror, waffling over whether or not to mess with your skin can feel like an existential crisis.

Because honestly, sometimes squeezing that tiny pimple really does feel like the fastest and easiest solution, since I, personally, would rather deal with a red mark than a whitehead for a week, even if zero derms would approve. Of course, I’ve also been on the other side of the fence, when I’ve messed with a bump and accidentally created a bloodthirsty monster (which, fun fact, is how I got the infamous lump on my forehead if you saw me in the summer of ’09 in high school).

So I’m not here to tell you to keep your fingers off your face. I’m not here to tell you that picking is bad (it almost always is), or that you’ll cause more scarring by popping your pimples than leaving them alone (you will), or that your breakouts will get worse if you mess with them (they will). Instead, I’m here to tell you exactly what happens to your skin when you do and don’t squeeze your blackheads, cystic zits, whiteheads, and classic zits, and let the facts speak for themselves. (Surprise—some are actually okay to extract.)

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WHAT THEY ARE: Clogged pores (stuffed with a mix of oils and dead skin cells) that are exposed to the air, causing them to oxidize and look black on your skin.

IF YOU SQUEEZE THEM: They’ll usually produce some gunk, making them stupidly satisfying to mess with. “But apply too much pressure on the skin, which is almost always the case when not extracted by a professional, and you can cause inflammation in the skin or disruption of the wall of the follicle,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital. But, more importantly, all that squeezing can damage your pores, stretching them larger, and making them more likely to clog.

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IF YOU LEAVE ‘EM ALONE: “The blackhead may stick around for a few weeks to a few months, but over time, your body will naturally push the contents out to the surface of your skin,” says Dr. Zeicher, adding that “some large blackheads, however, may never go away unless they are physically extracted by your dermatologist.”

But before you take that as a free pass to attack your face, try adding a salicylic acid-based toner to your routine (which gently clears out clogged pores), and stick with it every single night for at least a month, at which point you’ll definitely see an improvement in your blackheads. My absolute favorite: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfect 2% BHA Liquid. It’s so good, I wrote a love poem about itBUY IT

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WHAT THEY ARE: Okay, this is just a fancy, clinical term for stereotypical pimples—the ones you see in cartoons, all red and bulbous, with a yellow-ish, pus-filled tip. Yum. “Pustules are a collection of blood cells called neutrophils that get trapped under a very thin outer layer of skin,” says Dr. Zeichner.

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IF YOU SQUEEZE THEM: “Gentle pressure on a pustule will rupture that outer skin layer, causing pus to burst out of the pimple, which causes inflammation and swelling of the pimple itself,” says Dr. Zeichner. Sometimes, squeezing them will effectively help them heal faster—albeit with a way higher risk of scarring and hyperpigmentation—but other times, as we’ve all experienced, that zit just fills right back up again, leaving you with a scabby, swollen, pimple monster. If you do squeeze them at your own risk, make sure to totally wash your skin and hands, first, then slap on a hydrocolloid bandage after, like the cult-favorite Cosrx Pimple Master Patch, which helps suck out the pus while you sleep, helping the zit heal faster. BUY IT

IF YOU LEAVE ‘EM ALONE: “Pustules usually rupture on their own, when you’re washing your face or even rubbing against your pillow, so the end result is pretty similar either way,” says Dr. Zeichner. Of course, this is only true if you’re popping the zit in a “controlled way,” which means gently pushing on the zit with two tissued fingers, and leaving the zit alone if nothing comes out after one try. I know you absolutely won’t do that, but if you actually did, then you’d prevent a lot of skin trauma, infections, and scarring, which is ideal.

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WHAT THEY ARE: Cystic zits—AKA the underground, invisible, sanity-destroying bumps that never come to a head, and seem to pop up around your period—are “deep, infected balloons filled with oil and pus,” says Dr. Zeichner. “They’re not connected to the surface of the skin in any way, which means you can’t ‘open it up’ by picking at it.”

IF YOU SQUEEZE THEM: The ocean floors break apart, acid rains from the sky, and a hole opens up in the middle of the universe, destroying the world’s happiness and human race. (This is actually not too far off from reality if you’ve ever tried squeezing a cystic zit). “Since these blemishes aren’t connected to the skin, you’re guaranteed to cause more irritation and inflammation, pushing the infection deeper into your skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. The result? I mean, other than the apocalypse, you’re looking at some severe scarring, hyperpigmentation, and a zit that can take four months to go away.

IF YOU LEAVE ‘EM ALONE: Humanity gets to live, and you get to wait as your body sends big ol’ white blood cells, called macrophages, to break down the gunk and slowly kill the infection. Or, you can head to your dermatologist and get cortisone injected in the cyst (it’s super common, though it can cost up to $100 without insurance), which will take down swelling within a day.

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WHAT THEY ARE: Flesh-colored little bumps that may have a teeny tiny little whitehead at the tip, but most often just look like bumpy, clogged skin. “Similar to blackheads, closed comedones are filled with compacted oil, but they’re trapped beneath the skin surface,” says Dr. Zeichner.

IF YOU SQUEEZE THEM: “Closed comedones have a tiny opening connecting them to the skin surface, but they may need assistance to help extract them, says Dr. Zeichner. At best, if you squeeze them, you’ll be able to get most of the gunk out without too much inflammation, but at worst, you can create a big-ass inflamed pimple or cyst. So, as always, it’s risky.

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IF YOU LEAVE ‘EM ALONE: “Similar to blackheads, whiteheads may stick around for months or even years if you don’t extract them,” says Dr. Zeicher, noting that extractions should only be done by a dermatologist or a highly trained aesthetician, and that they can actually be beneficial for your skin. But if you can’t make it to the doctor’s every other week, try adding a gentle retinol into your routine, which will speed up your cell turnover, leading to clearer pores and softer skin.

My fav: Roc Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Facial Night Cream BUY IT. You’ll most likely experience some flaking for the first month, and a tiny breakout for the first week, but it’s totally expected and normal, so stick with it. And go easy with your retinol—start using it twice a week for two weeks, then three times a week for three weeks, then stick with every other day for at least six months before using it nightly. You’ll see your comedones start to disappear after four to six weeks, and smoother fine lines and fewer breakouts after a few months. Basically, retinol is magic.

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Chloe Metzger is the deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan, obsessively writing about new makeup launches, the best hair products (curly girl here; whattup), and the skincare formulas that really work for every skin type (follow her on Instagram to see behind-the-scenes pics of that magazine life). She also has an unhealthy adoration for Tom Hanks and would like to please meet him one day, if you could arrange that. Thanks.