This Is What's Really Coming Out When You Pop Your Pimples

Illustrated by Jessica Marak.
We know, we know, we shouldn't pop our pimples. We’ve heard that advice for most of our lives, but there’s just something about those bumps that begs us to break the rules.
If you do give in to temptation against your best interests, there are a few things you should know to avoid infection, scarring, or simply making the spot worse. For starters, only extract a pimple when there’s a visible head on the surface of the skin, otherwise you risk leaving a permanent mark.
The next step: understand what’s going on inside each bump, so you can better learn how to treat them. In general, breakouts form when pores get clogged from bacteria, oil (sebum), and dead skin build-up, but are also heavily influenced by things like stress and genetics. And while we’re quick to assign the gross-sounding term "pus" to the substance inside every pimple, it’s more complicated than that.
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Pustules — aka, red bumps with pus near the surface — are just one type of blemish you can develop, according to dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research for dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. There’s also papules, nodules, cysts, whiteheads, and blackheads. (The latter two categories don’t actually contain pus.)
More often than not, what you’re tempted to pop is a pustule pimple. “Pus is a collection of inflammatory blood cells that accumulate within the follicle and reach the surface of the skin,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It accumulates as a result of the inflammation that develops in the pore and oil gland.”
When the pimple is popped, the pus typically has a white or yellow tint. But sometimes, you’re met with green. “A green discolouration may be the result of a specific type of bacteria involved in an infection, but that usually is not the case in acne,” Dr. Zeichner says. While normal bacteria-causing acne will not result in this, if you do have a big, painful, green-filled pustule, ask your doctor whether you might need a prescription for antibiotics.
You may also notice a small amount of blood coming out of your popped pimple, but don't fret. Dr. Zeichner says this is nothing to be concerned about, as blood will usually drain out of the pimple once the pus is gone. However, if only blood comes out, that’s a sign your pimple should not be messed with, so stop touching it immediately.
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Other types of acne you might be tempted to mess with are whiteheads and blackheads. But what's coming out of those, if not pus? Since those form as a result of excess sebum getting trapped in the pore, that’s exactly what you’re squeezing out, says Dr. Zeichner.
While a little pus or sebum isn’t dangerous for your body, using products that help fight the bacteria and oil will help reduce it. “Your go-to treatment [for pus pimples] should be benzoyl peroxide,” Dr. Zeichner says. “It kills acne-causing bacteria and clears the pimple.” He recommends a product like Neutrogena Visibly Clear Rapid Clear Treatment.
To dry out the pimple, a salicylic acid treatment will “exfoliate dead cells, open the pores, and remove excess oil.” For this, Dr. Zeichner recommends Clean and Clear Advantage Spot Treatment, which will work for whiteheads and blackheads, as well.
Although you may still be left with bumps just waiting to be prodded, we remind you yet again to be wary of popping blemishes in the first place, since you’re creating an open wound and increasing the possibility of scarring and infection. But, if you must, proceed with caution and know your secret is safe with us.
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